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I Just Don't Get It (Occupiers and Libertarians)

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Praetyre Posted: Thu, Jan 19 2012 6:45 AM

In a similar spirit to RJM's "I Don't Want Any Kind of Alliance With Progressives", I'd like to present this collage of random thoughts of mine on the Occupy movement and it's relation to libertarianism;

This has been going through my mind for a while, but now that the protests seem to have died down somewhat and I have the opportunity to retrospect on the whole matter, I've looked back at some of the statements and reactions both here and in other parts of the classical liberal/libertarian blogosphere, and I'm just not getting it.

Why do so many libertarians (and classical liberals, and even some Objectivists, but that's a lot harder to type :p) insist on seeing things in the Occupy movements and their programs that are totally contradictory to their clearly stated aims and philosophical influences? Look, I understand the need to build bridges, and I'm certainly not opposed to pragmatically allying political interests towards a common goal, be it Paulites making peace with hippies and tinfoil hatters in the interests of noninterventionist foreign policy, but what gets me is the tendency among libertarians to somehow count the OWS as "one of their own", so to speak.

Yes, these protesters have some valid complaints; there is far too much corporate influence in government (though they never seem to say anything about union or academic influence, the latter of which I'd argue is even stronger), it is outrageous that people's tax dollars should be spent on bailing out failing corporations and used to give executives big bonuses (though nothing is ever said about the fact USG employees earn twice as much as their private counterparts) and yes, it's absolutely true that current US and Western economic policy is wrongheaded and incredibly destructive.

But in seeing these conclusions, I think many libertarians neglect what Ayn Rand noted as the role and importance of epistomology; for instance, libertarians should oppose anti-discrimnation laws, but not on the grounds of white supremacy and replacing them with a new Jim Crow, as the Klu Klux Klan would promote.

The Occupy movement, at it's core, seems to me (I would be very happy to be proved wrong on this, but I won't allow myself to fall into wishful thinking) to be a socially democratic egalitarian movement which believes (like much of the contemporary Left and even some of the paleoconservative Right) that the reason for today's crony-capitalist economic system and massive corruption is that an older, Carterite/(Harold) Wilsonian/Bismarckian regime of heavy economic controls, protectionism and redistributionism has been replaced by a Reaganite/Thatcherite/Friedmanite "neoliberal" radicalism, which supposedly is the reigning ideology of Western academia, media and all major political parties (if pressed, they usually cite the heavily qualified acceptance of globalization by the post-Soviet left as proof, while entirely skipping over the evolution of the therapeutic-egalitarian state and cultural Marxism/political correctness/totalitarian humanism).

It believes, in common with paleo-Keynesians, that the currently accepted economic mainstream of the Keynesian-Neoclassical synthesis is a radical form of free trader, free market and individualist philosophy. It criticizes mainstream economists because they are "neoliberal ideologues" when they, for example, argue against minimum wage laws as being economically destructive (interestingly, I believe Bryan Caplan once produced a study or survery showing that economists as a profession are actually more libertarian than the general public, so perhaps there's an element of truth to this claim) or oppose protectionism.

A similar, though more baffling, case of this exists in attacks upon the loathsome Establishment toadies in the Economist magazine. The Economist is certainly absolutely awful from a libertarian perspective, with it's smarmy Europhilia, support for government run healthcare and "progressive" taxation, and longstanding exponence of gun control. Indeed, I'd dare say even the likes of the Wall Street Journal and Fox News are far better on virtually every conceivable issue than that English public-school boy publication. But, and this must be understood, the majority of criticism of the Economist comes from the Guardian left and radical anti-capitalists, and is not made on the basis of it's centrist socially democratic globalism, but on the basis of it's supposed libertarian radicalism. Making common cause in criticism with an enemy who only despises your enemy because he sees aspects of you in him is, in my opinion, the utter height of political naivete and foolishness.

As such, they are criticizing these institutions not for their faulty methodology, scientism, support for central banking (when they do criticize central banking, like the tinfoil hatters/Stormfronters, they do so specifically at the Federal Reserve, arguing it is controlled either by the Rockefeller family, a supposedly all-powerful British monarchy, Der Juden or some nebulous consortium of European aristocrats) and failure to predict the recession, but they are criticizing these institutions to the extent they actually agree with libertarian positions. Jeffrey Tucker has done a very good job in showing the Occupiers up as "vigilante liberals" with their ideas of "myths" about economics, much like Keith Preston has with the "antifa" stormtroopers.

