The Occupy Wall Street protesters claim that the American Dream has been hijacked by the financiers of Wall Street and other wealthy Americans. Most of the protesters argue that the wealthiest 1% of American society has achieved economic power and political clout that the other 99% lacks. They advocate reversing this balance, which they view as unfair and illegitimate. In doing so, they emphasize the “power of the people” and invoke the principle of majority rule as a justification for their goals. But are their objectives actually just?
Consider some of the demands outlined in the movement’s “Zucotti Park manifesto”: increased taxes and regulations on the wealthiest Americans, larger public programs, home foreclosure assistance, and the forgiveness of student debts. Adopting these reforms allegedly allows Americans, particularly students and homeowners too paralyzed with debt, to realize the American dream.
Above are their general demands, but consider the consequences of just one of the protester’s goals, a government issued decree forgiving student debt. Students assumed their debt willingly. Because of the loans provided by bankers, students everywhere pursued the education of their choice, an opportunity that they would not have enjoyed otherwise. Yet forgiving student loans forcibly redistributes wealth from a lender and to the debtor, for no other reason than that the debtor demands it. In effect, Occupiers rob the bankers of their investment. How is theft a revival of the American dream?
Occupiers justify further restrictions on the wealthy on the principle that the demands of a collective justify any goal. On this principle, what stops Occupy Wall Street protesters from restricting the voting rights of the 1%? Or from forbidding the 1% from running for office, on the grounds that the wealthy exert too much influence in Washington already, just as they supposedly do the economy?
There is little risk that the Occupiers would suggest stripping the wealthy of their political freedoms anytime soon. If Occupiers did so, they would immediately lose much of their credibility.
The American respect for liberty is most easily recognized in our reverence for political freedoms, such as voting rights and the freedom of speech. This is why so many quickly and rightly jump to defend the rights of a disenfranchised minority group when those freedoms are threatened by the majority.
Why do so many suppose there is such a difference between economic and political liberty? Shouldn’t the fact that we do not subject a minority’s politic freedoms to the majority apply equally to economic freedom?
Recall some of the people affected by Occupy Wall Street’s demands: students and lenders. In the past these two parties mutually benefited from the freedom to work together with few limitations. However, the Occupier’s “Manifesto” curtails that liberty. The forgiveness of student debt robs lenders and destroys their livelihood. Without lenders to support the costs of higher education, thousands of future students cannot pursue their dreams. Loan forgiveness amounts to an external force limiting economic freedom.
Without arbitrary government regulations passed at the behest of the majority to restrict them, individuals are free to sponsor a young student’s education that they deem worthy of aid, create a non-profit organization that truly inspires them, or build the business that they have always wanted.
Consider the success Bill Gates enjoyed in one of the most laissez-faire industries of its time. Without the unpredictable demands of government or the 99% to restrain him, Bill Gates transformed Microsoft from a start-up run in his garage into a multi-billion dollar international company. In doing so, he has employed tens of thousands of people, made shareholders wealthier, and improved the lives of millions of consumers. By guaranteeing economic freedoms, we allow Americans everywhere to pursue their dreams. Economic freedom is just as essential to individual liberty as political freedom.
But by enforcing the demands of the “Zuccoti Park Manifesto,” we would not only restrict the liberty of millions of Americans, but would also falsely attribute the crimes or negligence of a few bankers on Wall Street to an entire group. After all, only a tiny fraction of the one-percent engaged in fraud accepted bailouts—and even in those cases, it was Washington bureaucrats who collected the money and decided to hand it over.
Punishing the 1% amounts to criminalizing business leaders who have improved everyone’s lives with their creative vision. Should Bill Gate, and others like him be punished for no other reason than that they share a tax bracket with crooks who lobbied for bailouts? If punishments were dolled out as outlined by the “Zuccoti Park Manifesto,” what incentive is there for future business leaders to emulate Bill Gates if all they will receive in return for their hard work and effort is an increased tax bill, public condemnation, and prison sentences?
Those who truly desire an end to cronyism between business and government and want to see the restoration of the American dream should not occupy Wall Street, but should instead march on Washington, advocating a return to government as the founders envisioned it: a republic which rests on the principle of inalienable individual rights protected by a Constitution limiting government power. Under this system, both the wealthy and the poor enjoy immutable political rights. Consequently, no group, no matter its economic influence, can infringe upon the rights of another: neither can the 1% infringe upon the rights of the 99%, nor can the 99% infringe on the rights of the 1%. In upholding individual rights, the Constitution prevents those with economic clout from translating it to political power. The legitimate problems of minority power protested by Occupy Wall Street would dissolve.
At the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Americans want economic prosperity. Prosperity requires individual rights, not collective power. If we want to see a return of the true American dream, it’s time we supported a return to Constitutional republic, not a system of class-warfare between the 1% and the 99%.
Image by Brian Sims, from Wikimedia Commons.