Bryan Caplan  

The Edukators

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No, this isn't another post on simplified spelling. The Edukators is a German movie about anti-capitalism protestors who break into rich people's houses, re-arrange their furniture in the spirit of Dadaism, and leave a note saying "You have too much money. [Signed] The educators." On principle, they don't steal anything; the goal is to solely make the rich feel scared and violated.

Despite the sympathetic depiction of these "idealists," I have to admit it was a well-told story. You might want to see it for yourself, so... I issue this warning: spoilers follow!

Eventually the rebels break into the house of a rich man one of them personally knows. He recognizes one of the educators, so they kidnap him. While holding the businessman prisoner, they debate economic philosophy. Unfortunately, the businessman is a former student radical himself, so deep down he agrees with their claim that he is an exploiting oppressor who has gotten rich by "robbing" the poor. His only responses are that (1) he disapproves of their terroristic methods, and (2) he could only save a thousand people from starvation once.

Of course, it's hardly fair debating someone who's afraid for his life. But I found myself wondering how the debate would have gone if the educators had kidnapped a fearless and unconflicted libertarian businessman instead. Here's how the scene should have gone:

Jan [radical leader]: Everything you have is stolen!

Hardenberg [businessman]: Stolen? No, I produced my wealth.

Jan: You international bankers take it from the poor of the Third World.

Hardenberg: You don't know a lot about the international economy, do you? Almost all international trade is between rich countries. Germany and America trade a lot. Germany and Chad don't.

Jan: How can that be?

Hardenberg: Simple. Poor countries don't produce much, so they don't have much to sell. And since they don't sell much, they don't buy much. If they did, of course, I'd be first in line to do business with them, and they'd get even richer.

Jan: But still, you have so much more than you need. Why don't you help these poor people?

Hardenberg: OK, so you admit that I'm not a robber; I haven't done a thing to people in the Third World. But instead of apologizing to me for making a false accusation, you're changing the subject. Now you're asking why I don't give more to charity.

Jan: Whatever. So how can you live knowing that people are starving for want of your help?

Hardenberg: How can you live knowing that people are starving for want of your help? While I've been your prisoner, you've smoked enough cigarettes to feed an African family for a year.

Jan: Well, maybe I'm not perfect, but your lifestyle is obscene.

Hardenberg: What's obscene about it? I produce wealth, and enjoy the fruits of my labors. It's your lifestyle that's obscene. You're the parasite who mysteriously consumes a pile of food, alcohol, and grass without even having a job.

Jan: Now you're changing the subject. Why don't you give away your riches to the poor?

Hardenberg: Simple. Because they're strangers and I don't owe them anything. It's may not be their fault that they're poor, but it's certainly not mine. And unless you quit being a bum, get the highest-paying job you can, and hand over all your earnings above your basic needs to the poor, you're going to have to give same answer.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
liberty writes:

Good post. The businessman should also explain that the trade would make the poor richer, while of course the charity *would not*.

If either one of them got that good job and then gave all but the least amount necessary to survive to the poor, it would not actually help them to become richer - unless there was also trade. It can only temporarily alleviate some suffering, but in order to actually help them become prosperous, healthy and happy, you will require just the sort of trade that the radical leader opposes - free trade between rich and poor countries, international bankers and all.

Tyler Cowen writes:

I believe the movie is Austrian, no?

The Real Bill writes:

IMO, that was the best Caplan post in a long time; it was informative and entertaining!

It reminds me of all the well-off liberals I know here in San Francisco. When they complain about health care costs and the uninsured (and suggest--no demand--socialized medicine), I always ask them why they don't find a worthy poor family and purchase health insurance for them. Invariably, they hem and haw and say something like, "Well, I don't know about that."

blink writes:

Nicely revised dialog – perhaps Jan really would be convinced about international trade or at least driven by guilt to some productive activity.

I cannot see Jan giving up the “stolen” point so quickly, though. A more probable second line: “Produced?! How can you say that? Did you shingle your roof or build your car’s engine? Did you sew your shirt or grow the food in your refrigerator? No, all you do is push papers and make other people produce things for you.”

Jan needs a primer on the division of labor as well as trade. A few more early lines from our businessman-hero?

