A lot of the discussion lately has focused on whether Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is good or bad for liberty, whether they favor more or less government, and similar questions. While these are valid questions to ask, it is important to consider how we insert ourselves into the conversation. The protesters have already framed the debate; it is them versus the corporate/political elite (99% vs 1%). We have to move within that framework and in doing so find the most useful way to get a libertarian message across.
When the topic is government and corporations abusing power, neither of the two institutions are righteous. Rather, all parties are wrong for various reasons. Don’t pick sides! Too often we libertarians find ourselves defending corporations in our attempts to defend free market capitalism. These are the vary same corporations that often fight for and benefit from eminent domain abuse, bailouts, special tax code loopholes, protective tariff and import quotas, licensing laws to keep out market competition, and a whole host of corporate welfare programs. The analysis of corporations being moral is overly simplistic. While there are many corporations that play fair, there are clearly many that abuse their power.
Rolling Stone published an insightful article on how the media, politicians, and power brokers are trying to cram OWS into the traditional left/right paradigm. And although we know that spectrum to be a farce, we see it happening as we speak.
As libertarians, we have a golden opportunity here. The world is watching these protests develop and curious individuals are scouring the media and Internet to try to get a grasp of what these gatherings are. Our opinions and our commentary on OWS matter a great deal here. We only do ourselves a disservice by aligning ourselves as opposed OWS, and then are placed by default on the side of the power abusing corporations that we actually detest.
Instead of making negative attacks on OWS, we should be making the positive message that these protesters are right. At its very core, OWS identifies the same root problem of our economic woes as the Tea Party. That is, the status quo of our political, financial, and corporate systems are horribly broken, abused by elite power brokers on both sides of the aisle. We must furthermore make the case that the problem is not in these particular leaders, but in the very nature of the system. It is up to us to point out the dangers of crony capitalism, regulatory capture, rent seeking, the revolving door between DC regulators and those they supposedly regulate, and the myriad of problems that come with a state-managed economy. We need to make the case that OWS has pinpointed the problem, but that the solution is not a stronger state (which created the problem in the first place) but a freer society where all individuals are treated equally with special privilege for none. In the war of ideas, a positive message triumphs over a negative one.
How do we do this? We need to get out there, both virtually and with our boots on the ground. This effort has already begun and students are leading the charge.
A great example of this is the work done by SFL Campus Coordinator Moriah Costa and the ASU Students for Liberty. They organized a group of students to go to Occupy Phoenix with copies of The Morality of Capitalism and economic freedom signs. By engaging the crowd in a friendly way she not only passed out a large number of books but also got herself and her free market sign front and center in a media photo of the event. This type of messaging is how we change the conversation and get people talking about increasing liberty and decreasing government power instead of exacerbating the problem by increasing it.
Personally, I see the recent rise of activism manifested by OWS and the Tea Party as a positive sign. For the first time since the early 70’s, Americans are so dissatisfied with the status quo that they are taking to the streets to make change. At the core they have all identified derivatives of the same problem: far too much power is concentrated in the hands of a small political/corporate/bureaucratic elite. As Lord Acton said, “power tends to corrupt”. So, we libertarians can sit back and laugh at these protesters, arrogantly pointing out how wrong they are about policy X or philosophy Y; or, we can go out and make a constructive argument for what the real problem is and how we can fix it. That is the approach I am going to take.
P.S. For anyone questioning the strategy and tactics of OWS, I strongly urge you to read the great libertarian (before we had a word for it) Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. He makes the argument better than I ever could.