Is Bernie Sanders Selling Snake Oil?

November 2, 2018 Updated: November 7, 2018


I can see why Sen. Bernie Sanders is so popular.

In an age in which politicians’ public statements so routinely are some combination of obfuscation, circumlocution, and dissembling, the Vermont independent’s fearless and unambiguous calls for socialism—a subject that was long considered taboo for those seeking high office in the United States—represent a fresh approach. His candor and earnestness are unmistakable.

There is no doubt that he believes in what he says.

Nevertheless, remembering that the man’s profession is politics, it still behooves voters to ask whether Sanders is a peddler of snake oil. A snake oil salesman exploits the gullibility and ignorance of those who hear his spiel, inducing people to believe that his product is better than it really is. In that sense, Sanders seems to have a bit of the snake oil cleverness about him. How else can we explain the fact that many college students believe that Bernie has taken the money out of politics?

Excuse me, but he hasn’t. I mean, when a presidential candidate goes to college campuses and tells his audience he would love to provide them with a free college education, it sure sounds to me like he’s offering a quid pro quo: You vote for me and I give tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of education to you.

Big Is Bad?

Just last month, Sanders introduced his “Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act” that would break up any financial institution with assets greater than 3 percent of GDP. This appeals to those who have fallen for the idyllic “small is beautiful” line of thought that erroneously believes that big is bad.

Socialists such as Sanders spew forth scare stories about big, evil corporations dominating society. Really? Tell that to Sears, or Toys “R” Us, or Circuit City. Or most of the 30 corporations that constituted the Dow Jones Industrial Average in the 1930s, most of which few Americans under the age of 70 have never heard of.

The bigness of those corporations resulted in economies of scale that, in turn, resulted in lower prices that raised Americans’ standard of living. But when those big, allegedly powerful corporations failed to keep up with other businesses in serving the most current wants of consumers, it was the “little guy”—those millions of consumers—who voted the corporate behemoths of yesteryear into bankruptcy, radical downsizing, or complete liquidation.

The only corporations to fear are those who play the crony game and make an unholy alliance with government to thwart the will of the consumer, by way of government handouts and protection.

Oh, by the way, Sanders must be a recent convert to the “big banks must go” crowd, because, in 2010, he voted for the Dodd-Frank Act that codified federal bailouts of our country’s largest SIFIs (systemically important financial institutions). In fact, it is utterly consistent for Big Government advocates such as Sanders to vote for such bailouts for entirely practical reasons.

The fact is that Big Government and Big Finance are joined at the hip. The only way that Uncle Sam can maintain a functioning market to handle the massive amount of government debt ($21.6 trillion and counting) is for there to be a viable, large-scale financial infrastructure that is capable of operating on such a massive scale. Given that financial reality, of course, there are going to be mega-banks. Sanders’ “break up the banks” act is so much left-wing populist demagoguery.

Government Monopoly

Sanders, of course, isn’t inherently opposed to the idea of bigness. He just opposes bigness in the private sector. In the public sector, he’s all for bigness. Take his position on health care, for example. In his “Medicare for All Act of 2017,” the bill states that it “shall be unlawful for—(1) a private health insurer [or an employer] to sell health insurance coverage that duplicates the benefits provided under this Act.” In other words, Sanders proposes to outlaw all competition and, instead, institute a government monopoly.

Sanders’ policy prescriptions remind me of the Hollywood actress who, during the Iranian oil crisis of 1979–80, proposed that the way to “break up” the oligopoly of the Big Seven oil companies (hardly a real oligopoly, since there were about 4,000 other American oil and gas companies operating at the time) was to have the federal government seize them. That’s right: The left-wing cure for “oligopoly” is monopoly—a government monopoly.

Well, that is exactly what socialism is, when you stop to think about it: It’s a complete, economy-wide network of government monopolies. It always amazes me that some of the same gullible Americans who denounce monopolies are clamoring for socialism, the ultimate monopoly.

Seen in an overall context, Sanders’ proposed “Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act” doesn’t signify that Sanders is opposed to large, influential institutions. He wants the biggest and most powerful institution in our country—the federal government—to expand its bigness and power to the exclusion of any private alternatives.

So, is Sanders the modern equivalent of a snake oil salesman? No, not really. That comparison isn’t fair to those legendary peddlers of snake oil. When a snake oil salesman enticed a few gullible, ignorant suckers, the damage was limited and short-lived. Socialism, by contrast, can collapse an entire economy and plunge millions of people into long-term misery and suffering.

What Sanders and his political tribe are peddling isn’t snake oil, but poison. Let the buyer (voter) beware.

Mark Hendrickson is an adjunct professor of economics at Grove City College. He is the author of several books including “The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change.” 

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.