Thoughts and Musings
By Ben Gee A Presidential Candidate, Utopian Visions, and Kafka’s Message from the Emperor
The crowd gradually quieted, turning their rapt attention towards the debate moderator as he began to pose a question. He asked, innocently enough, “You don’t consider yourself a capitalist, though?” The inquiry’s recipient, a prominent candidate with strong populist credentials, takes a few moments to collect his thoughts. Although a famously bold speaker, he clearly dislikes the question, employing the full extent of his political skills during these precious few moments to arrive at a satisfactory answer. Finally, he collects himself and begins to speak, characteristically thundering: “Do I consider myself a part of the Casino-Capitalist process, by which so few have so much and so many have so little? By which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wreck this economy? No I don’t. I believe in a society in which all people do well, and not just a handful.” The entranced audience gives the candidate a generous ovation. Crisis averted; the debate moves on.
This key moment, one of the most important highlights from the recent Democratic Presidential Debate, reveals a great deal about America’s changing ideological tides as we approach a critical election year. Bernie Sanders, the candidate who gave these remarks, stands remarkably close to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary process. According to a Boston Globe poll taken after the debate, Sanders has 35% support in New Hampshire to Clinton’s 37% - an extremely close margin. What makes the impact of Sanders’ campaign so seismic for America’s political landscape is his unapologetic socialist beliefs, and the corresponding willingness among many Democratic voters to support this agenda.
To Mr. Sanders, every problem facing America can be logically reduced to a single fault: The power of the one percent, or “billionaire class,” a group that hoards the nation’s wealth in sinister enclaves like dragons or great trolls. Consequently, all of Mr. Sanders’ solutions in some way involve a vast redistribution of wealth away from the one percent and to various Government programs. The one percent - like all Americans - owes its wealth to capitalism, an economic system that has brought the world into an era of unprecedented prosperity over the last few hundred years. However, socialists like Sanders look towards capitalism’s flaws with resentment instead of looking at its resounding successes with appreciation.
Ever since the first socialists began demanding checks on unrestrained European industrial capitalism in the early 1800s, socialism has gradually evolved out of capitalism and into its natural philosophical opponent. Socialists like Sanders argue that top-down, massive Government programs will result in utopia for America: Free college, free healthcare, guaranteed vacations, enlarged social security, Medicare, and Medicaid programs, the prevention of climate change; and atop all that, a thriving middle class. All this would be accomplished by increasing the redistribution of wealth, and limiting the free market to the reconstructive whims of our grand-world builders.
The Czech author Franz Kafka once wrote a cryptic short story, entitled A Message from the Emperor. His tale enigmatically begins, “The Emperor - so they say - has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the Imperial sun.” This distance soon proves immeasurably vast, and the Emperor’s unfortunate messenger has to work his way through the massive crowd of every single subject in the Emperor’s kingdom, in addition to all the valleys, mountains, and limitless miles that lay between his starting point and destination. No one knows what the Emperor’s message might be, or why he has sent it. However, we do know that the message is important, that it was meant for us, but it may never reach us. Until the Emperor’s message arrives, we are left on our own, only able to imagine what the message’s perfections might entail.
In a similar fashion, human beings have always sought societal perfection, but we have not yet found a practical Governmental model that solves all the world’s problems, or even one that promises to do so. Modern democracy has created a world with more peace and cooperation than in any other period in history. Democracy is flawed as well, but Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted proverb still holds true: “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” When Communism tried to overpower Democracy in the 20th century, it imploded on its own. We know that Democracy is not perfect, but until the Emperor’s message comes, it remains our best and familiar course.
The same can be said of capitalism, which has elevated a larger portion of the world population above poverty than at any other point in history. However, Sanders purports to know the contents of the Emperor’s letter, a world in which the Government gives people things and no consequences follow. We can have the best of both worlds, he promises!
Such an alluring prospect is what the Emperor’s subject hopes to see when the messenger finally reaches them. The reality is, we do not know the Emperor’s message, and it would be unwise to suppose that we do. Our current capitalist democracy is imperfect, but it is certainly superior to hundreds of years of failed socialist projects and their innumerable victims. Before we succumb to prophets and demagogues who promise us paradise, let us ponder the Emperor’s message, making its way step by fastidious step towards us. Convincing ourselves that we can divine the Emperor’s message before it arrives will only ensure the destruction of what we have. Until then, we should learn and anticipate as Kafka’s righteous subject does: “But you sit at your window and dream of that message when the evening comes.”