Robert writes:

I have to question the notion that participating in trade is inherently better than being the recipient of charity. While sustained trade is certainly better than transient charity, sustained charity would be better than transient trade, and if the maintainance of charity depends on the continued chartibleness of one's benefactor, the maintainance of trade depends on one's trading partners finding no better trader trading partners.

If benefitting from charity is inherently inferior to trade, we would see clear-minded thinkers seeking to rid themselves of all channels through which they receive uncompensated benefits, in order that they may instead secure those benefits through trade. We would, for example, see the clear-minded seeking to rid themselves of their good health, so that they might obtain health care through the products of their labor, rather than being the beneficiaries of a charitable providence.

Devil's Advocate writes:

Surely the radicals could do better than that:

We all know that human beings' happiness is to a very large extent status based. In modern society, wealth is status. By being far wealthier than the rest of us, you reduce our self-estimated status and thus reduce our happiness. Furthermore, one wealthy individual can reduce the happiness of thousands or millions who can see that wealth and have their happiness ratcheted down as a result.

There were reasons why the so-called "envy trap" governed societies for so long. It maximized human happiness, making certain that no one individual could erode the happiness of many others. Unfortunately, it appears it is an unstable equilibrium. We, the radicals, work to return mankind to that equilibrium!

Why should mankind be bullied by the talented and the hard-working? Why should we let these exceptional individuals endanger the happiness of us all?

Unlike you, I am no threat to the happiness of the talentless, lazy majority. Your existence, on the other hand, compels them to work hard simply to maintain the happiness that they would have already had. And still, if they lack your talents, they will fall behind. Why should they let you keep the fruits of your endeavours?

etc., etc.

Nathan Smith writes:

I think Hardenberg's explicit egoism would alienate most audiences. In the "Good Samaritan" story in the New Testament, a man is wounded by the roadside and a priest and a Pharisee don't stop to help him, and then a "good Samaritan" comes by and helps. Jesus doesn't have to belabor the point that the priest and the Pharisee are bad. Everyone's conscience tells him that lack of altruism is wrong.

Hardenberg might counter Jan that the practice of altruism is difficult, and it can have negative consequences. He might say:

"If I tried to set up a charity, I'd probably get taken in by a lot of confidence tricksters and self-righteous self-appointed do-gooders who are actually just meddling destructively. Giving in an effective way, alas, is not a talent that I have. However, I can benefit mankind by consuming. My expensive furniture, which you have rearranged, represents an investment of considerable effort on the part of talented design specialists. For now, this design work is only benefiting me and a few other rich people; but eventually the designs will become public domain, and then the broad middle class can benefit. With my patronage of the arts, of fine restaurants, of fancy new electronics, of luxury travel, and so on, I am scouting out new terrain of enjoyment. In my hedonistic experimentation, I may find things that others I want, and that, once many have decided they want it, it will be possible to mass-produce so as to make them financially accessible to the masses. Without sybarites like me, these avenues of design space would remain unexplored."

Dennis Mangan writes:

"Because they're strangers and I don't owe them anything. It's may not be their fault that they're poor, but it's certainly not mine."

Does that mean that you'll be revising your views on immigration?

James writes:

Mangan,

Your remark is a non sequitur. One very big reason poor immigrants are poor is because they are forcibly prevented from selling their labor to the highest bidder. The people who support this forced interference really are at fault for the fact that so many would-be immigrants are so poor. What about the text you quoted implies that Caplan should change his views on immigration?

mikeKP writes:

While Jan may not give up on stolen vs. produced argument, clearly Jan acts as if intangible things (as are involved in the banker's paper pushing) are things of real value. After all, Jan's rearranging of furniture is done for its symbolic value, and accompanied by a paper note. Did Jan shingle his own roof or grow his own food?

Spoiler alert: I give the film points for trying, but the ending (and visuals accompanying the ending credits) seem to justify and glorify destruction as a means of getting the world to wake up and be a better place. An art student's vision of social critique which, when stripped of its academic-socialist veneer, reveals no more social understanding than the riots in Paris.

Bryan Caplan writes:

Tyler, according to IMDB, the movie is German-Austrian. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0408777/

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