Why Bernie Sanders Should Give His Millions Away

It might not be “hypocrisy,” but a socialist candidate keeping millions of dollars is both wrong and unwise…

Bernie Sanders has released tax returns that show he is a millionaire, causing predictable snickering and taunts. After a lifetime spent railing against the coexistence of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, and the influence of “millionaires and billionaires” on politics, Bernie is now in the 1%, having earned $2.79 million since his first run for president. He is officially a “champagne socialist.” But does this make him a Hypocrite?

I have seen strong arguments from leftists that Bernie is not, in fact, hypocritical. Sarah Jones, Elizabeth Bruenig, and Ben Studebaker have all come to Bernie’s defense to insist that there is nothing un-socialist about possessing millions of dollars in a time where billions of people have nothing at all. The argument is this: Bernie has never been against millionaires per se, but against millionaires Not Paying Their Fair Share. He would be a hypocrite if he did not pay his taxes, but he’s actually advocating raising taxes on himself. Bernie has not said that millionaires and billionaires need to become virtuous and give away their wealth, he has said that they have captured the political system, that we need to take it back and re-adjust the country’s wealth distribution. He is calling for a political revolution, not a moral revolution, and it is actually admirable that now he is a millionaire he is still advocating policies that would be against his own financial self-interest. (I even saw one person arguing that Bernie would be more of a hypocrite if he gave his wealth away, because… I can’t even remember the argument.)

Whether Bernie is a hypocrite, acting in violation of his values, depends on what we assume his values are. If Bernie thinks being a millionaire is bad and condemns others for doing it, but chooses to be a millionaire himself, that would make him a hypocrite. He does kind of imply that he doesn’t like millionaires when he says things like “there is something profoundly wrong when we have a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires at the same time as we have the highest childhood poverty.” But Ben Studebaker argues that this is not what Bernie thinks. Bernie’s politics are not about “vilifying millionaires and billionaires as individuals,” since “for socialists politics is not about individual bad actors, it’s about correcting imbalances in the distribution of wealth and power among classes.”

That’s true, but it does invite further questions. Even if left politics isn’t “about” or “focused on” individual bad actors, do socialists see it as a bad thing to hoard wealth that could be used to help people? Do socialists think it’s acceptable to voluntarily accept membership in the millionaires’ club when you could use your money to help lots of people make their rent payments? Is it Bernie’s position that any millionaire should only let go of their money when they are forced to do so by the law?

It’s obviously true that in a socialist analysis, personal decisions by individual rich people are not really “the problem,” and the problem is the system by which wealth is accumulated and distributed. But if you find yourself sitting atop a mountain of money, do you have an obligation to share? Does being a socialist entail having an “ethic of sharing and generosity,” one that requires you to be a good person? Or is it alright for us to adopt a selfish Ayn Rand-type ethic when it comes to accumulation and possession, then advocate for the state to redistribute from the greedy to the needy? Personally, I have always had a hard time accepting the type of socialist thinking that decouples ethics and politics; my own socialistic instincts come from the instinct that everybody should share, and if you’re not sharing, you’re not living up to Good Socialist Values. Being an egalitarian means you should be generous, not just say “Well, I believe in changing the law to force me to be more generous than I am.” (G.A. Cohen, in his classic “If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?” points out that the question of what egalitarian justice demands of individuals is actually quite difficult and many socialists may wave it away too easily.) 

Of course, Bernie might not share my own beliefs. I think he’s probably not a hypocrite, because I think he is probably quite genuinely one of those socialists who doesn’t really believe in “charity.” This tendency in socialist thinking goes back a long way, including Oscar Wilde’s famous criticism of charity on the grounds that it is “immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.” I don’t buy this though, for a very simple reason: When you have millions of dollars, you could immediately better the condition of a great number of people, and are choosing not to. This does not seem defensible to me. Not being a hypocrite doesn’t actually tell us much: He could still be a bad person who is failing to show the kind of moral leadership we would hope for from a champion of the forces of good.

When you conclude that wealth should be given away, however, you are immediately faced with the obvious question: Where Do You Draw The Line? How much wealth is too much? If you should give away all your wealth above, say $100,000 a year, why not $50,000? Why not $30,000? Line-drawing questions are always difficult, but the difficulty of figuring out a precise “place to stop” doesn’t mean we can avoid confronting the question. For example, if I gobble up all the hors d’oeuvres at a party, and you say “You seem to be eating more than your fair share,” I might reply “Well, but what’s the precise number of hors d’oeuvres it’s permissible to eat?” The answer might be difficult to pinpoint—it’s somewhere between one and the number you actually ate. But there’s clearly an amount that’s on one side of the line, and an amount that’s on the other.