Look, for example, to the "executive bonus" controversy. The focus is eminently (no pun intended) not on the actual heart of the matter; that no innocent man's wealth should be extracted from him by the threat of force via government taxation or coverly stolen from him via inflation, regardless of whether this goes to Joe Nobody or Goldman Sachs, but that it is unconscionable that any entity should have a significant disparity in regards to how much it compensates it's employees. The implicit suggestion (again, I'd love to be proven wrong here, but I'm very confident in this reading) is that bailouted entities should instead be nationalized, and moreover, than any entity, irregardless of whether it is the beneficiary of government largesse, should be legally prohibited, in the name of egalitarianism, from possessing such a pay disparity. You can see some of this in action already in "Great" Britain, with talk of salary caps for executives (especially banking executives), and agitation for similar "maximum wages" throughout the United States, as though the entire economy was a rugby league or a private foundation.

Now, allow me to engage in a little bit of "Defending the Undefendable", as Walter Block would say. I certainly do not have any love for banksters or other "political entrepeneurs" who obtain their wealth by government force rather than the voluntary and free transactions of the marketplace. But, and this must be stressed, the salaries paid by a private organization are entirely the business of that organization, and any government attempt to restrict this will not stop with pseudoprivate entities.

It continues to astound me that libertarians, ordinarily so astute in the voracious and despotic nature of the Democratic Leviathan, blind themselves to the ill intent of these populist demagogues and to the Pandora's box that such wage controls will bring. Their goal is empathetically not to end the process of compulsory wealth and income redistribution that has inevitably accompanied mass democracy in every instance of it's implementation; indeed, their complaint is that there is too little democracy, too little redistribution and too little taxation. I do not wish to descend into ad hominem here, but any libertarian who thinks that the Tax Justice Network and it's ilk are misguided mutualists-in-waiting or proto-Roderick Long's is, quite frankly, either severely deluded or philosophically ignorant.

In regards to the Occupy Movement, let us take a look at their policy planks and positions again, this time from a libertarian philosophical position rather than an Austrian economical one:

"Demand one: Restoration of the living wage. This demand can only be met by ending "Freetrade" by re-imposing trade tariffs on all imported goods entering the American market to level the playing field for domestic family farming and domestic manufacturing as most nations that are dumping cheap products onto the American market have radical wage and environmental regulation advantages. Another policy that must be instituted is raise the minimum wage to twenty dollars an hr."

Libertarianism is opposed to protectionism and to the existence of wage and price controls, much less an increase in existing wage controls. Libertarianism is also opposed to phony "free trade" agreements like NAFTA which merely replace one set of interventions with another, but that certainly doesn't mean "two wrongs make a right", nor does the existence of interventions in other nations. Note also that the writer points out the absence of wage and Greenie controls in the nations which export their cheap products to America, calling into question whether the US itself would be possessed of such a trade deficit were it's own economy not so encumbered by bureaucratic legislation of the sort the Occupiers clamor for and support (an irony George Reisman has similarly discussed, though in a different context).

"Demand two: Institute a universal single payer healthcare system. To do this all private insurers must be banned from the healthcare market as their only effect on the health of patients is to take money away from doctors, nurses and hospitals preventing them from doing their jobs and hand that money to wall st. investors."

Leaving aside the obvious objections to compulsory "insurance" (I frankly refuse to besmirch the good name of private entrepreneurs by comparing govenmental ponzi schemes to their legitimate and beneficial activities) schemes, this plank calls for the complete nationalization of an entire industry, a policy even more statist than that advocated by the contemporary Republicrats. One could make a joke about how their description of the effects of private insures sounds suspiciously similar to the effects of the federal government's economic policy, but anyway...

"Demand three: Guaranteed living wage income regardless of employment."

I don't have to explain what's wrong with this one, do I?

"Demand four: Free college education."


"Demand five: Begin a fast track process to bring the fossil fuel economy to an end while at the same bringing the alternative energy economy up to energy demand."

This can be interpreted in a libertarian way, but sort of in the same way that one can interpret the movie Starship Troopers; in a misaimed way totally contrary to the intent of the creator. What the Occupiers mean here is green energy, wind farms and the accompanying environmental bureaucracy that they bring and have brung in Britain and parts of Europe.

"Demand six: One trillion dollars in infrastructure (Water, Sewer, Rail, Roads and Bridges and Electrical Grid) spending now."

Again, they want an increase in government spending, which inevitably leads to either more taxation or inflation, and thus a decline in PPP and further expansion of government control and power over society. I have no problem with government maintaining the Interstate Highway System as a transitionary stage to privatizing it, and I'd certainly much rather the government spend it's money on utilities than on useless vanity programs like the NEA or NASA, but that's obviously not the author's intent here, and there's an implicit Keynesian assumption of infrastructural spending providing economic stimulus to boot.

