Bernie and Subsidiarity
It occurred to me the other day that Bernie Sanders is a legitimately attractive candidate for voters. The senator from Vermont is not merely the result of Bernie Bro socialists who have a desire for free stuff. His economics, in my opinion, is still garbage, and the logical ends of his increased government power are not pleasant. Nevertheless, as with so many economic protest candidates of the past, Sanders represents a true and powerful movement for reform, done in all the wrong ways for all the right reasons.
Our System Is Bad
Our government’s policy is confused with regard to taxation and expenditure. Since the days of FDR, Americans have relied on some form of welfare or another -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other financial support. But, due to unreasonable campaign promises and a myriad of special interest groups fighting for their constituents’ interests, modifying these programs is excruciatingly difficult. Especially with programs like Social Security, as Americans live older, but fewer are having children for a working population, the financial outlook of these systems is bad at best and unsavable at worst. Call me a pessimist, but I have zero expectations of benefitting from those programs.
Our government has consistently subsidized various economic ventures, whether it be industry (oil or renewables), agriculture, or provide tax benefits to particularly wealthy ventures. At the same time, childcare, healthcare, and education costs are abysmally inflated with extremely limited value, and wages have felt stagnant for a significant portion of the working class. It is not a pipedream of many Bernie supporters to change the system to pull focus away from corporations and toward individuals. It is a natural reaction that when economic systems are not fair in their foundation that a free people will protest.
True Free Markets
The desire is good, but the direction is poor. Where Bernie Sanders would enable the government to monopolize most regulatory power over prices and major institutions (education, banking, healthcare), a more appropriate solution is a free market. I am deliberately avoiding “capitalism” as my operating word here. For most Americans, especially those of the far-left camp, the word carries an unfair connotation of corporate greed, favoritism, and complete neglect of problems that affect everyday citizens. In reality, those negative qualities accurately describe “cronyism,” but for the sake of avoiding emotional reactions, I’ll keep my ideas to free markets.
In a truly free market, the government favors no one. Subsidies not only are not given out in some crony manner but aren’t given out at all. Frederic Bastiat in The Law was quite clear that where taxation is applied evenly (or not at all) to a citizenry the result is a more stable and peaceful society. If all citizens are taxed in a similar manner, envious feelings and resentment will be deprived of fertile soil. Instead of subsidies (whether it be money given directly or tax exemptions), certain economic ventures rise and fall on their own merits. This will be praised by those who want no further money going to corporations, and cheered by those who find federal education loans as a chief reason for tuition inflation. It will also, however, be demonized by both because money is no longer available for their favorite pet projects.
But a truly fair society means that the government exists to protect that which people already have. We can argue on the extent of other enterprises the government engages in, but a free market requires restraint. The government minimizes who it helps and it maximizes those who it protects. That’s an odd notion for many. The government shouldn’t help people? As our government exists today, no. As I see it, the government currently is an often faceless enterprise that redistributes funds from people it has never met to other people it will never meet; it is the result of a process that is detached from the everyday lives of regular citizens.
This is true not just at the national level or state level, but at the city level, too. Sure, a city council member or mayor might have more direct contact with their constituents, but the organs of policymaking at most receive only public input. City managers and local bureaucrats still operate the levees of the state, while the rest of us go on with our lives without knowing how anything works. There is a way, however, to enable government to actively help others, but the idea of government must first greatly change. This is done through the principle of subsidiarity.
Freedom Needs Community
Let me preface my discussion of subsidiarity with the current criticism of private charity.
One of the chief reasons many fear a free market is because of how the unfortunate and less-able will be left behind. They worry about a sort of social Darwinism in which only the enterprising, healthy, or inherited-rich have a chance. Any attempts to convince them that the market can and will provide opportunities for all via charity is dismissed. “There won’t be enough charity and generosity to take care of our weakest! We need central systems to require it to happen.”