Besides, we know that Bernie Sanders thinks he has too much money. We know this because he thinks it should be taxed away from him. But if it should be taken away from him by taxation, meaning that he shouldn’t have it in the first place, why would he keep it at the moment? Nobody makes you be a millionaire; you can shed your millionaire status overnight, and save a lot of lives in the process!

There’s a bit of a contradiction in defenses of Bernie: Some want to argue that having a few million dollars isn’t much (it’s just him being “comfortable”) while also arguing that millionaires should have their money taken away. But the only reason Bernie’s tax plan is justified is because it is so grotesque to have so much money. If it weren’t a colossally excessive amount of money to have, then it would be more difficult to justify seizing it. Consider this paragraph from Sarah Jones:

Socialism does not demand asceticism. As the old labor slogan says, workers need bread and roses, too — small luxuries that make life more tolerable. The point isn’t to accumulate excess, but to elevate the human dignity of the worker — a radical shift from the current the political reality.

I agree with this. I advocate “luxury leftism” and think champagne socialism sounds like the best kind of socialism. However, I also think there’s a risk in arguing that “having millions of dollars” is simply “not being an ascetic.” I have seen many people pointing out, in defending Bernie, that when socialists are poor they are called “envious and resentful” and when they are rich they are called “hypocrites.” This is true, and most of the criticism of Bernie is completely opportunistic and unprincipled—it’s coming from people who are, themselves, rich, not people who genuinely think it’s bad to be rich. However, it’s not like Bernie has two choices: millions of dollars or complete poverty. He could give away most of his wealth and live on a modest sum, the kind of reasonable income that he thinks people ought to have. Be the change you wish to see in the world: Live on the amount you would have if you had the tax plan you advocate.

We might think that criticism of Bernie is a bit like the old “you critique capitalism and yet you have an iPhone” line. You have problems with society and yet you live in society. But I don’t think it’s quite the same thing. In Matt Bors’ excellent cartoon poking fun at this criticism, a medieval peasant is critiquing feudalism while living under it. It’s plainly silly to criticize the peasant, because they don’t have much of a choice about their role in this system. On the other hand, if the feudal lord was the one critiquing inequality, what would seem ridiculous is that someone would sit on a giant pile of wealth lamenting the existence of people who sit on giant piles of wealth.

When Bernie was asked on FOX News why he didn’t simply give his money away, his answer was completely nonsensical:

McCallum: You can volunteer, you can send it back.

Bernie: You can volunteer too…why don’t you give? You make more money than I do.

McCallum then responded quite correctly that she didn’t do it because she’s not the one who thinks it’s a good idea. Bernie is the one proposing that millionaires like him ought to contribute more, so he could put his money where his mouth is. He didn’t seem to have a response to this: Because other millionaires selfishly cling to their fortunes, he intends to as well. “I pay the taxes that I owe,” he said. But you think the taxes you legally owe are too little! Should you take every deduction you can? Is it acceptable to store your wealth offshore, if it’s legal? Why should our behavior be guided by what the law happens to be rather than by what we think is right?

One might argue that the personal morality of a political figure is simply irrelevant: What matters is their set of policies. Why talk about Bernie’s personal finances? Isn’t this a distraction? Who cares what kind of person he is? But here’s where I think the really important arguments for Bernie giving away his money begin. Like it or not, elections are entirely about what kind of person you are perceived to be. If you’re a political candidate, you want the electorate to like you, to think you’re the kind of person they can trust.

Bernie declining to give his fortune away is a huge squandered political opportunity and needlessly creates a gigantic political liability. It gains him nothing to keep the money; he obviously doesn’t need it, as he was doing fine before he wrote a bestselling book. And yet by keeping it, he creates a distraction: He will not stop being asked how, if he believes he shouldn’t have that much money (which he does believe), he can justify keeping it. Donald Trump will call him “millionaire Bernie.”

In response, Bernie will continue to do what he has had to do so far, which is fall back on conservative-sounding rhetoric. “If anyone thinks I should apologize for writing a bestselling book, I won’t,” he has said. “I didn’t know it was a crime to write a good book.” His campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, defended Bernie by saying that “Bernie Sanders paid his fair share of taxes.” I find all of these quotes disastrous. First, if Bernie has already paid his “fair share” in taxes, then how can he justify raising taxes? He’s paid his legal share, but Bernie thinks the legal share is far short of the fair share. Second, Bernie is having to caricature the criticism in order to evade it: Nobody thinks it’s a “crime to write a good book” or is demanding he “apologize.” The question is: If you make millions of dollars in a society where you shouldn’t have that kind of money, and only have it because the tax code is rigged, are you obligated to use that money to help people? Bernie has no good answer to that, which is why he has to say that it isn’t a crime to write a good book.

