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OPINION | Bernie Sanders and Covid capitalism

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IN its obituary for Alfred Sherman, one of Margaret Thatcher’s economic advisers, the Times of London relayed a story that spoke to one of his pet themes: the utter fecklessness of the British workingman.

The tale begins with Sherman at a Tory conference, where he was offered a lift by Peregrine Worsthorne, a prominent newsman at the Sunday Telegraph. As the two walked to the car, Sherman fulminated about how the working classes were shiftless to a man, corrupted by welfare and socialism.

When the men arrived at the car, they found it had a flat tire. Neither Sherman nor Mr. Worsthorne knew how to fix it. Then a member of the working classes chanced by — and kindly changed the tire for them. No sooner had this Good Samaritan departed then Sherman picked up right where he’d left off: “As I was saying, absolutely no good, the whole lot of them.”

Bernie Sanders is today’s Alfred Sherman. On economics, the two couldn't be less alike. On one thing, however, they are practically twins: Their perfect blindness to any evidence that might temper their most passionate (and questionable) judgments.

Thus could Sherman continue a tirade against the British working classes only moments after a worker had bailed him out. Ditto for Mr. Sanders, as we saw in his remarks announcing he was dropping out of the Democratic presidential primary. At this Covid-19 moment in American life, even as business is literally working all hours to come up with innovative ways to meet needs created by the pandemic, Mr. Sanders said that the great mission — the fight against “the greed of the entire corporate elite” — continues.

That same night he appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” where he asked why “we have to live in a society that has so much greed at the top.” Earlier, in the final Democratic debate, he complained that “in the midst of this epidemic, you’ve got people in the pharmaceutical industry saying, ‘Oh, wow, what an opportunity to make a fortune.’ ” If Mr. Sanders has ever said a single kind word about the private sector, it doesn’t appear to have been recorded.

As the Democratic debates confirmed, a Sanders public appearance is like an improv act: Give him any ill afflicting society, and he will quickly attribute it to a market system driven by the greed of American business. This has always been a cartoon version of capitalism. But at a moment when American business has mobilized against Covid-19, it suggests something worse: a startling obtuseness to reality.

For what are American businesses doing today? Well, General Motors and Ford have come together with companies such as Ventec Life Systems and GE Healthcare to leverage the technology of ventilator manufacturers with the mass-production expertise of auto makers. Abbott Labs came up with tests that can detect Covid-19 in minutes. Anheuser-Busch is using its breweries to make hand sanitizer.

Bill Gates is using some of his billions to accelerate the development of a coronavirus vaccine. Lyft is donating tens of thousands of rides to those with essential transportation needs during the pandemic, especially families and children, low-income seniors, doctors and nurses. Restaurants are donating meals, and grocery stores are arranging deliveries for customers who are unable or afraid to come out. Others are fighting to keep employees on their payrolls.

And the only thing Bernie Sanders takes away from all this is greed?

Many rightly fret about how successful Mr. Sanders has been in pushing the Democratic Party (and its presumptive nominee, Joe Biden) toward a progressive agenda that until recently would have been regarded as fringe. Yet even more corrosive is the moral vision he’s selling along with that agenda. For make no mistake, the claim Mr. Sanders advances is primarily a moral one.

He ought to be answered in moral terms. Too often when it comes to business and morality, we limit ourselves to looking at how much of its profits a business donates. And in this crisis, there have been a great many donations, from the small cafes sending over fresh coffee to nurses at the local hospital to giants such as JPMorgan Chase, which has pledged to spend $50 million to help communities and people hit hardest by Covid-19 recover.

These gestures are all to be commended. But business morality isn’t limited to charity. What’s missing from the Sanders vision of commerce and free exchange is the slightest recognition that businesses serve a moral purpose simply by doing what they do: anticipating and meeting the needs of their customers, providing employees with livelihoods and the means to realize their dreams, and getting resources to where they are needed in the cheapest and most efficient ways.

Right now what Americans suffering from Covid-19 most need is our private sector applying its full genius and energies to coming up with a vaccine as quickly as possible. Not Bernie’s perverse progressive fear that someone, somewhere might make a profit by getting it to us.

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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