Situated at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire in Los Angeles, the iconic Johnie’s Coffee Shop was where Mr. Pink plotted a diamond heist in Reservoir Dogs and where Walter offered to obtain The Dude a toe in The Big Lebowski. But it has never witnessed malfeasance like the villainy that has unfolded there over the last few weeks. Johnie’s has been converted into a hub of unregulated advocacy for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
The American Left generally welcomes immigration, but opposes foreign trade. There are exceptions of course, but generally the further left one moves this combination of policy preferences is even starker. Bernie Sanders seems wholly opposed to free trade and yet favors immigration. Indeed, he wants to make citizens of immigrants, even if they have come here illegally.
What explains this divergence? It cannot plausibly be concern for low-wage workers in the United States. It is true that trade, while being generally beneficial, can depress the income of low-wage workers (at least in the short term), because they must compete more with low-skilled workers elsewhere. But the effect of low-skilled immigrants is the same. It puts pressure on the wages of low-skilled Americans.
It can’t be concern for the poor abroad.
The presidential primaries have been a bad time for campaign finance reformers. Their basic claim is that money has a uniquely powerful and disproportionate influence in politics. But this campaign season shows that there are many other sources of influence—celebrity, academia, and the media—that can be even more potent.
The Republican party’s initial front runner, Jeb Bush, collected more money early on than other Republican. Allies also established a SuperPAC—Right to Rise—that had more money than any other associated with a competing candidate. Yet Bush exited without winning a single primary. And his candidacy also showed that money in his allied SuperPAC was no substitute for contributions directly to the candidate, as the Bush campaign had to cut back on operations after initial setbacks.
Trump, in contrast, spent little money and showed the power of celebrity, particularly in combination with media access. Studies have shown that he got more free media than any other candidate—$1.9 billion worth, by one estimate.
Is Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump a greater long term threat to the principles of classical liberalism? Trump’s program is antithetical to classical liberalism. He wants to follow protectionist trade policies. He has disclaimed any interest in reforming the burgeoning entitlements that are the principal engines for growing the state. He seems to quite content to praise authoritarian leaders abroad, like Vladimir Putin. He wants to make it easier for public figures to sue private citizens for their criticism. And he is so vulgar and gratuitously offensive that he undermines the culture of self-restraint necessary to the classical liberal order.
Of course, Sanders is worse on many of these axes. He not only wants to preserve all entitlements but add to social security and to create an entirely new entitlement to higher education. He also is a protectionist. He would destroy the private provision of health care. And he would raise tax rates sky high. As for authoritarianism, he seems to have trouble condemning any regime, such as Cuba, so long as he can entertain the false belief that the regime has been good for the social welfare of its citizens.
American exceptionalism may be disappearing. American exceptionalism posits that the United States is fundamentally different from other nations, particularly those in Europe. The United States was founded on a commitment to principles whereas other nations were founded on ties of blood. Moreover, our principles were those of the Enlightenment, embracing individual liberty and the rule of law.
One of the results, as Seymour Martin Lipset noted, was that the United States has never had a serious socialist party. But in this election cycle a serious socialist has come close to winning the Democratic nomination. Indeed, Sanders would be winning except for the loyalty Clinton enjoys among African American voters. But as the votes of the congressional Black Caucus show, African American voters are the most left-wing bloc economically. Next time they would be likely vote for the socialist candidate who imitates Sanders.
We have also never had a major nationalist party, like the National Front in France. Such parties run not only on protectionism and xenophobia but on preserving an unreformed entitlement state. But Trump’s platform is a somewhat paler version of such virulent European parties.
The combination of Trump’s and Sanders’ rise shows that the candle of liberty by which American exceptionalism glows may be flickering out.
Public choice theory, which applies to the realm of politics the rational-actor postulate of economists, rightly enjoys a high regard among advocates of liberty. From voting habits to inefficient, Kafkaesque bureaucracies, to the strength of special interest lobbies and rent-seeking behavior, public choice has shined a bright light on the need to affirm limited government and political freedom. It is politics, to use James Buchanan’s phrase, “without romance.”
Bernie Sanders has put the abolition of private property back into public debate. At least that is what Ryan Cooper at The Week thinks, although he softens the blow by remarking: “This is not as extreme as it sounds. You’ll still be able to own a computer, clothes, and a home under democratic socialism.”
When I was inducted into the academic honor society at the Phillips Exeter Academy, we heard from an outside speaker, an academy graduate and a professor who happened to be an African American. Among various inflammatory remarks, he said he was surprised to hear an Irish name on the list. I shrugged off his comments, and my father, only a generation removed from the old country, still treasures this anecdote more than any other from my education.
At Phillips Exeter today, there is less tolerance for certain kinds of provocations—or even pre-provocations—than others. Last month an academy graduate and former Congressman was prevented from teaching a guest seminar because he was alleged to be an Islamophobe based on his connection with a Washington think tank. although his proposed seminar had nothing to do with Islam. (I would link to discussion of the matters in the student newspaper, but references appear to have been deleted recently—itself perhaps a sign of censorship and cover-up). On the other hand, one of Exeter’s own teachers penned an essay attacking “white privilege.” Thus, I guess it is not entirely clear how the comment at my ceremony would be treated today.
That’s one of the problems with political correctness: its high double standards informed by Left identity politics. And PC seems to be becoming a much greater problem at our high schools.
In a blog dedicated to formulating and promoting classical liberalism, it is useful at year’s end to evaluate the state of these ideas in the politics and culture of our nation. And sad to report, classical liberalism is now weaker than it has been for decades.