What frustrates me about his attitude is that it (1) reinforces capitalist talking points and (2) damages the clarity of Bernie’s message. Bernie now sounds like a business owner, talking about how he earned his money lawfully and paid his fair share in taxes. His defenders will have to imply that several million dollars is not actually very much money, which reinforces the idea that the global 1% are actually just “comfortable” rather than obscenely rich. Bret Stephens was thrilled at Bernie’s defensiveness, citing Bernie to support the point that “getting rich is not a form of theft” and “being rich is not a sin.” I am sure Bernie would be uncomfortable speaking those sentences himself, but that’s exactly what he’s arguing.

Bernie being a millionaire muddies the whole “us against the 1% framing.” Now he’s not one of us, he’s one of them who has allied with us. He’s a “class traitor.” It used to be that Sanders was “the socialist in the millionaires’ club,” a man who could say truthfully to audiences “I do not have millionaire or billionaire friends” and who could joke that “most of the people in this room, unless I’m mistaken, are not millionaires or billionaires.” No longer. Bernie has voluntarily given up a huge advantage. Now he’s the socialist millionaire in the millionaires’ club. It’s far less powerful.

Image matters a lot, and the flipside of the damage that being a millionaire does is the tremendous gain to be had by giving up his wealth. Let’s say Bernie paid off a thousand people’s medical debt. He could use the moment to make a powerful point. He could say:

It is a disgrace that I should be in the position of getting to personally decide whether these people can pay their medical bills. Health care should be a right, not something left to the charity of millionaires. I never asked to be a millionaire. I don’t want to be a millionaire when there are people out there with nothing, and nobody else should want to be either. I could have been part of the millionaire’s club, but I am choosing not to be, because until we have guaranteed a basic standard of living for all, it is obscene that we have millionaires.

This does not, as you can see, legitimize “charity” as a solution to social problems. In fact, it explicitly opposes it. Bernie is not saying that the world will be fixed when the millionaires become good people, he is demonstrating what “redistribution in action” would look like under a fair system. He is highlighting the deprivation of the needy and showing just how easy it would be to fix certain problems with more systematic wealth redistribution.

One reason I think this is important is that neoliberalism involves a sharp restriction on the range of possible futures we can imagine. “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” By demonstrating that nobody needs to be a millionaire while other people are drowning in debt, by showing that it’s possible to just take wealth from one place and put it in another place, Bernie would break us out of the mental prison that makes us unable to really imagine wealth redistribution. He would show us that it’s easy to fix problems, that there’s no reason why millionaires have to stay millionaires forever.

It’s not easy for anyone to give up a million dollars. If Bernie did it, it would be very hard not to admire him. Here we have an easy opportunity for Bernie to (1) show us he’s a selfless person incredibly committed to his values who doesn’t care about the money (2) demonstrate what redistribution can really mean for people’s lives (3) totally neutralize a stupid distraction of an issue. Instead, he’s choosing to mouth right-wing nonsense about how anyone who criticizes the wealthy is trying to criminalize success. He’s handing a stick to conservatives with which to whack him. Why? Why would he keep his wealth when giving away a million dollars could yield incredible political gains and would be completely costless?

The sad truth is that wealth changes a person. Once you have it, you don’t want to give it up voluntarily, even if you know inside that you don’t really deserve it. You begin to grasp for whatever arguments you can find in order to justify keeping it. You might be principled enough—as Bernie is—to advocate measures that would take it away from you by force. But it’s very hard to choose to go from being rich to not being rich. Perhaps it’s too much to ask. What, you expect him to be Jesus? But “What, you expect me to be Jesus?” is a horrible campaign slogan. If you want to fight the billionaire Trump, you don’t want to be spending time trying to explain why being a mere single-digit multi-millionaire is not the same thing. If you find yourself explaining and rationalizing, you are losing. Why even open up the possibility of having a debate over whether you’re a bad and hypocritical person? Why not just neutralize the issue completely? You want to create as great of a contrast as possible: between the greedy Trump and the generous Bernie, the capitalist who never did anything but try to make money and the socialist who refused it when offered it because other people needed it more.

Politics isn’t fair. You might think that the FBI investigation against you is completely overblown, but it’s still happening. You might think that you shouldn’t have your wealth held against you, that it’s not technically hypocrisy, that it’s an unreasonable distraction from the Real Issues. And you might be right. But if you want to win elections, it doesn’t matter whether you’re right. It matters what the narrative is. Keeping a million dollars for no reason except that you “shouldn’t have to give it away”—even though it dampens your message, is a huge embarrassment, and represents a colossal lost opportunity to score points—makes no sense. Bernie Sanders has a good shot at becoming president in 2020. He has been doing really, really well—just look at him rallying support for Medicare for All on FOX News. But this is a hard fight, and he should not take on any political liabilities that could cost him even a single percentage point in support, or provide any kind of media spectacle. If he doesn’t write a big check for a million dollars, he might not be a hypocrite in the literal sense of the word, but he is probably doing something immoral and definitely doing something unwise.

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