Russell Brand is Not a Hypocrite

by Benjamin Studebaker

Over the last year, British comedian Russell Brand has fashioned himself into something of a champion for the little guy–for poor and marginalized people in society. Politically, he’s a classic, old school Marxist. He sees politics as a fundamental struggle between owners and workers and wants a revolution of some kind to empower the masses (though he admits he doesn’t know what form that revolution should take). I’ve written about Brand before, and I don’t fully agree with his views, but I sympathize with his core observation–that our society is not yet fully just and that many groups of people suffer unnecessarily as a result. I also appreciate that he is providing us with opportunities to discuss fundamental questions of political theory with a wider audience. In recent weeks, we have seen conservatives in Britain attempting to discredit Brand as a political actor by labeling him a hypocrite. The story goes that because Brand has a lot of money (an estimated net worth of $15 million), this disqualifies him from taking issue with the distribution of wealth in Britain. This is a deeply misleading argument that would, if universalized, leave the poor and marginalized utterly voiceless.

There have been many examples of this argument in recent weeks. It first came to the fore when Brand was protesting against the gentrification of London and a journalist asked him about his rent:

Piers Morgan made the argument in the Daily MailMost recently, the argument has been made by Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, an anti-immigration right-wing political party:

That’s a lot to slog through (I unfortunately could not find a shorter version that highlights the quip), so here’s the relevant line from Farage:

I’m not the wealthy one on this panel.

Let’s dissect this argument. Brand (and left wing people in general), believe that the present distribution of wealth is unjust, and that the poor should receive a larger share of national wealth and economic opportunity. The hypocrisy argument alleges that if you believe the distribution of wealth to be unjust and you have lots of wealth, you are necessarily morally obligated to give your wealth away until you have only what you need to survive. Any affluent person who is unwilling to do this is thought to be exposed as a hypocrite, someone who opposes the system but is unwilling to renounce the benefits he has individually accumulated through it.

This argument may be appealing at first blush, but it makes an important error. It conflates the recognition of a distributive justice problem with support for a specific solution to that problem–voluntary donation of one’s private funds to charity. It is entirely possible to recognize a distributive justice problem without supporting this specific solution, and indeed most left wingers do not believe that voluntary giving by individuals is the appropriate answer. Instead, most left wingers propose that the state should use its coercive power to force the affluent to share their wealth with the poor, often through a progressive tax system. There are several reasons why it would not be constructive for Russell Brand to voluntarily give his fortune away:

  1. It would not solve the problem or contribute in a significant way to the solution of the problem. According to Oxfam, 1 in 5 people in the UK live below the poverty line (roughly 12.8 million people). If Russell Brand gave $15 million to these 12.8 million people, he would only be able to give each person about $1.17. Even if Russell Brand were Bill Gates, he could only give each poor person in Britain $6,300–certainly not nothing, but not enough to undo the systemic damage done by poverty in a permanent and sustainable way. Brand could target a smaller subset of the poor population to give the money to, but while this might make him feel like a good person and temporarily help a small number of people substantively, he would only be treating the symptoms of the distributive problem, not its causes. Brand does not have the funds to reshape British society in such a way that the poor could be sustainably uplifted as a class. Only the government has that kind of money and the means to procure more of it from the general population through taxation.
  2. It would require Brand to violate my exploitation principle, which stipulates that no person is morally required to voluntarily participate in his own exploitation. Brand could not realistically expect the poor to be able to reciprocate the services he would do for them. While it may nonetheless be necessary to exploit Brand and others of his economic station to solve the problem, these people are not morally obliged to willingly participate in the absence of state coercion.
  3. The rest of society would free ride off of Brand’s contribution. By voluntarily donating funds himself, Brand takes pressure off of the state and his fellow affluent people to do their fair share. Indeed, particularly cynical affluent people might point to Brand as an example of the efficacy of voluntary charity, arguing that state coercion is not necessary to deal with the distributive problem. Brand can argue that the state should require universal participation by all citizens of similar incomes on this basis.
  4. It would disempower Brand as a political actor. To participate with efficacy in contemporary democratic politics, one needs to spend a lot of time learning about issues and campaigning. One also needs a platform, a means by which one can reach a wide audience (ideally an audience much larger than, say, the audience of this blog). To have the free time and the platform, it helps to have a lot of money. If you think about all of the most successful left wing campaigners historically, very few of them have themselves been poor people, because most poor people don’t have time to learn about issues or campaign, and they certainly don’t have access to substantive political platforms. This is because they have no money. Brand’s money makes it much easier for Brand to get his message across. Brand’s complaint is that our society ignores the voice and interests of the poor. If he is right, becoming poor himself will not make our society pay any closer attention to his voice or the interests of the poor more generally. On the contrary, it would only serve to shut him up.

The solution most left wing people advocate for (state coercion) does not have these problems. It is entirely consistent for Russell Brand and other left-leaning people with means to support state coercion of their own economic class while simultaneously refusing to voluntarily donate the funds themselves. Indeed, the fact that most affluent left wing people will not donate the funds themselves speaks to the need for state coercion–even among people who genuinely care deeply about the poor, state coercion is the only way to ensure the wealth is redistributed. Without state coercion, every affluent individual has reason to suspect every other affluent individual of free riding. If Brand’s preferred policies were enacted, Brand himself would be compelled by the state to pay a higher rate of tax. Brand’s willingness to pay a higher tax rate so that poor people will be made better off is the very opposite of hypocrisy, it is consistency even when one’s own material interests are threatened by one’s own position. That’s not hypocrisy, that borders on altruism. It is to be admired, not condemned.

What really troubles me about the use of the hypocrisy argument is just how many left wing people of all shapes and sizes could in theory be dismissed by it if it were widely taken seriously. The trouble is that most deeply left wing people are highly educated, either formally or informally. In many advanced economies, there is still a deep connection between education and affluence, such that the affluent are much more likely to have access to high quality education than the poor (this is one of the injustices left wing people take issue with). As a result, the people who make the best and most interesting cases for the left tend to be highly educated and thereby affluent. If we permit those who wrongfully make the hypocrisy argument to discard and discredit those voices, what will we be left with?