A World to Make: Eleven Theses for the Bernie Sanders Generation has really stuck with me over the past few months; it reappears in my head with some regularity, especially this thesis:
- Not Everything Has to Be Earned
Bill Clinton often said that he wanted a fair return for people who “work hard and play by the rules.” And of course working hard and honoring the rules (at least where the rules are fair and legitimate) deserves respect. But the national fixation on people getting what they “deserve,” from meritocratic rewards in higher education to incarceration (“Do the crime, do the time,” the prosecutors say) has gotten out of hand. It locks us into a mutual suspicion of people getting away with something—pocketing some perk or job or government benefit that they didn’t “really earn”—while ignoring the way the whole economy tilts its rewards toward those who already have wealth. A left program should shift the attention from zero-sum questions about who gets what, and at whose expense, to bigger questions about what everyone should get just for being part of the social order: education (including good higher education), health care, safety in their neighborhood, an infrastructure that works.
I get that there’s a mismatch between what’s ethically correct — which I think the above thesis is — and what’s politically possible. Matt Yglesias makes the reasonable point in a recent episode of The Weeds that it really is much easier to sell welfare of the “pay people only if they work [i.e., ‘deserve it’]” variety, rather than the “give poor people cash” variety. There’s a broader question there of how we developed a public morality such that these are the terms of the debate, but I get the practicalities.
In a lot of ways the Democratic primary of 2016 has felt like an argument between those two poles: what small incremental improvements can we make to the welfare state (Clinton), versus how do we change the way we even discuss the topic such that fundamental improvement is possible (Sanders). We need both.