The Occupy protesters imagine that they stand in a great tradition of American radicalism, willing to stand up to the man and risk arrest in order to achieve their goals. The most obvious case of such a mass movement would be the anti-war protests of the 1960s. They started small and grew and grew until they became mainstream and actually affected a dramatic policy change. The U.S. military pulled out of Vietnam, implicitly conceding defeat and mourning the long history of calamity.
But consider the gigantic differences. The Vietnam protest movement had a clear goal. It wanted to end the war. It had a clear enemy: the politicians and bureaucrats who wanted the war to last forever. It had a clear message: this war is wrong. It had an intense motivation: the protesters were terrified of being drafted to kill and be killed. This is what standing up to power is all about.
So far as anyone can tell, the Occupy movement has none of this clarity. Ten thousand articles have been written on these people and there is still no consensus concerning what the issue really is. The goals of the movement are posted here and there, but not everyone among the protesters agrees with them. The motivation is just as amorphous and varied: unemployment, sinking job prospects, sinking incomes, blowback from the bailouts, the desire to slum around in a decadent sort of way, and the destructive urge to trample down the pea-patch of life itself.
Worse, from my point of view, is that the movement isn’t really standing up to power. It is standing in for power to urge that the state take on more responsibilities and control people’s lives even more than it does already. They imagine that they are demanding human rights, but the main agenda as listed in public websites amounts to a list of ways for the government to violate human rights, or at least intrude aggressively upon them.
Raising the minimum wage, for example, amounts to a limitation on the rights of workers to negotiate their own employment contracts. The minimum wage says: you have no right to offer less for your services than the state gives you permission to offer. Thus, the minimum wage not only promotes unemployment; it restrains the human right to associate on any terms of a person’s choosing.
Likewise, the demand to nationalize health interferes with the rights of doctors and patients to negotiate their own contracts. The demand for tariffs interferes with the rights of people to peacefully trade with anyone from around the world, and effectively entrenches the nation-state as the only permitted geographic range of economic associations.
The imposition of new taxes takes people’s property. This is property acquired through their own labor which is then forcibly taken by the state to use for political purposes. This demand is a prescription for further impoverishment.
The push for refunding domestic infrastructure denies private entrepreneurs the opportunity to use their resources and talents to rebuild on a for-profit basis and in a manner that that can actually be maintained. There is a reason that state infrastructure always seems to be crumbling: it is built by the state with all the inherent economic irrationality of most state projects.
The real problem with the OWS movement is its political naiveté. The protestors imagine that by attacking free enterprise and the capitalist system they are upholding the rights of the common man. The exact opposite is true. The only real alternative to free enterprise is an economy owned and administered by society’s most ruthless and cruel elements, who always seems to gravitate toward statist means.
If OWS is successful, it will wake up to a world that is lorded over by federal bureaucrats and jack-booted enforcement thugs. The entire world will be run like the Post Office, the TSA, the IRS, and the Customs Bureau. This has nothing to do with freedom and nothing to do with human rights.
For this reason, the OWS protest is not really a threat to the establishment. So far, its message has been that the state needs to be truer to itself, that the worst aspects of both the Democratic and Republican platforms need to be implemented with a vengeance. This is a movement the state can come to love. Indeed, the White House has drawn closer and closer to this movement, saying that Obama “will continue to acknowledge the frustration that he himself shares.”
Again, the contrast with the Vietnam protests of the 1960s cannot be starker. The White Houses hated these people. The politicians of both parties were terrified of what “people power” meant in those days.
If we had the equivalent movement as it relates to economics today, it would be calling for an end to the Fed, privatization of education, privatization of health care, the right to global free trade, an end to state robbery of persons and their businesses, and a right to keep what you own. In short, a truly radical protest movement would be calling for a consistent and authentic capitalism as a corollary to the peace agenda in international politics.
Now that would be radical.