A professor at Washington and Lee University is offering a writing seminar called “How to Overthrow the State,” which “place(s) each student at the head of a popular revolutionary movement aiming to overthrow a sitting government and forge a better society.” Students are charged with writing their own revolutionary manifesto in light of readings from revolutionaries like Che Guevara. The right-wing outrage machine, as you can imagine, is feasting on it and offering it as an example of the radical takeover of higher education.
I’m intrigued by the class because I tend toward free-market anarchism myself and think that states are neither necessary nor sufficient for prosperity. There’s a burgeoning academic literature on this with books like Peter T. Leeson’s Anarchy Unbound exploring the theory and history of statelessness and AIER’s own Edward Stringham’s Private Governance looking at how institutions and organizations that protect people and property have emerged without coercion. There’s a lively and ongoing debate in these circles about whether or not one would push a button that would allow us to wake up tomorrow morning without governments. WLU’s course represents an excellent opportunity for students to take the revolutionaries’ arguments seriously, and if they do their due diligence, to think really hard about their shortcomings. I offer, therefore, ten questions for the young leaders of these revolutionary movements.
1. Do I have the facts straight?
Karl Marx said that “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” I doubt very much that you will know which changes you need to make if you don’t have a very good idea about your starting point. In his book Factfulness and in his many excellent online presentations, the late Swedish Professor of International Health Hans Rosling identifies a lot of the ways things have gotten better, especially for the world’s poorest.
Suppose, for example, that you encounter the name “Milton Friedman,” perhaps in connection with lamented “neoliberalism” and maybe in connection with human rights abuses perpetrated by the brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Friedman has been denounced as the “father of global misery,” and his reputation has taken another beating in the wake of the fiftieth anniversary of his 1970 New York Times Magazine essay “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” which I suspect most people haven’t read past its title. But what happened during “The Age of Milton Friedman,” as the economist Andrei Shleifer asked in a 2009 article? Shleifer points out that “Between 1980 and 2005, as the world embraced free market policies, living standards rose sharply, while life expectancy, educational attainment, and democracy improved and absolute poverty declined.” Things have never been so good, and they are getting better, especially for the world’s poor.
In 2008, there was a bit of controversy over the establishment of the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago, which operates today as the Becker Friedman Institute (it is also named for Friedman’s fellow Chicago economist Gary Becker). In a blistering reply to a protest letter signed by a group of faculty members at the University of Chicago, the economist John Cochrane wrote, “If you start with the premise that the last 40 or so years, including the fall of communism, and the opening of China and India are ‘negative for much of the world’s population,’ you just don’t have any business being a social scientist. You don’t stand a chance of contributing something serious to the problems that we actually do face.” Nor, might I add, do you stand much of a chance of concocting a revolutionary program that will actually help the people you’re trying to lead.
2. What makes me so sure I won’t replace the existing regime with something far worse?
I might hesitate to push the aforementioned button because while the world we actually inhabit is far from perfect, it’s not at all clear that deleting the state overnight wouldn’t mean civilization’s wholesale and maybe even perpetual collapse. At the very least, I would want to think long and hard about it. The explicit mention of Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara in the course description suggest that students will be approaching revolutionary ideas from the left. They should look at the results of populist revolutions in 20th century Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The blood of many millions starved and slaughtered in efforts to “forge a better society” cries out against socialism and communism, and macroeconomic populism in Latin America has been disastrous. As people have pointed out when told that “democratic socialists” aren’t trying to turn their countries into Venezuela, Venezuelans weren’t trying to turn their country into Venezuela when they embraced Hugo Chavez. I wonder why we should expect WLU’s aspiring revolutionaries to succeed where so many others have failed.
3. Is my revolutionary program just a bunch of platitudes with which no decent person would disagree?
In 2019, Kristian Niemietz of London’s Institute of Economic Affairs published a useful volume titled Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, which you can download for $0 from IEA. He notes a tendency for socialists and neo-socialists to pitch their programs almost exclusively in terms of their hoped-for results rather than in terms of the operation of concrete social processes they hope to set in motion (on this I paraphrase my intellectual hero Thomas Sowell).
Apply a test proposed a long time ago by the economist William Easterly: can you imagine anyone seriously objecting to what you’re saying? If not, then you probably aren’t saying anything substantive. Can you imagine someone saying “I hate the idea of the world’s poor having better food, clothing, shelter, and medical care” or “It would be a very bad thing if more people were literate?” If not, then it’s likely that your revolutionary program is a tissue of platitudes and empty promises. That’s not to say it won’t work politically–God knows, nothing sells better on election day than platitudes and empty promises–but you shouldn’t think you’re saying anything profound if all you’re saying is something obvious like “It would be nice if more people had access to clean, drinkable water.”
4. Is my revolutionary manifesto really any better than the Underpants Gnomes’ business plan from this 1998 episode of South Park?
In 2011, I wrote that a lot of policy proposals are “‘Underpants Gnomes’ Political Economy” after an episode of South Park in which the Underpants Gnomes’ business plan had three phases. Phase 1 was “collect underpants.” Phase 2 was a question mark. Phase 3 was “profit.”
Most revolutionary proposals are like that. Phase 1 is “abolish private property” or “Build That Wall” or something. Phase 2 is a question mark. Phase 3 is “equality and superabundance” (from the left) or “America has been made Great Again” (from the Trumpist right). There are more than a few very important details missing.
