By David Flemming
For the second straight year, Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders made over $1 million in income in 2017. Quite the contrast to the Sanders of the 1970s, who told the Burlington Free Press that “nobody should earn more than $1 million” as rationale for an income tax of 100 percent on large incomes.
Sanders is currently making over 25 percent more than the what the average 1-percenter earns in income in Vermont. Sanders received over $500,000 on an advance for his new book, “Where We Go From Here,” due out in November, and nearly $400,000 on royalties from his past books like “Our Revolution” and his 1987 spoken word folk album. Perhaps Sanders has upped his “max income” for reducing inequality a bit higher than in the 1970s, or perhaps he is a capitalist-author-genius at night who plays at socialist-senator during the day.
Indeed, “Sanders the power-challenging author” would likely be a good deal poorer this year if he had grown up in a country with less inequality and more poverty like the Soviet Union, rather than his birthplace of New York.
All publications in the USSR needed the government’s blessing. As one Soviet put it, “Our literature is not a private enterprise designed to serve various tastes of the market … we demand that our comrades may be reared in the spirit of … ideology.” Therefore, if Sanders’ ideology was not suitable for the entrenched USSR politicians, he would would never have had permission to print his book in the first place.
If only Sanders could see the irony. Variants of socialism share a backwardness with hunter-gatherer, agrarian, feudal and caste societies in that none of them have ever come close to protecting freedom of the press and property rights on par with capitalism. Though to be fair, most of these societies were made up of individuals who weren’t able to accumulate wealth and thus couldn’t even imagine why copyright might be useful.
Capitalist copyright laws are the mechanism through which enormous profits are within the reach of even the poorest individuals. Say a budding author writes a book that strikes a chord with millions, or a brilliant doctor creates a medical invention that saves thousands of lives and decides to sell his invention — even if the book and invention fall under copyright, the author and doctor will likely receive a mere pittance for the lives they have inspired and saved. Though, if we look at the world the way Sanders does, this pittance can seem “egregiously large” when we refuse to look at the common good “corporate elitists” like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs have accomplished for society.
The counterpoint to this is that Sanders is for “democratic socialism” (not “real” socialism) that works within capitalism and its copyright laws to ensure that no one has “too much.” However, the fact remains that Sanders made $800,000 by writing books in just a few weeks last year, placing him in Vermont’s 1 percent.
According to Sanders’ logic, wouldn’t 10 poor Vermonters in Burlington be “more deserving” of this income because Sanders benefited from the economic system that he is working within? The truth is that all “egregious incomes” are merely imaginary lines in the sand that don’t mean much, even if Sanders keeps inching the “his line” away from that initial 1970s “max income” of $1 million.
Invention breeds inequality, despite the best efforts of redistributionists like Sanders. At the end of the day, democratic socialism demands income cutoffs to achieve its goal of lower inequality. If Sanders were ever to impose income cutoffs on the US economy, few people would ever take the risks of building a company from the ground up, given the high probability of failure. We would all be worse off for it. If we cannot establish a just process for what a cutoff of income (on book deals or otherwise) should be, the government ought not to set a “maximum income.”
Writing books on the way to earning $800,000 is commendable — this, despite the admission that Sanders only got this money by arguing for an inequality-reducing income cutoff, which would prevent future deserving authors from earning similar “egregious incomes” he earns now but once despised.
But capitalist economies run best when they protect freedom of speech and the press, not just the most deserving. Over time, the worst ideas like democratic socialism will be discarded. Meanwhile, it is better to protect the corporate-busting revolutionaries like Sanders than to use coercion to pick and choose what we don’t like being said and published. Try publishing a book condemning socialism in North Korea today, and you will see what I mean.
David Flemming is a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.