Idealism (good luck with that)

Today on Facebook, someone posted what purports to be a quote from Russell Brand: “If we all collude and collaborate together we can design a new system that makes the current one obsolete. This is a journey we can all go on together. All of us. We can include everyone and fear no one. A system that serves the planet and the people.” This is a charming idea, until you stop to think about it.

As I suggested to the friend who posted the quote, “Karl Marx tried that. He was a pretty smart guy, but he forgot that people are greedy and stupid.” But the difficulty with Brand’s charming notion is a little broader and deeper than that.

What he’s talking about is a new system of government. You can call it a new set of cultural values if you like, and bask in the rosy glow of the idea that somehow everybody in the world will happily embrace these new cultural values, thus making government unnecessary. But that’s childish. It’s not even worth discussing. Government of some sort will continue to be needed.

And it’s not just that a system of government would have to be able to deal with people who make dumb mistakes like drunk driving, or who are greedy and try to grab more than their share of whatever resources are available.

There are millions of people who just plain hate and fear people who look or act differently than them. When you hate and fear people, you’re liable to do bad things to them, and the government needs to step in and stop you.

There are people whose heads are filled with dogmatic, unchangeable ideas. Some of their ideas are harmful, but they will fight tooth and nail rather than let go of their ideas.

There are people who love having control over others, and who aren’t bothered by hurting others (or even enjoy it). Some of them start cults, and some of the cults are dangerous.

And most of us like to do favors for our friends. Employers will hire their friends rather than hire a stranger who is more qualified and perhaps has a different skin color. If everybody in our in-group thinks idea A is wonderful and idea B sucks, we’ll tend to go along with idea A and reject idea B without examining the relative merits of the ideas, because life is too short to sit around and try to ponder complex questions.

A government has to concern itself with all of these difficulties.

But wait — there’s more! The human brain is not very good at evaluating the large-scale, long-term effects of our actions. That’s why nuclear reactors get built near coastlines that are subject to tsunami activity. No matter how rational your government is designed to be, there will be disputes among well-meaning, intelligent people about the likely long-term consequences of various courses of action (such as GMO crops, for example). Governmental processes will be needed to attempt to sort out these disputes.

And still, mistakes will be made.

So okay, Russell — the ball is in your court. Put on your Karl Marx hat and tell us exactly what this new system of yours will look like. Tell us how it will deal with strip mining, religious extremists, racism, exploitation of workers, and the shenanigans of corporate bankers. Once you have a good solid outline in place, we can start to talk about how to implement it, starting from where we are now.

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