I somehow missed this story, which Michael Moynihan at the Daily Beast broke in late February, so kudos to the Libertarian Republic for bringing it to my attention yesterday. In 1985, Bernie Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, was asked about bread lines provoked by food shortages under the Marxist regime in Nicaragua, which he enthusiastically supported. Sanders responded by arguing that there was some merit to those famished supermarket queues after all (clip starts at 3:23):
You know, it’s funny, sometimes American journalists talk about how bad a country is because people are lining up for food. That’s a good thing. In other countries, people don’t line up for food. The rich get the food and the poor starve to death.
Where to begin? First, in Nicaragua, bread lines were not some kind of improvement on the overall economic picture. The policies of the communist Sandinista regime didn’t work, and in their first fair election, Nicaraguan voters tossed them out of power.
Today, we see bread lines not in free countries like the United States or even poorer but still relatively open nations like Russia, but in socialist ones like Venezuela, whose decades of redistributionist and isolationist economic policies have left their people pining for basic goods while the world around them thrives. Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro recently suggested—in the 21st century, atop lucrative oil wealth—that his largely urban-dwelling population grow their own gardens to avoid starvation. It’s not just food. Essentials like water, electricity, and even toilet paper are also difficult to come by.
It’s worth noting that Sanders has repudiated Hugo Chavez, the strongman who introduced Venezuela to socialism. But the Vermont senator’s apologetics for Nicaragua could just as easily apply to Chavismo Venezuela, and his critiques of American inequality could have been extracted from a Chavez speech.
Many of us on the American right have enjoyed Sanders’ presidential candidacy. Part of this is that we savor the opportunity to sabotage the Democratic Party while our own GOP is bursting into flames, but part of it is also that Sanders is a genuine man in a political season where honesty is hard to come by. It’s fun watching him push the loathsome Clinton machine through the electoral wringer, and he sometimes makes good points while doing it, on crony capitalism, foreign policy, and even his favorite bogey, Wuhl Street. While conservatives reserve scorching vitriol for Hillary Clinton, Sanders at worst merits a cheeky Facebook meme about his age or the gullibility of his supporters.
But Sanders’ policies are dangerous, and that’s something we shouldn’t forget. The Latin American Marxism that’s won his sympathy has wrought immiseration in Nicaragua, isolation in Cuba, and the current impoverishment of Venezuela. Even his more pragmatic brand of democratic socialism—coercive redistribution with a smiley face—has had devastating consequences.
Witness France and Belgium, both relatively socialist nations—France recently implemented and then quickly dropped a 75 percent tax on millionaires—that have experienced fierce backfires, as the poor, ironically, face massive barriers to economic advancement, and in the case of some unemployed young Muslims, turn to jihadist violence. To the extent that “democratic socialist” nations actually work, it’s because they aren’t anything of the sort. Consider Sweden, forever chilling the conservative soul with icy phantasms of taxation and bureaucracy, now competitive thanks to former prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. Why? Because he put in place a suite of tax cuts that helped his country fend off the recession.
Yet even though Sweden’s corporate tax rate is a full 17 percent lower than America’s, Sanders wants the United States to move in the opposite direction. And while he almost certainly won’t win the Democratic nomination, his activism has had the effect of nudging Hillary Clinton to the left. Instead of attacking the bits of our political consensus that haven’t worked—overregulation, bloated entitlements, that aforementioned corporate tax—this year’s presidential candidates are mostly going after that which has worked—relatively low income taxes, liberality in trade, even welfare reform. We shouldn’t hesitate from calling Sanders’ policies what they are: immoral infringements on liberty that have failed everywhere they’ve been tried.