5. In other words, how is this actually going to work?
I’m not a socialist not because of antipathy toward poor people or callous selfishness. I’m not a socialist because it doesn’t work in practice and doesn’t even work in theory. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, among many others, have argued that private property, market prices, and market-determined profits and losses are necessary for rational economic calculation. Marx summarized the program of the communists as “abolition of private property.” Mises countered that socialism, or abolition of private property, would mean “abolition of rational economy.” Marx (in)famously never spelled out exactly how socialism would work; he just knew it would. Vladimir Lenin didn’t appreciate the calculation problem and thought that managing an entire economy as if it was just one big factory didn’t require much more than arithmetic and receipts. He was grievously, tragically wrong. I think Mises and Hayek, ultimately, were the ones vindicated by theory and history.
6. Does my argument for how it will work rely on people discarding self-interest, becoming a lot less horrible, and/or becoming a lot smarter?
In a famous cartoon by Sidney Harris, two scientists are standing at a chalkboard. There are equations on the left and right sides of the board with “THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS” between them. One scientist says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.” If you’re relying on a change in human nature to make your program work, be prepared for a very long wait. Or be prepared to spill oceans of blood like those who tried to create a “New Socialist Man” in the twentieth century. The socialists and communists wanted to run the economy as if it were one big factory. For the most part, they have also wanted to run the rest of society as if it were one big family. This brings us to a problem that vexed Friedrich Hayek his whole career. The rules, norms, traditions, and other practices that make families or very small communities work well don’t scale. Similarly, if you tried to run your life with family and friends according to a “market logic” in which you try to do everything via literal price-mediated exchanges–charging your kids to rent the TV when they want to watch a movie, for example–it’s probably going to backfire spectacularly. You can’t run your family as if it’s the Chicago Board of Trade. You also can’t run a society of millions of people as if it’s one big happy family.
7. How has it worked the other times it has been tried?
Are you considering “land reform,” whether land expropriation and redistribution, or straight up collectivization? Satellite images of the effects of land reform in Zimbabwe should make you think twice.
Years before the Russian Revolution, Eugene Richter predicted with eerie prescience what would happen in a socialist society in his short book Pictures of the Socialistic Future (which you can download for $0 here). Bryan Caplan, who wrote the foreword for that edition of Pictures and who put together the online “Museum of Communism,” points out the distressing regularity with which communists go from “bleeding heart” to “mailed fist.” It doesn’t take long for communist regimes to go from establishing a workers’ paradise to shooting people who try to leave. Consider whether or not the brutality and mass murder of communist regimes is a feature of the system rather than a bug. Hugo Chavez and Che Guevara both expressed bleeding hearts with their words but used a mailed fist in practice (I’ve written before that “irony” is denouncing Milton Friedman for the crimes of Augusto Pinochet while wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. Pinochet was a murderous thug. Guevara was, too). Caplan points to pages 105 and 106 of Four Men: Living the Revolution: An Oral History of Contemporary Cuba. On page 105, Lazaro Benedi Rodriguez’s heart is bleeding for the illiterate. On page 106, he’s “advis(ing) Fidel to have an incinerator dug about 40 or 50 meters deep, and every time one of these obstinate cases came up, to drop the culprit in the incinerator, douse him with gasoline, and set him on fire.”
8. Are people moving toward or away from the kind of society I want to establish?
We get a lot of information from how people “vote with their feet” for different policies. If you’re advocating some version of socialism, you have to deal with the fact that so many people are trying desperately to leave socialist countries. The East German government did not build the Berlin Wall to keep westerners out, and pretty much all of the traffic between Cuba and the United States moves in one direction. It isn’t toward the Castros’ workers’ paradise.
9. What will I do with people who aren’t willing to go along with my revolution?
Walter Williams once said that he doesn’t mind if communists want to be communists. He minds that they want him to be a communist, too. Would you allow people to try capitalist experiments in your socialist paradise? Or socialist experiments in your capitalist paradise (Families, incidentally, are socialist enterprises that run by the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”)? Am I willing to allow dissenters to advocate my overthrow, or do I need to crush dissent and control the minds of the masses in order for my revolution to work? Am I willing to allow people to leave, or will I need to build a wall to keep people in?
10. Am I letting myself off the hook for questions 1-9 and giving myself too much credit for passion and sincerity?
The philosopher David Schmidtz has said that if your best argument is that your heart is in the right place, then your heart is most definitely not in the right place. Consider this quote from Edmund Burke and ask whether or not it leads you to revise your revolutionary plans:
“A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood. He would feel some apprehension at being called to a tremendous account for engaging in so deep a play, without any sort of knowledge of the game. It is no excuse for presumptuous ignorance, that it is directed by insolent passion. The poorest being that crawls on earth, contending to save itself from injustice and oppression is an object respectable in the eyes of God and man. But I cannot conceive any existence under heaven (which, in the depths of its wisdom, tolerates all sorts of things) that is more truly odious and disgusting, than an impotent helpless creature, without civil wisdom or military skill, without a consciousness of any other qualification for power but his servility to it, bloated with pride and arrogance, calling for battles which he is not to fight, contending for a violent dominion which he can never exercise, and satisfied to be himself mean and miserable, in order to render others contemptible and wretched.” (Emphasis added).
A lot of colleges and universities have first-year writing seminars that try to teach students to write by exploring a particular set of issues, and as long as the course actually teaches students how to become better writers, we should welcome new experiments. A course that asks students to put themselves in the positions of aspiring revolutionaries and to prepare their own revolutionary manifestoes is extremely creative. I think it’s the kind of course from which students can benefit mightily–if, of course, they ask the right questions.