Reflections on Occupy Wall Street

I encourage everyone to read Bastiat’s “The Law.” You can find a free copy here.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has entered its second month. Protests have risen up across the country. So far, they have no concrete message or list of grievances. They seem to object to the preferential treatment Wall Street that the financial sector received in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse. Government should bail out Main Street, not Wall Street, the thinking goes.

That said, there is no unified message. Many on the Left have tried to brand it as a progressive Tea Party. But this is not an apt comparison; the Tea Party arose out of the bailout culture and campaigned against out of control government spending, the national debt and expanding entitlements. OWS has no such agenda: they object, in no particular order, to “corporate greed,”  “the rich” and “the Jews” and want government to forgive student loan debt and stop home foreclosures.

The OWS movement looks, in some ways, like the anti-austerity riots in Europe (primarily Greece) and the union protests in Madison, Wisconsin, this spring. These are antithetical to the Tea Party movement; whereas the Tea Party wants less government, OWS want more government.

Democrats, so desperate for grassroots support, have largely embraced OWS while overlooking its radical elements (the Marxists, neo-Nazis, environmentalists, anarchists and the anti-Semitic elements). This political calculation is not, as former Bill Clinton pollster Doug Schoen points out in the Wall Street Journal, without serious political risk.

Democrats must win over their base as well as political independents if they hope to retain the White House and Senate while winning back the House of Representatives in 2012. The appeal to OWS shows them reaching out to the former; unfortunately it might alienate the latter.

That is because the OWS crowd is made up of radical elements outside the mainstream of American politics. Sure they might express a popular sentiment-discontent with the U.S.economy, concern about the middle class condition and outrage at increasing inequality-but many of their solutions are outside the mainstream.

Schoen’s polling of 200 OWS protesters shows the left-wing nature of these factions:

98% support civil disobedience to advance their agenda.

31% support violence to realize their goals.

65% insist that government has a moral responsibility to ensure all Americans with a college education, a secure retirement and health care for life no matter how costly these social democratic programs might be.

The OWS is the apotheosis of social-democracy; to achieve these ends, socialism must be put into place. That is, government must continue to grow and reduce the private sphere of the economy until it can provide these entitlements.

What is wrong with that? You ask. After all, America has largely become a social-democratic state. We now ensure a pension for seniors-Social Security, health care for seniors-Medicare, health care for the poor-Medicaid and prescription drugs for seniors-Medicare Part D. The government pays for K-12 public education. It loans money to students wishing to attend college. It provides loans that allow Americans to buy homes.

Why not grow a little larger to do a little more? The OWS ask. That is a natural response to those who spent their lives in this administrative-entitlement state. And it is a natural outgrowth of the socialist ideals which have permeated the national consciousness since the New Deal’s inception in 1933.

Over the last 80 years, citizens have looked to Washington for security, for employment, for a guaranteed income and a basic standard of living. This has created a tremendous burden on the federal government.

This burden has caused a popular uproar against government since the economy collapsed in 2008. Washington has (seemingly) reneged on its social compact, i.e. it has not “provided” positive liberty for its subject in return for the peoples’ tax dollars. Any wonder why the right track/wrong track and congressional approval numbers reflect such pessimism among Americans.

Sentient Americans know government is too big and is doing too much. Just last week, Washington announced another trillion dollar deficit. Government is spending 25% of GDP and taking in about 19%. The Left say raise taxes; conservatives say raising taxes won’t do a thing. Raise the rates to 90% and you’ll collect 19% of GDP. Maintain them and you’ll get 19% of GDP.

 The empirical evidence is clear; social-democratic states are unsustainable. Look at Europe. A bankrupt Greek government can no longer provide goodies to its subjects. That is why there is rioting in the streets of Athens. Similar stories are found in Britain, France, Spain,Portugal and Italy. These governments are all broke. Germany must bail out its profligate neighbors if the European experiment will continue.

Yet OWS protestors want to continue down the social-democratic path. It is pure madness.

This reminds me of the Austrian libertarians who helped form the conservative movement, primarily the two principal progenitors: F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Hayek warned in The Road to Serfdom that central planning-socialism-would inevitably lead to totalitarian rule because democratic means were incapable of producing socialist ends. Mises claimed that ceding free enterprise to the coercive state would lead to a nightmare, and chastised those who sought collectivization (this warning can be read as an indictment on the OWS crowd).

His Bureaucracy noted:

They call themselves democrats but they yearn for dictatorship. They call themselves revolutionaries, but they want to make government omnipotent. They promise the blessing of the Garden of Eden, but they plan to transform the world into a gigantic post office. Every man but one a subordinate clerk in a bureau, what an alluring utopia!

Both Hayek and Mises built upon the ideas of the 19th century Frenchman Frederic Bastiat’s The Law. Bastiat insisted that man had God-given natural rights to life, liberty and property. The law existed to protect these rights. Therefore, it was purely negative. It was in place to prevent injustice from flourishing.

But governments were made up of men and men preferred to steal from others rather than work. Modern government used the law to take from some for the benefit of others. This, Bastiat said, was legalized plunder. Government justified this theft on utilitarian grounds-saying it was good for the greatest number of its people.

Since the French Revolution, government has used -what Bastiat called- the law as charity as its raison d’être. That is, they’ve said they’re acting in a way that looks out for the poor-the 3rd estate (over 95% in Bourbon France). Since then, government has used the law and its monopoly on force to ensure a basic standard of living for the destitute.

How does it do so? After all, government does not create wealth on its own. Where does the State get its money? Bastiat compared the State to a breast that was incapable of producing its own milk. It took from others to attain this precious liquid. Thus, wealth distribution came about.

The French Revolution also introduced modern totalitarianism to the West. Robespierre was the first of many would be tyrants who thought he knew how to best mold society. He used the rhetoric of all socialists-indeed the language of the Revolution was filled with phrases that still send a thrill up progressives’ legs-calling for fraternity and egalitarianism.

Robespierre wanted to play God. He sent innumerable Frenchmen to the guillotine (before he too was beheaded). Tyrants continue to think this way. They believe society is like puddy in their hands and can be formed and directed in any way they choose.

To do so, they must eradicate human liberty and human rights. Man must be docile. This, as later Russian revolutionaries later predicted, would take a generation or two. But it was a necessary step on the path towards a just, fair society.

Lenin put this mentality best: “to make an omelet, you must break some eggs.” It must be done for the greater good.

C.S. Lewis called this the most heinous type of despotism. Lewis said: “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive.”

Though many of the OWS protestors may not know it, this is exactly what they are demanding. They are the acolytes of the French Revolution. If they can just rid society of these boogey-men-the capitalists, the Jews, etc- all will be well with the world. They will then usher in a nanny-state which will provide for them from cradle to grave. Free Education. Guaranteed employment. A “Fair” standard of living. Retirement benefits. Health care for life.

Unfortunately they have chosen to ignore a central conservative truth: a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.


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