Column on Bernie and the Island of Misfit Toys
If it weren’t to the advantage of Mrs. Clinton, I’d enjoy witnessing Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid lose steam, for his message about wealth and income inequality relies on some of the worst characteristics of human nature. “The reality,” Mr. Sanders asserts, “is that for the past 40 years, Wall Street and the billionaire class has rigged the rules to redistribute wealth and income to the wealthiest and most powerful people of this country.”
The “reality” Mr. Sanders proffers reminds me of the old haves and have nots proposition: On top are the haves with power, money, food and sybaritic splendor. They suffocate in their surpluses while the have nots barely eke by. There are relatively few haves, and they want to keep things as they are.
That’s as far as this tired narrative goes, yet it reliably produces a sense of unfairness by combining gluttony, excess and indifference. The haves aren’t criminal. They just have lots of nice stuff and don’t share.
Into this scheme, Mr. Sanders injects impropriety: Wall Street gerrymanders the flow of capital to keep the haves thick in their abundance. Have any of the haves come by good fortune honestly? Irrelevant. Mr. Sanders is here to invoke financial equilibrium and enforce material harmony for all.
Ginning up envy to acquire and maintain wealth and power was probably an old idea when Machiavelli wrote “The Prince,” c. 1513. Mr. Sanders dusted off this relic and updated it to fit the last 40 years, placing a new origin sometime in 1976.
That year, Gerald Ford was president. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was flirting with 1,000. Chevy Chase was knocking over podiums and falling off ladders on “Saturday Night Live.” Rick Dees was in Memphis working on the release of “Disco Duck.” Bernie Sanders was a 35-year-old Vermont gubernatorial candidate struggling through a losing runoff. I was a 16-year-old Glenwood Springs High School sophomore who occasionally put gas in our ’66 Ford Mustang for about 59 cents per gallon.
A lot has happened since.
Mr. Sanders would have us believe that in the intervening years, the scales of material equality have tipped wildly in favor of the “1 percent” — some heartless gang of narcissistic Wall Street bourgeoisie. Not Ivan Boesky, Jeffrey Skilling, Bernie Madoff and the like. No, these guys never got caught. They have all the stuff now, and if you’re not jetting out of Sardy Field on the contrail of your very own Gulfstream, you too can feel the Bern.
The last 40 years have given me perspective too. Materialism is a rancid carrot, and I’m not sure who’s more pitiable: the guy who dangles it or the donkey who follows it.
In 1792, James Madison — if not the principal writer of the U.S. Constitution certainly one of its greatest contributors — wrote an essay titled “Property.” In this essay, Madison defined property two ways: material possessions, or stuff, and “every thing to which a person may attach a value and have a right.”
Madison spends one paragraph on material possessions and five enumerating a “juster meaning” of property. In this juster meaning, Madison affirms property in rights, including having ideas and communicating them, holding beliefs and living in a way that supports them, and developing faculties and making choices about applying them, to name three.
“That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it,” Madison wrote, “where the property which a man has in his personal safety and personal liberty, is violated by arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest.” How refreshing.
Material possessions are at best emblematic of liberty — your smartphone is at once the result of and incidental to your liberty. The principle in the Parable of the Faithful Servant — “to whom much is given, much is expected” — certainly applies, though how you apply it is your choice. Some see charity as an act of personal betterment. Others don’t. It can be so because our government protects individual liberty. Thus far.
What the government shouldn’t do is decide the fair extent of your property and install it some night while you’re asleep. Apart from protecting your general security, liberty and justice under the law, the government should do little else. You utilize your abilities in ways that suit you best, and you work as hard as you want. Through your choices in life and, yes, some measure of luck, good and bad, your standing in life, however you measure it, is the fruit of your liberty, not what the government decides is fair.
Madison’s essay on property is a reassuring counterpoint to Mr. Sanders’ rapacious campaign rhetoric. Seen through Madison’s “Property,” Mr. Sanders’ message holds all the appeal of a forced shopping spree on the Island of Misfit Toys. Maybe you still have enough change clenched in your fist to pick up that spotted elephant or swimming bird, but while standing there in a North Pole winter among unwanted toys, that means very little when Mr. Sanders’ government just gave your pants to Yukon Cornelius and kept your wallet.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime valley resident. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.
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