"Demand seven: One trillion dollars in ecological restoration planting forests, reestablishing wetlands and the natural flow of river systems and decommissioning of all of America's nuclear power plants."


"Demand eight: Racial and gender equal rights amendment."

Translation: Yet more expansion of the "civil rights" bureaucracy. Anybody who's read Gottfried will ace this one.

"Demand nine: Open borders migration. anyone can travel anywhere to work and live."

Okay, leaving aside the issue of immigration itself (I happen to be more on the Hoppean side of the issue), this is one of the few cases in which I've actually agreed with David Kramer. The abolition of borders clearly aids and abets the establishment of a One World Government/New World Order, in the same manner as the X Without Borders movement (which Walter Block quite soundly critiqued for this very reason).

"Demand ten: Bring American elections up to international standards of a paper ballot precinct counted and recounted in front of an independent and party observers system."

Like I noted in my original piece on the demands, I am very suspicious of the phrase "international standards", as it seems to be largely a political football used to try and push the United States internal policy towards either whatever the American author imagines Western Europe to be, or the opinions of the academic establishment in Western Europe. I realise many folks here are strongly critical of the United States (I have something closer to an Objectivist view on the matter), but again, it must be understood that they aren't criticizing the US for it's unlibertarian actions (being the sourcepoint for cultural Marxism and Progressivism and international income taxation come to mind), but criticizing it for things they perceive to represent the US's radical free market individualist ideology.

"Demand eleven: Immediate across the board debt forgiveness for all. Debt forgiveness of sovereign debt, commercial loans, home mortgages, home equity loans, credit card debt, student loans and personal loans now! All debt must be stricken from the "Books." World Bank Loans to all Nations, Bank to Bank Debt and all Bonds and Margin Call Debt in the stock market including all Derivatives or Credit Default Swaps, all 65 trillion dollars of them must also be stricken from the "Books." And I don't mean debt that is in default, I mean all debt on the entire planet period."

Obviously, all government debt should be stricken from the books. But the striking of private debt, all private debt, will in many cases violate the property rights and freedom of contract of innocent persons, and establishes a dangerous precedent for further governmental control of the commercial sector.

"Demand twelve: Outlaw all credit reporting agencies."

Do I really have to say it?

"Demand thirteen: Allow all workers to sign a ballot at any time during a union organizing campaign or at any time that represents their yeah or nay to having a union represent them in collective bargaining or to form a union."

I'm still not entirely sure what to make of this, so I'll pass unless somebody can more clearly articulate where this fits in a libertarian paradigm or what it's practical political implications will be.

Some might criticize me for being excessively Amerocentric in my assessment of the Occupiers, so I'll take a look a related movement from England, UK Uncut. They were a group of protesters opposed to the very minor cuts the British Prime Minister (a leftist even by modern standards) made to the British government's budget. One of their publicity stunts involved the occupation (this was well before the Occupiers were a twinkle in the glitterati's eye, but they are a still ongoing movement with strong ideological ties to the Occupiers in London) of high street stores owned by companies which practiced tax avoidance policies. The movement has even taken Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (the British version of the IRS) to court for failure to provide reason to not collect billions of pounds in tax revenues! Now, undoubtedly many of these companies were themselves pseudoprivate (I wouldn't dare compare myself to Stephan Kinsella, but there's some analogy in substance between the situation here and his commentary on the vandarchists attacking Macy's), but I somehow doubt that's at the forefront of the protesters reasons for blockading and invading these companies private property.

Why would anybody think that an entity which complains about tax evasion is even remotely libertarian? I couldn't give a damn if the evading entity is Irwin Schiff or General Electric; the latter is only bad from a libertarian perspective in the first place due to government intervention, which the Occupiers and their ilk actively cheerlead and propagandize for! No, nestled behind words of populism and anti-corporatism is a deeper mentality; the notion that your life and your property are a privilege granted to you by the Almighty Parliament, and that in accordance with the Marxian Exploitation Theory, all profit and all entrepeneurship are theft from the real producers, the workers, toilers and laborers, and that the only possible entity made worse off by social-democratic egalitarian schemes is the evil businessmen and corporations. George Reisman may have his flaws, but he made the right call on these folk.

