How to Reconnect With Generation Bernie

Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist, has had his greatest popularity with the young. Even those who believe that Sanders’ political program is disastrous, or evil, must pay attention to this warning signal. These young voters are America’s future, and even if a few years in the workforce brings some greater political wisdom, many people still stick with their youthful paradigms unless some political shock disrupts them. For those who would try to change the mind of this generation (and the following one), it is important to understand how our education, occupational licensing, and entitlement policies are driving them to socialist views which break sharply with America’s political traditions of liberty.

Most obviously, the support for Sanders reveals the dreadfulness of many of our universities. They are ideologically homogeneous bastions of the Left, at least in the humanities and social sciences. And while that other university—the place that specializes in STEM—produces real knowledge, its effect on political culture is only indirect. In contrast, much of the non-STEM university today is not principally focused on producing knowledge but on reinforcing a narrative about the centrality of ethnic, racial, and gender identity to the human person and about the oppressive burden of the West’s heritage.

This narrative reverses the essence of what Greek philosophers achieved for humanity over 2,000 years ago. As Scott Soames notes in his fine new book, The World Philosophy Made: From Plato the Digital Age, the Greek philosophers put abstract reason about epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics at the center of education. It replaced a narrative culture based on Homer and Hesiod that centered on gods, heroes, and villains. The non-STEM university is now returning to a narrative culture, even if the gods, heroes, and villains are different and not as aesthetically interesting as those found in the Greek myths. Of course, our universities have often imperfectly realized the ideal of reason, but today the ideal itself is slipping away.

Reform of the universities thus must be a priority. But it is very difficult. The elite universities are wealthy and have no interest in reform. At least judged by my own university, they are getting worse by the decade if not by the year. Alternative institutions are probably the only answer. One silver lining of the terrible coronavirus crisis is that it will give an impetus to online education that will help promote many colleges ranking below the Ivy League and its peers. Online education will allow for new challengers to rise, ones who are not as likely to be wedded to political correctness as the incumbents.

But the young have more concrete reasons to favor Sanders as well. Relief from college debt is obviously a big one. But before condemning them for seeking a large redistribution of wealth to themselves, we do well to remember that our entitlement structure is currently designed to take from the younger generation and give to the elderly. Social security is a pay-as-you-go system. And given that social security is not actuarially sound, most of the current elderly will get more than they pay in. It is the payment of the young that makes up the difference. Medicare too is a government program from which the elderly benefit at the expense of the young.

The younger generation faces a structure of entitlements that favors the old and an occupational licensing system that makes it harder for the young to compete against them.

And more recent programs continue to disfavor the young. The Affordable Care Act forbids insurance companies from charging fully age-appropriate premiums for insurance. As a result, young people pay more to subsidize the old—and are required to make that bad deal by law.

The costs of occupational licensing also fall disproportionately on the young. Of course, that burden occurs in part because their elders already have their licenses. But more importantly, the barriers to entering many occupations have grown more expensive over the years. Take my own profession of law. In almost every state, attending law school is essentially a requirement to get a legal license. (Some states have an apprenticeship option, but few law firms find it worthwhile to offer that option.) Moreover, the cost of law school has sky-rocketed in the last five decades. That cost has little to do with improving legal skills, though. Instead, law schools have increasingly focused on supporting professional research by faculty. Most schools aspire to be junior-varsity Yales, which is pleasant for their professors but does little for their students. And the ABA has been only too happy to encourage this trend through its accreditation requirements. The more expensive legal education is, the better it is for the incumbent lawyers the ABA represents.

Thus, the younger generation faces a structure of entitlements that favors the old and an occupational licensing system that makes it harder for the young to compete against them. It is not surprising that this structure prompts some young people to demand that the government pony up money for them right now: why not get their loans forgiven before being forced to subsidize generations of pensioners with little guarantee they will benefit in the end? More generally, why not vote for radicals in the hope of shaking up the system on the assumption that it can’t get worse for them than it is now? They are naïve in that assumption, but so are almost all revolutionaries.

The classical liberal alternative is clear: reduce the transfers from the young to the old and eliminate those unnecessary barriers to career entry that privilege incumbents. One of the great disappointments of the Trump administration has been its unwillingness to engage in entitlement reform. But perhaps the prospect of peeling off some Bernie voters from Biden will become the impetus for creative thinking. Here is one proposal: exempt young workers from the payroll tax for the first two years of work and pay for it by means testing social security for high-income retirees. This would be at least a symbolic first step in ending the redistribution of income from the relatively poor young to the relatively rich elderly. It would also be a powerful riposte to proposals (some made during the coronavirus crisis) that leftists like Elizabeth Warren are making to increase social security payments to the old.

The coronavirus crisis has also had some happy deregulatory effects for occupational licensing. The federal government has permitted health professionals licensed in one state to work in other states. If this ability to transfer licenses across state lines works well, it could be made permanent and expanded to other professions. The young have been traditionally the most mobile cohort in our society, striking out for the territory with the most opportunity. Making it easier to move their occupational credentials from state to state would once again help them realize their dreams.

Sanders’ success does demonstrate the need to fight privilege. But the privileges damaging to the young are those created by the government, not those earned in the market society that Sanders despises. Friends of liberty ought to critique the former to make the young part of the coalition of freedom once again.