What Bernie Sanders Gets Wrong About Authoritarianism

Well, almost everything.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president, is praised by his admirers for being consistent. He’s been saying the same things for 40 years, they explain—as if this is an obvious compliment. I think that’s kind of weird. 

But I also like it because it gives me an excuse to make points I’ve been making for 20 years. Specifically: that authoritarianism doesn’t make people rich. 

Sanders refuses to apologize for his praise for some of the great accomplishments of authoritarian regimes, such as Fidel Castro’s Cuba. At a recent CNN town hall, he volunteered that there are things about China he likes, too. 

“China is another example, all right?” Sanders said. “China is an authoritarian country, becoming more and more authoritarian. But can anyone deny—I mean, the facts are clear—that they have taken more people out of extreme poverty than any country in history? Do I get criticized because I say that? That’s the truth. So that is the fact. End of discussion.”

Well, no. And by the way, saying “end of discussion” is kind of an authoritarian way to debate.

The first thing worth noting is that authoritarianism is old. It’s so old, it was ancient before anyone had a word for it. Whether it was the predominant form of social organization before the agricultural revolution or simply one of the most common is a subject for academic debate. Suffice it to say the idea that a big man, head honcho, boss, chief, king or priest should call the shots wasn’t a new concept when Hammurabi put his code to tablet around 1754 B.C.

Authoritarianism of one sort or another defined nearly all political systems—from the first city-states to the ancient empires to the medieval monarchies and sultanates of Europe and the Middle East—until about 300 years ago. Some places were less tyrannical than others. Sometimes there were parliaments, councils of elders, etc. Heck, some caveman shot-caller might have asked for a show of hands before a risky hunt. (“Show of hands: Who think we can take this mastodon?”)

Then, starting in places such as England and Holland, liberal democracy emerged. The “liberal” here doesn’t mean “progressive” as we use the term today (though it was a huge form of progress). It means a switch from the arbitrary rule of monarchs and nobles to the rule of law and equality before it. Liberalism means the freedom to own the fruits of your own labor, to conduct business without the mafia dons of the nobility taking their cut, to speak your conscience and worship as you please.

Meanwhile, the “democracy” in liberal democracy means the people elect their leaders and representatives—but not their rulers, because in a liberal democracy, no one, not even the people themselves, have the right to rule over another unjustly. The Bill of Rights isn’t democratic document, it’s a liberal one. 

That brings us to China. Sanders has a strange habit of praising authoritarian countries when they do stuff he likes but not crediting free countries for doing the same thing, but better. That’s bad enough, but he also has a tendency to credit authoritarianism for stuff it didn’t do. 

Sanders says that China’s authoritarianism has “taken” millions out of extreme poverty. Not quite. After the Communists under Mao Zedong took over in 1949, they didn’t take many people out of poverty, but they took plenty of people to their graves. Under the Great Leap Forward, when the Communists tried hard to make the people jump out of poverty, an estimated 45 million died from a man-made famine. 

Only after killing millions of their own people without much to show for it did the Communists implement economic reforms in the late 1970s of the sort that Sanders tends to despise. The political system was still authoritarian (though less than it was under Mao), but the economic system became more liberal. The economy took off. Since then, hundreds of millions of people have escaped poverty. They weren’t “taken” out of it; they climbed out of it thanks to the ladder of the market.

Authoritarianism in one form or another kept most of humanity poor for hundreds of thousands of years. For all of that time, as economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey has written, the average human being lived on about $3 per day. Then, once and only once did that start to change—thanks to liberal democracy. Sanders and people like him still want to give all the credit to authoritarianism. That doesn’t make him a would-be tyrant. But it does tell you a lot about how he thinks the world works.