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Why Protest Inequality?: Unmasking the Deeper Motivation of the Occupy Movement

“Suddenly, the issues of equity, fairness, justice, income distribution, and accountability for the economic cataclysm . . . have returned to the heart of the political debate.” Elliot Spitzer is right: somehow the rag-tag band of “Occupy Wall Street” protesters has managed to change the national topic of conversation from balancing the budget to scrutinizing economic inequality.

“Occupiers” tell us, for example, that in 2005, the top 1% received more than 20% of pre-tax income in the country, or that during the same year the top 1% claimed 190 times the amount of wealth of the typical household—wealth which they claim buys political influence undreamt of by “the 99%.”

Critics on the right claim that the Occupiers exaggerate the intensity of inequality, while agreeing that inequality should be something to worry about. When so many people on both sides of an issue agree on a fundamental like this, it takes real audacity to imagine that they could be wrong.

No one would want to be unable to afford food or shelter or basic health care. Even if one can get by on handouts, it is terrifying not to know where one will sleep or get one’s next meal. But notice: the ability to sustain oneself economically is a matter of absolute fact: either one enjoys basic nutrition and health, or one does not. On the other hand, one’s equality or inequality with respect to others is a relative matter: someone could be employed, healthy, and happy, and still count as “poor” compared to those who are extremely affluent.

But it is not absolute poverty that the Occupiers are protesting. If that were so, the percentage the Occupiers would rally around would be the 16%—the latest fraction of the American population alleged by the Census Bureau to be living in what they consider to be “poverty” (a “poverty” that is quite attractive compared to living conditions in some other countries). If Occupiers were concerned with absolute poverty, they might be marching in the streets demanding more money for food stamps or Medicaid (both of which programs, they would find, have received record-breaking levels of funding in the last year). Instead, the protesters demand laws forgiving student loans and mortgages, measures aimed at protecting those Americans who are already doing far better than poverty. And: they demand new taxes and regulations on the well-to-do.

It is telling that when vagrants have tried to freeload off the food and shelter at Occupy rallies, Occupiers have been generally dismissive, claiming that that the freeloaders “[distract] a lot of energy away from the issues we’re fighting for,” and that they are “bad for most of us who came here to build a movement.” Seeming hypocrisy aside, these anecdotes suggest that the protesters’ primary concern is not about anyone’s absolute condition, but about the mere difference in income between the top earners in the country and those among the Occupiers who have less. Why is this mere difference so offensive?

Yes, the scale of this difference in incomes is probably historically unprecedented. But so is the scale of the innovation that has created this new wealth. It has never before been possible to sell a new “app” for $1.99 and become a millionaire virtually overnight. Who is hurt if the downloaders enjoy their software, and its producers profit? Many wonder how one person could ever deserve 190 times the income of another. But ask yourself: how many times better is your life with technology than without, if that can even be calculated? What producers deserve is not a function of the sweat of their brow, but of the fruit of their minds.

Some object that the wealthy have profited from taxpayer bailouts. In truth, most have not. When they have, this gives us reason to oppose bailouts, not inequality as such. More generally, cronyism between government and business give us a reason to separate matters of state from matters of economics, especially given the evidence that it is this cronyism, not inequality, that is responsible for our current economic mess.

Over the drumbeat of the Occupiers, it is hard to hear the voices urging us to reconsider our prejudices against economic inequality. In an underappreciated interview on PBS, University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein defended income inequality. Hefty rewards motivate entrepreneurs to create goods and services that are far more valuable to consumers than the money they paid for them. And wealth accumulation itself concentrates the capital that enables the investment—facilitated by Wall Street—that funds further innovation.

So why, in spite of massive evidence that profits motivate entrepreneurs to innovate in ways that enable so many of us to live comfortably, is there still a sense that inequality is unfair?

In a recent post at The Atlantic, Megan McArdle observes that the vocal majority of Occupiers seem to be middle class and educated. They are college graduates saddled with student loan debt who have been unable to find jobs in the arts or government or education. Why are they especially obsessed with the relative wealth of “the 1%”?

Why, for example, don’t the unemployed Occupiers move west as their distant ancestors did to take unfilled farm jobs instead of leaving these to migrant workers? Why are they so insulted when Chicago traders respond to protests by distributing applications for open jobs at McDonald’s? Some, of course, have tried to find modest work and have had no success. But underlying their frustration is that young people have been misled by their elders to expect that a college degree should guarantee them a plush, comfortably middle-class career doing something “fulfilling.” Suddenly they find it harder and harder to live this dream. Their resentment against those who do live it grows.

To the extent that it motivates the Occupiers, such an obsession with relative status is shameful. We can live happy lives whether or not others are wealthier or better esteemed. Each of us has friends or relatives of modest ability who earn a modest income and are still happy with what they have achieved in life. In a free society, another man’s relative success is no threat to one’s own. If anything, it is the opposite: one man’s unprecedented success also creates new opportunities for others.

As bad as economic envy of the “elite” by the “almost-elite” might sound, it is not as bad as a deeper kind of envy that we see among those members and sympathizers of the Occupy movement who have managed to secure comfortable middle-class jobs—or even prestigious positions at Ivy League universities. These professors and journalists speak of the need for “revolution” against the “oligarchs,” whom they warn should “tremble in their boots.” We wonder why they seem to revel in the spectacle of the fall of the economically powerful more than they speak of lifting up the poor. We wonder why the intellectual elites seem to envy the “influence” the economic elites allegedly exercise over our political system. We leave it to the reader to conclude what motive could explain their priorities.

There are, of course, those who might be convinced that economic inequality really is inherently evil. But if they believe this, they owe it to themselves to think about why. Why do they worry that some have more than others, even if it is not at the expense of others? Why do they think it is noble for some to struggle for happiness, but evil for others to achieve it? Why, in the name of economic equality, are they so ready to deny that everyone has an equal right to pursue happiness? Why do they seem to hate the success of those above them more than they seem to despise the poverty of those below them?

If they condemn economic inequality simply because this is what they’ve been taught by cultural authorities, they may not be guilty of envy—but then they are guilty of an intellectual passivity all too easily exploited by demagogues and dictators. They have lost enough believing their elders’ promises of post-college glory. They should take care not to repeat the mistake by now believing their promises of post-capitalist prosperity.

Rather than demanding a living from others because professors say it is a “right,” Occupiers should endeavor to live by their own efforts and to think for themselves. They should stop focusing on the relative wealth of others and instead get busy working on ways to create their own. If it is ever proper to compare one’s position to that of another, it is to learn by example how better to make a life for oneself. If it is ever proper to compare oneself to the “1%”, one should do it not to envy them, but to emulate them.

Creative Commons Licensed Photo by Flickr User eliduke.

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Valery Publius is the pen name of a teacher living in the American South.