On Saturday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) revealed that her “democratic socialism” is effectively a religion. The fact that she endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2020 Democratic presidential race is not much of a surprise: both are self-described “democratic socialists” and both support the same kind of government takeovers of the economy. Yet AOC’s statements about Sanders proved rather eye-opening.
“Last February I was working as a waitress in downtown Manhattan. … I didn’t have health care, I wasn’t being paid a living wage, and I didn’t think that I deserved any of those things. Because that is the script that we tell working people here and all over this country, that your inherent worth and value as a human being is dependent on an income that another person decided to underpay us,” Ocasio-Cortez declared. “But what we’re here to do is to turn around that very basic logic.”
“It wasn’t until I heard of a man by the name of Bernie Sanders that I began to question and assert and recognize my inherent value as a human being that deserves health care, housing, education, and a living wage,” AOC explained.
Make no mistake: This is a religious statement applied to government. According to the Western tradition, government cannot dictate a person’s “inherent value as a human being.” That is the sole province of God, the Creator. As the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Governments are instituted to protect these fundamental rights, but the state does not grant them to individuals. There is a human dignity that reaches beyond the sphere of limited human government. The state does not have the power to make human beings more valuable — it merely respects the inherent value they already have. This is fundamentally important, because if the government can increase your inherent value as a human being, it can also decrease your inherent value as a human being.
AOC was granting to government something that never should be granted to human beings. She was effectively saying that the state determines a person’s dignity.
Worse, AOC suggested that a free market system in which people have to work for health care, housing, an education, and a desirable salary is fundamentally unjust. It sounds nice to call these things fundamental rights and to mandate that everyone must have them, but such a policy wreaks havoc on the very logic of a market and the justice of getting paid for your work. Doctors, landlords, and teachers provide basic goods that are valuable and for which they should be compensated. Should not the beneficiaries of those goods have to pay for access to them?
These “rights” are entirely different from the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness or property. The rights in the declaration are “negative rights” — they represent ultimate limits on government encroachment. The rights AOC supports are “positive rights” — they represent new demands that people make on the government, goods and services the state must provide.
Making these things “rights” entails turning over huge sections of the economy to the government. There are problems in the American health care and education systems, but a full government takeover would not solve them. In fact, AOC’s chief of staff admitted that her central policy goal — the Green New Deal — “wasn’t originally a climate thing at all.” Rather, the radicals see it as “a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.”
Taxing the rich would not even come close to footing the bill for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All (both of which AOC and Sanders support), according to a Heritage Foundation study. Even assuming the economy would keep humming along and workers would still work with their wages confiscated, a 100 percent income tax on all incomes above $200,000 and a confiscation of all corporate profits would still fall $13.2 trillion short of paying for the low estimate of the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. That number is based on the $48 trillion (close to the PJ Media analysis of $49.109 trillion over ten years) low-end estimate. This fanciful number is still $57.8 trillion short of the American Action Forum estimate of $93 trillion.
These costs seem abstract and many Americans’ eyes may glaze over when hearing about trillions of dollars and ballooning federal deficits. A CEI/Power the Future study made the cost more concrete: It found that the Green New Deal would cost the average American family $250,000 in the first five years.
Policy weaknesses aside, AOC is giving the government the power to determine human dignity. Government programs do not have any impact on someone’s “inherent value as a human being.” To suggest otherwise involves opening the door to totalitarianism.
If government determines human dignity, the state can choose to withhold that dignity from certain types of people. The worst evils in human history have involved just this kind of tyranny. Adolf Hitler denied the humanity of the Jews. In Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the Supreme Court essentially denied the equal human dignity of black people. The horrific logic of abortion denies the human dignity of unborn babies.
According to the Jewish and Christian traditions, all human beings are born in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28, 5:1-3, 9:6). Shamefully, many Christians denied the dignity of black people and native Americans — yet Spanish Scholastics like Francisco Suarez opposed this horrific racism that undercut the inclusive message of Christianity (Galatians 3:28).
The American tradition of negative rights, fundamental human dignity, and limited government is grounded in this tradition. Americans need not believe in Judaism or Christianity to embrace human dignity, but the idea of government determining a person’s inherent value is a betrayal of both traditions.
Worse, AOC’s idea turns government into a kind of God, which can dictate the inherent worth of an individual based on welfare handouts. Her praise of Bernie Sanders was at least somewhat religious, hailing him as a prophet delivering the message that government can increase a person’s inherent value as a human being by doling out “free” health care.
AOC likely does not see government as a kind of God, but she is using this rhetoric in order to tap into Americans’ deep need for belonging. Americans are seeking something more than policy from their politics — they are increasingly turning to politics to find a meaning that religion once gave them. The Democratic National Committee recently passed a resolution appealing to the religiously unaffiliated.
To some degree, “democratic socialism” represents a religious commitment. AOC and Bernie Sanders look to government as the savior from the purported injustice of the free market system. Government can teach a person his or her “inherent value” by supporting this agenda, and those who oppose such absurd policy goals can safely be demonized as opponents of human dignity.
When a religious tribalism takes over politics, the government becomes a tool of enforcing one worldview over another. Elections become so important that people begin to think violence against their political opponents is justified.
This rhetoric is dangerous, not just because the policies are crazy, but because life is more than politics. Judaism, Christianity, and the American tradition of limited government set up a system that constrained politics and grounded human dignity in something far deeper and more important.
If we value freedom, we must reject the idea that government gets the final say on who you are as a person. Along that road lies tyranny and civil war.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.