GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

December 9, 2011

Futher Reflections on Occupy Wall Street

Filed under: GA — Q @ 5:27 pm

The OWS movement has staked its existence on the issue of inequality of wealth, as evidenced by the “we are the 99%” slogan. The issue of equality goes very deep; the most powerful political movements of the modern era are based on the rhetoric of equality. Indeed, our sense of equality is originary and constitutive of human consciousness as mediated by language. We have a virtually instinctive sense of reciprocity; when our contribution is not reciprocated, we do not need anyone to teach us to feel upset. Eric Gans is the first thinker to place a solid anthropological foundation under this basic human intuition, by recourse to his originary hypothesis.

A 30-something member of my family suggests that OWS is a generational movement, but it is supported by many of the older generation, including, notably, the leaders of the Democratic Party including President Obama, even if they don’t themselves camp out in the public square. The differences between the two political parties have thus perhaps never been so starkly set out. The Democrats have become the party of the government redistribution of wealth, while the Republicans still believe in the free market (“capitalism” in the idiom of OWS) as a valid means for the production and just distribution of wealth.

The Democrats have quite explicitly defined themselves as the defenders of Medicare and Social Security—which no one can deny are forms of welfare, a redistribution, moreover, which generally benefits the more wealthy at the expense of the less wealthy—as well as public employee unions and union “rights,” large and powerful special interest groups which have cannily skewed the government budget process and burdened our children with debt for generations to come.

The pernicious influence of public employee unions upon the political process makes the lobbying efforts of large corporations look amateurish. Public employee unions are by definition monopolies, and the union fees which are automatically deducted from each employee’s payroll check serve to feed a huge political machine. Those public employees who negotiate with the public employee unions have no incentive to drive a hard bargain, since the government has no bottom line of profit to worry about, and the ability to tax is virtually unlimited.

The Democrats also position themselves as the thoughtful and educated party who care about the environment and the rights of minorities. One thing the Democrats cannot do is claim any larger economic benefit to their program, since unemployment has remained high despite the enormous power Obama wielded during his term, especially the first two years.

Yet unemployment is and should be the main issue of this campaign, since it is the direct result of the government redistribution of wealth, not only by Democrats but also Republicans more eager for re-election than for making hard choices that require time to bear fruit.

The problem is that the government does not itself produce wealth; it can create a limited number of jobs; but such job growth is not sustainable, not efficient in actually producing anything, and must be paid for by the taxpayers. All the government can really do, economically, is to take money from one pocket and put it in another, or borrow against younger generations and ransom our future to the foreign nations who are our largest creditors. Economic growth is created by people and businesses which produce items or services for consumption. The government’s role in this process is to protect private property and prevent monopolies.

The Government must also, of course, protect individual rights; and this is what the OWS movement has staked its claim upon. Rights lead us into the realm of justice. For OWS, inequality is prima facie evidence of injustice. But equality of rights, it bears repeating, is not the same thing as equality of outcomes; inequality of wealth is in fact no evidence of injustice. When the Government intervenes in order to redistribute wealth it violates its own “prime directive,” which is to protect private property. By breaching this essential function, it actually discourages the creation of jobs and wealth. Until America is willing to make some hard choices that may be painful for a great variety of special interest groups, then job growth will suffer.

What the Democrats are banking on is that virtually everyone today belongs to a special interest group that benefits from government spending. But we have apparently reached the tipping point in our economic evolution, when Government intervention becomes ever-more-clearly counter-productive, benefiting a disproportionate few at the expense of the productive many. This is the irony of OWS; the redistributive policies they advocate can only produce further economic stagnation and suffering.

I should clarify that I am not opposed to welfare as such. An economically and morally advanced society like the US has an obligation to help its citizens from abject poverty and suffering. The vast majority of government largesse, however, does not fall into that category. Attempts to help the so-called disadvantaged encourage not only corruption, they also end by “enabling,” to use the language of psychology, the behavior or condition they are designed to change.

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