Occupy Wall Street, corporate greed, income equality, and democracy

A version of this article originally appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera on October 8, 2011:

“What do we want?  We don’t know!  When do we want it? Now!” This could be the chant of the “Occupy” protests on Wall Street and in other cities.  “If protesters don’t list demands, will they get anything?,” asks a headline in the Christian Science Monitor.

Ending “corporate greed” is a likely demand. The phrase appears over 200 times on Occupywallst.org, a primary “Occupy” website that lacks clear demands. Adbusters’ “Occupy” page has posters criticizing financial services firms involved in the mortgage crisis.

Blaming “corporate greed” for the financial crisis is misguided. In a free market, greedy profit seeking requires vigilantly catering to what consumers want. But as Thomas Sowell, Johan Norberg, and Jeffrey Friedman have described, the housing and financial markets were quite unfree. Firms were not responding to true consumer demand, but to demand perversely distorted by gobs of “regulation” and politically motivated legislation.

Adbusters describes Wall Street as America’s “financial Gomorrah” and wants to end money’s influence on Washington politicians. If protesters don’t like corporations influencing politicians, they should ask politicians to stop meddling in corporations’ affairs.  As P.J. O’Rourke observes: “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.” People have the right to voluntarily exchange goods and services. Protesters should demand that politicians oppose and repeal legislation that violates this right.

Income inequality is also a popular subject on Occupywallst.org. But a producer has the right to her earnings from voluntary trade, regardless of her income level relative to others.  The “democracy” advocated by self-proclaimed “we are the 99%” protesters would declare that a mob-rule majority is entitled to wealth earned by a productive minority.

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See also: Occupy Wall Street: Beyond the Caricatures, Reason.com


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