Dear Russell Brand: How About a REAL Revolution?
by Bretigne Shaffer
Dear Mr. Brand,
Let me start off by saying that I’m a huge fan. I haven’t seen your live show yet, but I’ve been really impressed by every one of your video appearances. You are brilliant, super sharp and I think have real empathy for people. I say this not to shower you with flattery but so you know that everything I say here comes from a place of genuine admiration and respect.
Like you, I am a non-voter, and for much the same reasons. I’ve written about that here. You say you want a revolution. I do too. But what you describe doesn’t sound very revolutionary to me.
In your interview with Jeremy Paxman, you advocate “...a socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth.”
Whether you intend it or not, each of these things requires an authoritarian state to implement. Just ask yourself: How is this egalitarianism to be enforced? Who is to do the redistributing? What happens to someone who doesn’t want their wealth “redistributed”? What if somebody wants more than their neighbor has and is willing to work for it? And what if someone else is willing to hire them to work? Who is going to step in and prevent this exchange between consenting adults? And more importantly, how?
It is no accident of history that the socialist experiments of the 20th century ended in brutal tyranny and mass starvation. Both are inherent in an ideology of enforced egalitarianism, and both were entirely predictable (in fact, the failure of socialism was predicted, by economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, in the 1920s.)
To call for “redistribution of wealth” is also to misunderstand what an economy is. An economy is not a static, unchanging quantity of resources to be divided in some manner among the people who participate in it. An economy is a living, changing, growing organism. It is not a pie to be sliced up and distributed, but is more like a bakery that makes pies. When you give someone the authority to take those pies from the people who made them, to “distribute” them to others as they believe is right or just, you take away the bakers’ incentive to produce more pies. Production stops, and people starve. This is precisely what happened in the Soviet Union, China, and other countries where people were not allowed to profit from what they produced.
You say that “... profit is a filthy word because whenever there is profit there is also deficit.” No, there is not. You have badly misunderstood how economies work. I wouldn’t be so picky about this except that this particular misunderstanding has already led to so much poverty and misery in the world.
Voluntary exchanges are mutually beneficial. People only engage in exchanges if they think they are going to benefit from them. So when one person profits, it is not at another person’s expense, but because they have provided something that the other person wanted. The only time this is not true is when someone is coerced into an exchange. This happens all the time (think taxes, eminent domain, highway robbery, etc.) but it is not the profits that cause the deficit, rather the coercion. It is only in a world characterized by coercive relationships that one person benefits at another’s expense.
This may seem like an odd thing to say if you are still thinking that an economy is a pie. It’s not a pie. Stop thinking that it’s a pie. It is a bakery that makes pies. There is not some static quantity of pies out there waiting to be distributed. There’s a whole system with lots and lots of moving pieces that all come together to make the pies that people want. And if it turns out people don’t want pies, then the system makes something else. So the question is: How do the people working in this system know what to make? The answer is that they get signals from the marketplace indicating what goods and services people value relative to other goods and services. And what are those signals? Two of the most critical are: profits and losses.
In a world of free people, making voluntary exchanges, profits are the way that producers know what people want, and therefore what they should make if they want to be successful. If a particular good or service is extremely profitable, it means that probably a lot of people want it very much. When other producers see those high profits, some of them will stop producing what they have been making and switch to producing the high-profit item. As more and more producers come into the market and compete with each other, more of the item that people wanted so badly gets made and the price (as well as the profits) comes down.
Again, this is a system, a living organism made up of countless individual players all connected to each other through this network of signals: Prices, profits, losses. Take away the signals and you destroy the organism’s ability to function. Treat an economy as if it is just a bundle of goodies to be divvied up, and you kill the organism that makes those goodies.
In fact, we already have forced redistribution of wealth. Through taxation and, even more so, through central banking and fiat money, real wealth is distributed from productive people into the hands of government elites and their corporate cronies. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see here and here.
What you’re proposing is just another form of what’s already happening, but with different beneficiaries. Do you really imagine that it will turn out any differently? Do you imagine that it will not result in an entrenched group of powerful elites benefiting at the expense of everyone else? Again, you don’t have to look any farther than the past century to see that another inevitable consequence of enforced equality is always a very, very privileged elite. Why? Because someone needs to be in a position to enforce all this equality. And therefore, someone needs to have an awful lot of power over everyone else. Those who wield this power will be in a position to abuse it - and if history is any guide here, they will abuse it to a lavish (for themselves) and horrific (for their enemies) degree.
You say that you are looking for alternative political systems, alternate paradigms that might be of service to humanity. I hope you will let me offer you some ideas:
First, if you want real change, then start by questioning the institution of the state itself. Start by questioning the idea that it’s acceptable to use force in order to get other people to do what you want them to. Start by questioning the idea that peaceful, civilized society can ever be built on a foundation of coercion and violence.
There are many people who are already doing this. Real revolutionaries, with solid ideas that they’ve articulated pretty well: My dad is one. You might want to check out two of his books: “Calculated Chaos”, and “Boundaries of Order.” The Mises Institute does a fantastic job of publishing and educating on the topic of markets and the state. There is an entire body of very solid work on how stateless societies can and do function.
These critics of statism argue not for the redistribution of material wealth, but for the redistribution of authority - from centralized, top-down hierarchies of people ruling over others, to each person having authority over their own lives. They advocate peaceful, non-violent revolution in the most radical form imaginable: Simply rejecting the coercive institution that is the monopoly state.
You are absolutely right that democracy serves only an elite few, and you are right that our governments are working on behalf of the large corporations that prop them up. What I hope you will rethink is the idea that a more authoritarian system is going to make things better. And what you are calling for is more authoritarianism. By necessity. A more centralized state, with some people wielding even more power over the rest of us than they do today. There is nothing revolutionary about that. It is what dictators and rulers have always sought to do. And when they have succeeded it has been with tragic consequences for the people living under them.
You want a revolution? I do too. But your idea of revolution doesn’t go far enough. Rather than buy into the (intentionally) divisive rhetoric of class warfare, I urge you to look deeper. It is not “the rich” who are the problem, not capitalism that needs to be called into question, but the institution of the state itself: The toxic idea that one group of people has the right to rule over others. You are absolutely right to call for revolution. But make it a real revolution. Don’t urge people to seek solutions from the state - urge them to abandon it altogether.
Bretigne Shaffer blogs at On the Banks.