Senator Bernie Sanders fired up the Twitterverse last Sunday with an impassioned tweet touting the “economic rights” of the citizen. Everyone has the “right to a decent job, the right to health care, housing, education, [and] retirement security,” the senator said. While this type of rhetoric has become the norm for him, questions abound about the details of such a policy.
FDR stated the Bill of Rights wasn't enough and we needed to guarantee economic rights as well: the right to a decent job, the right to health care, housing, education, retirement security, etc. I agree with FDR. Economic rights are human rights.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 24, 2019
For starters, what jobs will be guaranteed? The senator has never really gone into explicit detail on this matter. However, he strongly hinted at what this might look like in a recent tweet. “Our lives, our existence, should be about more than just the accumulation of more and more wealth,” the senator claimed. Although scant in details, Sanders is alluding to the fact that economic worries are a hindrance to political liberty.
Free Markets and Political Freedom Go Together
In doing so, however, he is ignoring the fact that free-market economics is a prerequisite for political liberty to exist at all. The two are intimately intertwined. Writing in Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman noted, “I know of no example in a time or place of a society that has been marked by a large measure of political freedom, and that has not also used something comparable to a free market.”
Exploring the likely scenario of Bernie Sanders’s job guarantee will only serve to validate Friedman’s belief. Such a policy will initially result in government-backed industries competing alongside private enterprises. This is a textbook socialist policy of “economic security” rather than “economic rights.”
Such a policy will require the government to wield a huge amount of control over the direction of the economic activity of the state.
And what economic security promises is a set standard of living for all citizens. Every person is entitled to a job with a guaranteed salary. In providing this, the government alleviates the risk inherent to freedom of choice and opportunity. The individual no longer has to worry about being fired or a potential setback in their material means. As the theory goes, free from the burden of economic risk, the citizen will be freer than ever before.
But this is far from the reality of the situation. Writing in The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek noted that “the security of an invariable income can be provided for all only by the abolition of all freedom in the choice of one’s own employment.” And it’s easy to understand why Hayek would reach such a conclusion.
For one, to enact such a policy will require the government to wield a huge amount of control over the direction of the economic activity of the state. The individuals that submit to such guarantees will not be given a choice of which jobs they wish to pursue. Instead, a centralized department will allocate them to a job based off of their perceived skill set and a perceived economic need. Freedom of choice will inevitably be traded for the security of income.
Centralized Economic Planning Restricts Freedom
An additional problem with such a scheme is that it will completely distort market economics. In a free market, it is inevitable that groups of people will face layoffs. It is a burden that we all sympathize with. However, there is a valuable teaching lesson for those affected. When their job is no longer in demand, groups of people are able to allocate their resources and focus on pursuing jobs that are in demand.
Citizens will be herded to and fro and assigned to certain tasks.
Senator Sanders’s proposal of economic security poses a risk to this painful yet critical lesson of the free market. With the guaranteed job in hand, the individual has no way of knowing the usefulness of their task. They have no standard by which to judge their skills. As such, they lose the ability to see a goal to aim and strive for.
The economic planner will seek to alleviate this problem, as well. In overseeing the economy, the planner will make a centralized decision on what jobs are useful. A group of men, rather than the impersonal free market, will decide where to allocate resources. Citizens will be herded to and fro and assigned to certain tasks.
The moral problems of such a policy are glaring. For John Stuart Mill, the power of choice enlivens our faculties of thought and introspection. "The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference are exercised only in making a choice," Mill says in On Liberty. In the absence of choice, such people will come to resemble what Mill called “ape-like.” The citizen will not develop the faculties distinctive of being a human being.
Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, reached the same conclusion as Mill in observing the citizens of the centralized state. Such a man “sleeps...without passion and enlightenment,” always looking to the government to make his decisions for him. He loses control of his individual life and lacks “a spirit of ownership and [is] without ideas of any improvement.” He is of no use to himself or his fellow man. In the hyper-centralized state, he is machine-like rather than human.
Senator Sanders’s proposal is an inefficient system that reduces men to cogs in machinery.
But alas, we are still human. And as humans, we are usually in need of external motivation to perform the task at hand. Hayek observed this in The Road to Serfdom, as well. For Hayek, with a job guaranteed as our “right,” we lose the greatest motivator, which is the potential for material loss. With our interests no longer involved in our work, we are highly unlikely to remain productive. Thus, balancing the “right to a job” with the problem of discipline will be an impossible task to solve.
Therefore, what we have with Senator Sanders’s proposal is an inefficient system that reduces men to cogs in machinery. Devoid of passion and interest, such a person will meander from assigned task to assigned task. This person will practice the skill of passivity rather than actively controlling his individual aims and ambitions.
Perhaps, then, it is as Benjamin Franklin popularly said: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”