Occupy Wall Street Is Not an Altruistic Movement

Occupiers should stop pretending they know what's best for everybody else.


Of all the chants and slogans to come out of Occupy Wall Street, none stinks more than "We are doing this for you."

"We're doing this for you…love us back," protesters in New York chanted at the NYPD last month. "We're doing this for you! Po-lice are the nine-ty nine percent!"

"We're doing it for your generation," Occupy Portland protesters told a little girl as she wandered through the crowd interviewing people on Nov. 1.

"I can't believe they are being that aggressive over a paycheck, over your own people fighting for you," an Oakland Occupier said when a truck-driver refused to stop at the blockaded entrance to the Port of Oakland.   

"My boyfriend and I try telling so many people also that, 'We are doing this for you,' but so many don't understand. It is a shame," a commenter wrote on an article titled, "Why I Joined Occupy: A Letter to My Hometown."

The phrase, "We're doing this for you," and its variations, have been trotted out countless times since the Occupy movement began in September. And countless times, protesters have expressed their frustration that other people don't seem to get that this is all for them. But it begs the question to say that people who aren't on board with Occupy Wall Street don't understand what the movement is trying to accomplish. What if those people simply don't want what Occupy is offering? Will the revolutionaries give it to them regardless?

Bernard Shaw's "The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion," which the socialist playwright published in conjunction with his play, Man and Superman, contains a section called "Maxims for Revolutionists." The most well-known of those maxims is a rebuttal to the Golden Rule, which states, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Shaw's version of the rule goes like this: "Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same."

It now appears that an increasing number of Americans do, in fact, have different tastes than the Occupy protesters. When Public Policy Polling took the temperature of Occupy Wall Street in October, "voters were split, with 35% supporting the movement's goals and 36% opposing them." As of today, the "split is 33-45, 11 points worse." And it's worse among everybody. The percentage of Democrats opposed to the movement "has risen from 16% to 24%. Meanwhile, both Republicans (from 13-59 to 11-71) and independents (from 39-34 to 34-42) have moved 13 or 14 points against O.W.S."

With political support waning and cities feeling less and less charitable towards the protests, now is the time for Occupy to revise its assumptions. The first idea it should abandon is that critics of the movement are afflicted with False Consciousness, which is the rather boring Marxist concept that anybody who disagrees with the need for revolution is ignorant of the actual state of things. A condescending attitude is no way to win allies, and it is certainly no match for a police officer's pepper spray. Nor is the promise of an Occupy soup kitchen a substitute for a steady paycheck—which most cops have, even if it's not as big as the ones going to the their municipal bureaucrat overlords.

While they still have a modicum of momentum, Occupiers should make their rhetoric match their behavior. Taking over a public park is not an act of generosity, no matter how many times a camper coos, "we're doing this for you" to harried passersby. Likewise, it's not altruistic for unemployed college graduates to demand student loan forgiveness for themselves, especially not when they're demanding costly general strikes, encouraging businesses to shut down, or asking police officers to defect from their jobs. Nor is it altruistic to demand higher taxes on workers in the financial services industry if you want those taxes redistributed in your own direction.

"People tend to know much more about what will enhance their own lives, or they at least are in the best position to find out, than do their fellows," writes libertarian philosopher Tibor Machan. "So helping people comes down too often to meddling in their affairs, even creating messes for them with all that butting in."  

The Occupy movement seems to know what it wants for itself. It should stop pretending that it knows what's best for everybody else.

Mike Riggs is an associate editor at Reason magazine.