In the unlikely event that Hell freezes over and a libertarian achieves a position of any political influence in Britain becomes Prime Minister, he sure as hell would be making far, far greater cuts to the Fabian Leviathan than Margaret Thatcher could ever imagine. How do you think the Uncutters, who react so virulently to the pathetically tiny cuts of Cameron and co, are going to react to a libertarian program? Why does this only seem like an obvious question to me?

It must be made clear that I am not saying that libertarians should not make common cause with their political enemies. What I am saying is that I believe libertarians have exercised insufficient caution in doing so, and allowed themselves to fall victim to wishful thinking in regards to their leftist allies. If all of this is a bit tl;dr, this YouTube video gives a pretty decent overview of the subject of misleading epistemlogy, though obviously from a different perspective than most of the posters here.

In conclusion: I believe that an alliance with the Occupiers or anti-globalization movement is politically and philosophically impossible, because to the extent they are opposed to the current system, they are opposed to it because of what they perceive as it's libertarian elements. Or, in Rothbard's words regarding the anarcho-left:

"And I very much fear that the same can be said for the other varieties of left-anarchists: communal, syndical, or whatever. Beneath a thin veneer of libertarian rhetoric there lies the same compulsory and coercive collectivist that we have encountered all too often in the last two centuries. Scratch a left-wing "anarchist" and you will find a coercive egalitarian despot who makes the true lover of freedom yearn even for Richard Nixon (Arghh!) in contrast.

If this analysis is correct, as I believe it is, then it makes all the more absurd the hankering by so many of our "left wing" for an intimate comradely alliance with the anarcho-Left. Beneath superficial agreement in rhetoric, there is nothing in common between genuine libertarians and collectivist "anarchists." Superficially, we both oppose the existing system – but so too do monarchists, Nazis, and those who hanker for a return to the Inquisition – scarcely enough for a warm and comradely dialogue."

I'm sorry for the length and vitriol of this post, but it's a culmination of many months pent up feelings, and I hope the owners of this fine site will not mind me venting a little after a largely uneventful membership in this community.

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TANSTAAFL replied on Thu, Jan 19 2012 7:13 AM

A former coworker of mine is an occupier. at first I was hopeful that the protests would offer an opportunity to "bridge the gap'" so to speak. we do agree that things are messed up, but beyond that there has been little meeting of the minds. the biggest barrier is his complete ignorance of economics. like most leftists he also seems uncapable of critical thinking. he has his world view and nothing seems to be able to break through and get him to see things in a different light. our debates have devolved into my articulation of specific points or ideas and him coming back with vague innuendo and ad hominems. trying to reach the left seems futile.

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ladyattis replied on Thu, Jan 19 2012 7:19 AM

Well, for me the problem with the Occupy Movement is that it's not as coherent as the messages libertarians of most stripes espouse. Most in the Occupy Movement are complaining about the current mess and how it makes their lives hard, rather than complaining about the infringement of individual liberty the government continues to pursue (and expand upon). This is why I tend to keep Occupiers at arms reach since most are not attuned to the basic tenets of libertarianism in the general sense of the word. It's good to inform Occupiers as to the root causes of the current mess, but don't expect them to be converted.

"The power of liberty going forward is in decentralization.  Not in leaders, but in decentralized activism.  In a market process." -- liberty student

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thumbs up to all three posters above.

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Autolykos replied on Thu, Jan 19 2012 8:11 AM

Thanks for a very thought-provoking and well-written post. I think this is by far the longest one you've written around here. :P

From what I understand, the "Occupy Movement" is hardly a monolith. So I think libertarians see the protests as an opportunity to (maybe, hopefully) influence some protesters on the margins with libertarian ideas. I'm sympathetic with the protesters over their frustration with the status quo and the feeling like things are completely out of control. Furthermore, the attacks they've suffered at the hands of police forces are entirely egregious IMHO.

However, at the core of the "Occupy Movement" lies nothing but socialism. By "socialism", I don't mean the elites' tactic of throwing bones to the rabble so they won't revolt - I mean the outright abolition of private property*, money, and markets. There can be no common cause between libertarians and socialists. Their positions are diametrically opposed.

* This, of course, only applies to within the socialist state until the entire world becomes socialist. Before that time, from the outside the socialist state would look like one giant firm.