I disagree with that assessment, but it is understandable. Quite frankly, I have no desire to surrender any more of my income to any of the social programs the government runs. And it’s not just that I won't benefit from the programs -- it’s that I don’t know anyone who is benefitting from my money. True charity happens in neighborhoods, with family and friends, at churches and local centers of community. The principle of subsidiarity demands that those issues which can be solved at local levels must be solved by local levels. Only when it is clear the smaller unit cannot render a solution then may the next higher level intervene to assist.
A family cannot pay to treat a sick child? The larger extended family ought to pull together. If that cannot happen, the neighborhood assists, then a local church or center, then maybe the city, county, state, consortium of states, and then finally, as last resort, the national government. This is more than just local control. I am embracing the fact that people are far more charitable and caring for those in their own communities. If we reconsider the nature of government to be the most basic units of human organization and not a Leviathan over hundreds of millions of people, then we can say that the government may actively help people.
Government is Not Community
But as I mentioned, that’s not what government is now. Government as we have made it is a command structure -- you shall do this, you must do that -- but with no human relation or connectivity. People lack a certain care for others because the current form of general charity (government services) is purely abstract. It is not real -- I cannot witness the effect of my portion of the funds for welfare. I do indeed have doubts that a free market could provide the levels of charity necessary to care for the poor at this time. But I have those doubts because we do not enable our local communities to strongly govern themselves.
Consider my own school. We have students from all over Fort Collins, with parents and teachers working day and night to maintain a culture that provides our children with an opportunity to be safe in its learning. We teach things a little differently, and we prioritize a curriculum of Western influence. That is our parents’ choice. We’ve built a community that supports each other. And we constantly are threatened from oversight by a higher authority, whether it be the school district or state legislature.
Until we provide protections for the most basic levels of society -- families, neighborhoods, schools, and similar small communities -- to govern themselves, it is dubious that private citizens will want to contribute to their communities. When people know that their voluntary contribution will be used for the purposes they care about, then they’ll donate more. But not until then.
Bernie supporters feel similarly. They are taxed by the government while not receiving a decent pay, while some of those same taxes go to corporate welfare (and social welfare that will be bankrupt). They feel the same as I do -- they don’t trust their government. But, instead of advocating for control over their own destinies, and strengthening the commitment of their local communities to supporting one another, they turn to empower the government to do more. They claim the policies will be different, more fair, and more just under moral leadership. But they miss the fundamental problem: no government, no matter the policy, can truly be good to those it supports without a full-fledged commitment from those it serves.
Local Culture Promotes Diversity and Charity
There’s a reason the people of Denmark are willing to trust their government to impose outrageous taxes to fund their social programs. Besides the fact that business regulations are minimal and property protections are remarkably strong, the people of Denmark share a common culture and a smaller population. They do, in fact, see their government as a means of exercising the community’s needs. They do see their taxes as voluntary contributions going to those that share common values. They see taxes as contributions to their communities.
How can we do the same? When a single state of our Union is sometimes twice or more than the size of Denmark, with the beautiful diversity of peoples and cultures we have, how can we possibly view our taxes as voluntary contributions to those we share common values? Is it possible we can use taxes as a means of helping our communities? I say yes -- but only at local levels. Because, at least for us, Americans are many peoples who have very localized interests and values. One community in the Western Slope of Colorado has vastly different interests and concerns than those in Denver. Ranchers help each other and contribute time and resources because they share the same values. And they distrust Front Rangers because they don’t. And it goes the other way, too.
America is diverse, and that’s a good thing. But using a monopolized, oversized government to administer charity for all those various diverse communities is the wrong approach. As much as Bernie supporters want us to overcome our differences and give a helping hand to strangers with no commonality, I have doubts about its basis in reality. Would it not be far more effective to take Bernie’s ideas of supporting one another at a local level?
But that won’t happen until we have a firm respect and legal protection of subsidiarity. Until we provide guarantees that the actions of community members will be for the community, we will continue to debate without fruit. Bernie supporters will continue to say we need government for charity, and conservatives will be distrustful of government. Conservatives will say charity is enough to replace welfare, and Bernie supporters will be skeptical of charity. Only subsidiarity can make charity a viable option. Without it, the appeal of men like Bernie Sanders and their promise of taking care of the weak with the power of the state will grow until it becomes an inevitable approach to policy.