Economics

The Disturbing Agenda of Occupy Wall Street

Why the protestors are wrong to favor forced equality over liberty

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The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, obsessed with fairness, has benefitted from the lack of it. The protesters don't think so—but that is because many of them have not thought enough.

The demonstrators resent disparity. So consider the disparity in coverage of OWS and the Tea Party. A single (still unsubstantiated) allegation that someone in the crowd at a 2010 Tea Party rally in Washington hurled a racial slur at Rep. John Lewis sufficed to prove the entire movement a kissin' cousin of the KKK. But that "Google Wall Street Jews" guy? A lone nut. As for the signs calling for the "death of capitalism" and telling Wall Street bankers to "Jump, you [expletives]" and declaring "capitalism can't be fixed—we need revolution"? Unrepresentative, surely. Ditto the 5:30 Oakland seminar on Marxism 101, and the dude in the Lenin T-shirt, and. . . .

Don't feel bad if you missed such tidbits on the nightly news. Every movement has its whack jobs, but those on the left get politely overlooked.

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See also: the asymmetry of municipal authorities' approach to free speech. The Richmond Tea Party is justifiably cheesed off that it had to shell out thousands of dollars for permits and whatnot to hold rallies in Kanawha Plaza downtown, while OWS protesters squatted there for more than two weeks free of charge. Tea Party groups elsewhere have reported similar disparate treatment. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted last week, "Tea Party co-founder Julianne Thompson . . . has made a request in writing after being denied permission to hold an event downtown because city officials said there was too much red tape and cost involved." Yet Atlanta's Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed issued an executive order granting special permission to OWS protesters to camp in Woodruff Park until Nov. 7.

Cops in Albany have refused to enforce a curfew near the capitol. A Tennessee magistrate has been refusing to approve warrants for OWS protesters arrested in Nashville. In Oakland, Mayor Jean Quan actually marched with the protesters a few weeks ago. Safety and sanitation issues eventually led to their eviction; they responded by throwing paint, bottles, M-80s and other items at the cops. The cops responded with force, and an Iraq veteran was seriously injured.

Reaction among OWS sympathizers was electric, with many denouncing police brutality.

Yet a survey by Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen of OWS protesters in Zucotti Park showed 31 percent "would support violence to advance their agenda." That figure is incorrect; it is closer to 100 percent. Never mind the occasional guillotine poster, this week's rioting in Oakland, or the sometime enthusiasm for mass-murdering Bolsheviks. OWS demands more government redistribution of wealth—a process entirely dependent on the use of force. (Just ask actor Wesley Snipes, currently doing a three-year stretch in the federal pen for tax evasion.)

Then there is the hatred of capitalism ("DEATH TO CAPITALISM"; "CAPITALISM DOESN'T WORK"; etc.). The alternative to a free market is, of course, an unfree one, requiring that somebody make sure people do not go around exchanging goods and services through mutual consent. How do you stop consensual activity? Take a wild guess.

All of this makes it abundantly clear that OWS prefers forced equality over liberty. Many people do. But the OWS protesters seem singularly obtuse about what this entails. As J.R. Lucas observed some years ago, equality has more than one dimension, and efforts to tame economic inequalities can produce bureaucratic empires that crystallize "an inequality of power . . . more dangerous than the inequality of wealth to which objection was originally made."

Granted, political inequality may not greatly disturb the consciences of OWS protesters, who in some locations have adopted a "revolutionary progressive stack," which "encourages women and traditionally marginalized groups [to] speak before men, especially white men." Lining up speakers by race and gender might not seem fair on an individual level. But for much of the radical left, individuals are irrelevant: The class struggle is all that matters, and the only way to end domination by one class is, apparently, to impose domination by a different one. Vladimir I. Somebody-or-other called that the dictatorship of the proletariat, if memory serves.

But then, serious thought about fairness is meager among OWS protesters—whose top concern, based on a textual analysis of the 99 Percent blog, is student debt. Repaying loans can be hard, and this evidently makes the obligation unfair in the eyes of many demonstrators. But loans are made because borrowers promise to pay the money back. If borrowers break their promises, the loans will dry up, which would not be fair to future would-be borrowers. The keeping of promises is a basic moral duty—and a self-imposed one to boot. But it can seem unfair, if you have the moral philosophy of a 4-year-old.

The OWS focus on money and economics only exposes the poverty of its quasi-Marxist critique. Equality has more than one dimension. William Niskanen, who died last week, once invited us to consider two young men: "One . . . is healthy and handsome, spends his days on the beach, has his pick of young women companions, and makes $10,000 a year. Another . . . is confined to a wheelchair, has congenital body odor, has never had an intimate relationship, and, with no other life, makes $100,000 a year as an expert computer programmer. In this case, who is worse off? Who should redistribute what to whom and how?"

The OWS "progressive stack," redistributing the right to speak, already has provided a partial answer. For a fuller one, look up Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron." It is supposed to be satire. Turns out it was prophecy.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.