“He must not antagonize millionaires, but, rather, he must acknowledge that voluntarily giving away wealth is hard to do even while you know that inequality is a problem; and precisely for that reason, we need taxes.”
n the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, Austin Stoneman, a Northern politician, constantly promotes interracial marriage in the South. But then, when a mixed-race politician wants to marry Stoneman’s own daughter, Stoneman is very upset. The Birth of a Nation is widely considered among the most racist film of all time, but stopped clocks are right twice a day, at least in this case. The Birth of the Nation is onto something: there is plenty of hypocrisy in politics.
Consider Bernie Sanders. The old man went to the Soviet Union for his honeymoon, sang the praises of that regime, and is not embarrassed to carry the label “socialist.” It appears the Vermont senator really believes in what he espouses. He seems to be genuine; he is not in the business of making up false Native American ancestors just to win some votes in this age of identity politics. He is the real deal.
But, Bernie is rich. His tax returns say so. He is not in the same league as Trump or Bloomberg, but he is among the 1%: the same 1% that he constantly attacks. He claims that his money comes from the sale of his books. So, basically, he is saying that he built his wealth honestly. But, didn’t Obama once say, “You didn’t build that”? In fact, Marxist theory would be very clear: the millions that Bernie received from his book sales is surplus unjustly extracted from laborers. For every book that Bernie sold, there was the guy who designed the cover, the guy who operated the printing press, the guy who delivered it to the customer via Amazon. Why should they receive a lesser portion of the pie? Marx had a name for it: exploitation.
So, Bernie still has to face the question that Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen asked in the title of his book If You Are an Egalitarian, How Come You Are So Rich? On the face of it, whether a socialist is rich or poor is irrelevant, because—as good logic teachers would always tell us—the argument itself is what counts, not the person making it. But still, voters would want to elect honest people, and to have a wealthy socialist in power is not very fitting in that regard.
It is a timeless truth that it is extremely hard to give your money away. Remember that young rich man who approached Jesus wishing to go to heaven; Jesus told him to give away his fortune, but the man was unable to do so. Presumably, he accepted that he was going to go to hell for being rich, and he was deeply saddened by it. But, he still refused to cease being in the 1%.
We, both the rich and the poor, do this all the time. The Greeks called it akrasia. We know something to be wrong, but, hell, we do it anyways. That is as human as having 23 pairs of chromosomes. And, I would be happy if someone like Bernie would just say, “Yeah, I am rich, I know it is wrong, but I just can’t let go of my dollars; my will is weak.” That is what the young man in the gospel seemed to be thinking, and, in fact, Christians have always perceived him with some degree of sympathy through the ages. Nobody points the judgmental finger at the smoker who says “tobacco is bad for health” because we all know that strong wills are a rare virtue. A rich socialist would be more honest, if he simply acknowledged the power of akrasia and tried to work with it.
Sadly, most rich socialists take another route. Instead of akrasia, they engage in what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” This is what the mind usually does when facing an uncomfortable reality: We try to come up with rationalizations and excuses. Instead of a smoker acknowledging that tobacco is bad, the smoker might actually say that he must keep smoking because nicotine keeps him thin.
Rich socialists do this sort of thing all the time. They come up with a gazillion excuses to rant about Wall Street, while they are relaxing at the country club. The most typical excuse is that we need a revolution to produce structural changes, and giving wealth away will accomplish nothing, if real structural change does not happen first.
Baloney. Imagine a Georgia slave master in the 1850’s acknowledging the truth of abolitionism but still watching his slave pick cotton in the fields, because, oh, there is no point in freeing this one slave until John Brown succeeds in his abolitionist revolt and the President issues an emancipation proclamation. Real abolitionists freed their slaves, period; anything else would have been sheer hypocrisy. If you are rich and you also are concerned about wealth inequality, then you need to do something about it. To wait for the revolution to do it for you is nothing short of hypocritical self-complacency.
Of course, there will always be big kahunas. Bernie might say that, yes, he is among the 1%, but Bloomberg is in the 0.00005%, so he (Bernie) should be left alone for now. Let’s have our priorities in order, so the excuse goes, and let’s begin at the top. Again, baloney. Would it have been fine for Simon Legree to say that he wouldn’t free Uncle Tom yet because some big shot in a Georgia plantation had many more slaves?
Is there a way out for Bernie? I believe there is. First, he must tell his audiences that, as opposed to what Pierre Joseph Proudhon argued, property is not necessarily theft. In many cases, you can honestly build wealth, and some inequalities are completely justified. Marx was simply wrong to say that the guy who becomes rich from writing a book is exploiting the guy who operates the printing press. Bernie needs to send that message loud and clear. Unfortunately, his choice of the word “socialism” does not help much, because, historically, that is what most socialists have typically believed.
Having said that, it is of course true that some other inequalities are not justified. 1% of the population owning more than 80% of the wealth indicates that something is wrong with the system. But, if he wants to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, Bernie needs to do something about being in the 1%. Let’s face it, he is not going to give the money away. He is, after all, a human being. But, instead of coming up with the excuses so typical of cognitive dissonance, he ought to reckon with the power of akrasia and use that as a political argument. He must not antagonize millionaires, but, rather, he must acknowledge that voluntarily giving away wealth is hard to do even while you know that inequality is a problem; and precisely for that reason, we need taxes.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80