Ware the Poor Lawyer

One of the joys (and irritations) of Twitter is the receipt of unexpected alien tweets courtesy of the people you follow. (I think you can turn this feature off in most Twitter clients, if the thought of entertaining friends of friends alarms you.) Thus, thanks to Rob Hyndman (@rhh) I learn via PEI of a post on Paul Mason’s blog, Idle Scrawl, on the BBC site.

The post is “Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere,” and it lays out twenty bullet points that would provide fodder for a discussion about recent social ferment, particularly in Europe and North Africa, and how it’s not happening quite the way some of us oldies might expect. What particularly caught my eye was his point #11, which culminates a thread that starts with #9:

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10. This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

11. To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection. [emphasis in the original]

You can see how that might be. In my time I’ve seen plenty of people come to law school with no more focused ambition than to become, if not expensive, then well-to-do; and — more important, because a plumber will likely make more in a lifetime than the average lawyer — a well-thought-of pillar of some community or other. But money’s the measure, in most cases, and a large body of unemployed and possibly articulate law grads could indeed, I suppose, turn to pulling down the pillars they didn’t get to be.


  1. Fascinating. It is often said that revolutions happen in conditions of rising expectations. If everyone expects most people including themselves to be poor forever, nothing happens. If people start seeing that things could be better, then they start imagining how much better if certain people or classes were not keeping them back.

    This analysis would suggest that a revolution of frustrated expectations is also likely – it’s really a subset of the one of rising expectations. The difference is whether one ‘rose’ at all before encountering the glass/velvet/steel/money ceiling.

    I doubt there are enough lawyers to make a revolution, but there are enough people with post-secondary educations, perhaps.

  2. Exactly; the traditionally poor will always just get on with it, but when the middle/upper classes are affected – then the politicians have a problem.

    The middle classes are being punished now, and it won’t get any better, so it’s all going to go mad in the coming months/years.

  3. I think its true that its the educated middle class who need to be demonstrating early in a revolution. However, in my readings of history I was always struck by how the final momentum in a successful overthrow always came when the miners, taxi drivers, farmers, or steel workers were finally brought into the streets. At that point, the regime and its armies finally fail. I think it has to do with how bald the abuse of power becomes. This is why leak-fueled revelations like this one are so threatening.

  4. That was a fun, albeit ominous read. The condition of the educated youth is my fault. I was the one who said, “education, if nothing else, can never be taken away from you, and will always be a valuable stock and trade.” That came from my father and his father, and superimposed over my era and career path, made a whole lot of sense. The issue is; it doesn’t make sense any more. There was a tipping point that I blindly past and I gave a false sense of security to the youth thinking they could replicate my life. Kind of like looking at the snake oil salesman and thinking, “I can be that healthy and good looking if I use his product”. Greed or ego had nothing to do with it, it was social laziness. It’s kind of ironic that the resolution IMHO looks more like a social compact than an all out conflict of rich vs. poor. It is for people like me to retire when it’s time. To say “I’ve made enough money.” To contemplate the organization of systems out of control with greed, and balance them against the needs of the youth we have been using for grist. To further contemplate a society that cares as much about it’s rights as it does it’s health (we pay through taxation for health care, why not to protect our rights?). To reassure the youth that there will be a future, not instantaneous, but a future.