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tunk replied on Thu, Jan 19 2012 12:52 PM

You pretty much hit the nail on the head, I think. Jeff Riggenbach also laid out pretty well what it is that anti-libertarian "progressives" believe. I refer to this list a lot, so I can easily switch from "reality" to "progressive caricature of reality" when I'm arguing:

  • Libertarianism is a variety of conservatism; libertarians are, you might say, the most extreme conservatives.
  • We live in what is still, essentially, a free-market society. A few trivial regulations have been placed on big corporations in this society, after great and usually futile struggles by well-meaning men and women who hoped to protect the poor and defenseless from these rapacious corporations, but in the main, the free market is what we see around us.
  • Conservatives, who include libertarians, are working through such institutions as Fox News, the Tea Party movement, and the Republican Party to change government policy in an even more free-market direction. Conservatives want to cut back the pitiful handful of regulations the well-meaning men and women have managed to impose on big corporations; they want to cut back the few pitiful programs well-meaning men and women have managed to set up to ameliorate the misery of the poor.
  • Libertarians want to end these regulations and programs altogether. They want to do these evil things because they want the rapacious big corporations to have complete freedom to grind everyone else under their evil heel. These rapacious big corporations want free-market policies because free-market policies will guarantee them bigger profits.
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From what I understand, the "Occupy Movement" is hardly a monolith. So I think libertarians see the protests as an opportunity to (maybe, hopefully) influence some protesters on the margins with libertarian ideas. I'm sympathetic with the protesters over their frustration with the status quo and the feeling like things are completely out of control. Furthermore, the attacks they've suffered at the hands of police forces are entirely egregious IMHO.

However, at the core of the "Occupy Movement" lies nothing but socialism. By "socialism", I don't mean the elites' tactic of throwing bones to the rabble so they won't revolt - I mean the outright abolition of private property*, money, and markets. There can be no common cause between libertarians and socialists. Their positions are diametrically opposed.

I agree with your first paragraph, but in your second paragraph you seem to forget what you just said.  Libertarians, socialists, progressives, etc, all refer to a specific ideology.  But "Occupiers" is not an ideology.  It refers to a group of people frustrated with the status quo and angry that they are being screwed by the system.

At Occupy London, I found lots of diverse views.  The impression I left with is not that this is a group of people with specific goals or firm beliefs about anything.  Many of them seemed open-minded, looking for answers and solutions, and willing to listen.  While I generally agree that there can be no common cause between libertarians and socialists, I think it's wrong to write off the Occupiers as socialists. 

They've unfortunately latched on to embarrassingly-awful socialist ideologies, yes, but IMO many Occupiers are ripe for having their minds changed by stronger arguments... they're not heavily "invested" in socialism.  In this way, they're not too different from the general population.  But the big difference is that Occupy people are not going to be put off by radical ideas... in fact, that's exactly what they're looking for.  This is what makes them fertile ground for us.

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Autolykos replied on Thu, Jan 19 2012 3:46 PM

Graham Wright:
I agree with your first paragraph, but in your second paragraph you seem to forget what you just said.

I think I can see why you'd say that. "At the core of..." can deliver more than one meaning. What I meant was that the founding ideological basis for the "Occupy Movement" seems to be socialism, and that most of its hardest-core members seem to be socialists. That's all. I agree with you that there are people with all sorts of diverse views affiliated (however loosely) with the movement. As you rightly point out, the entire group as a whole - if one could clearly delineate where it begins and ends - has no set, uniform ideology. You'll find no dispute from me about that. I hope this clears things up.

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I work near the occupy london protests so at lunch I went down and chatted to them a few times. Some marxist socialists had a stand there and pamplets promoting their ideology, i saw the same stand opposite the law society outside the gates of an economic college a few months earlier, with different people tending it.

I tried to convince the guy behind the marxist stand that we currently have socialism but he was not having it. In the end he told me to go away because he did not like hearing what i had to say. Basically he could not handle such questions and instead wanted to block his ears like a child. I was quite offended and ended up getting annoyed with the guy, how can you stand here with your pamplets pushing an ideology but you do not want to hear some one elses opinion. Then I called him fascist and said his information was bullshit. Not my best moment.

But the occupy london protest did not endorse this stand they just set up shop there and after speaking to a few other people they were not too happy about it either. But my main question that I ask occupy protesters is do you think the solution would involve more government or less government. Then they usually do not want ot answer the question. Then i point out that all the demands that they are asking for actually involves more government. Then they say that the corporations should pay for it and they are too blame for being greedy. They go on about £25 billion in corporate tax that was not paid. But I point out that £25 billion would not fund even half of the demands that they are asking for. I said that the problem is that the government gets exploited by the corporations and they gain an advantage. Then i end up ranting about the bailouts. At this point they always look at me in disbelief because it is such a contradiction to them.


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Marko replied on Thu, Jan 19 2012 5:33 PM

Look for worthwile leftists among critics of Occupy.

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