– August 3, 2019
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The recent saga of the Bernie Sanders campaign and its own internal “fight for $15” reminds me of a passage from the Bible, specifically from the (cryptic) parable of the unjust steward: “One who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10, English Standard Version). 

I think we can apply some of the lessons from this passage to the bigger and broader questions about whether we should trust people touting Big Plans and Grand Visions — especially when those Big Plans and Grand Visions involve them and their friends telling other people what to do.

As I wrote for Forbes, the struggle between labor and management does not exactly inspire my confidence that Sanders and others who “feel the Bern” can be trusted to manage large chunks of the economy. The Sanders campaign is staffed by people who are ideologically homogeneous. They share a common vision of what the world should look like and how the world actually works. Importantly, they share a common and well-defined goal — “get Bernie Sanders elected president” — with pretty well-defined sub-goals (“win primaries”) and sub-sub-goals (“get more people to vote in the primaries”) and sub-sub-sub-goals (“target ad buys to maximize exposure among undecided voters in the states for which our team is responsible”).

If they can’t be “faithful in very little” — if they can’t successfully and flawlessly manage labor relations in a campaign where everyone has the same ideas and the same goals — then why should we expect them to be “faithful in much”? What will they do when tasked with a larger and far more complex context, like managing the education system or health care system (whether these should be “systems” at all is another topic entirely), where the goals aren’t as clearly defined and people’s tastes, talents, and ideas are far more diverse?
Last year, Bryan Caplan wrote an excellent post for EconLog called “Socialists Without a Plan.” He explains how he might be able to understand how a general or other military commander might be an enthusiast for central planning. After all, their job is to make a master plan, see that it is carried out, and adjust on the fly after meeting the enemy. Socialism demands this kind of (literal) military precision, but Caplan notes that the socialists he knows aren’t exactly logistics experts. They’re more “free spirits,” which makes him (and me) wonder exactly who they think will do the detailed planning in a socialist society. 

Several years ago, the philosopher James Otteson identified what he called “the Great Mind fallacy” that the person Adam Smith called “the man of system” commits so frequently. The Great Mind Fallacy assumes that all the relevant knowledge can be gathered, stored, and processed somewhere — but as Otteson notes, if no such Great Mind exists, then we have to discard or revise any arguments that assume its existence. Otteson explains how this blows up the argument for socialism in his 2014 book The End of Socialism (which I reviewed here). The disconnect between what the Sanders campaign proposes for the U.S. labor market and what the Sanders campaign is actually able to accomplish in its own labor relations provides a vivid illustration of Otteson’s point.

Somehow, calling it democratic socialism and relying on democratic deliberation is supposed to save the socialist vision. Even here I think the argument is off base: as much as I’m an enthusiast for deliberation, this seems to assume that there are unique, correct answers to big social questions that can be discovered if we would all just sit down and talk about it. 

First, there isn’t one right way — so not only is there no Great Mind, there is no Great Answer. Second, even the deliberative mechanism peopled by faulty humans works passably but poorly. I remember in graduate school chuckling at a not-irregular occurrence: seeing a room full of economists leave a seminar room where they had just talked about the intricate policy details and implications of this model or that new empirical finding and then struggle to decide on a place for lunch.

Here’s another example illustrating some of the problems with socialism, democratic or otherwise. Vladimir Lenin thought economic calculation would be easy: all that would be required would be “the extraordinarily simple operations of watching, recording and issuing receipts, within the reach of anybody who can read and write and knows the first four rules of arithmetic.” One wonders if Lenin had ever been to a restaurant and then tried to split the check. 

On a lot of Fridays in graduate school, my friends and I would visit one of St. Louis’s many excellent Chinese restaurants and then laugh about how funny it was that a group of people pursuing doctorates in economics and finance were having so much trouble splitting the bill. Sometimes it’s easiest and fairest just to split the bill equally, but we’ve all been at a dinner in which someone at the table takes advantage of the situation and orders immoderately. If that happens among friends and acquaintances, how much more likely will it be among total strangers (here’s Russell Roberts with a hint)?

The labor problems facing the Sanders campaign should make us pause for just a second and ask what it says about our ability to deliberate over, form, and articulate a Glorious Plan that will cure people’s ills, correct injustices, secure domestic tranquility, and so on. One might be tempted to reply that these are the normal, run-of-the-mill problems facing any firm, group, or organization; however, it’s important to consider this carefully because most firms, groups, and organizations aren’t trying to take control of big chunks of other people’s lives. 

Do the socialists want to organize and deploy the entire country’s labor force according to a vision in which everyone gets $15 an hour and great benefits? That sounds nice. Perhaps they should show us that they can organize and deploy their own little platoon of campaign workers according to that vision first.

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Art Carden

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Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
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