Friday, October 14, 2011

The Occupation of Wall Street

     For almost a month now, a fluctuating group of demonstrators has been camping out in a park in New York. Calling themselves “Occupy Wall Street,” the group has made assorted demands, including free college and cancellation of debts. The group has been nonviolent, as far as has been reported, but the reportage has been predictably problematic. For instance, American media outlets have generally avoided mention of the more disreputable conduct of the occupiers, including an alleged act of public defecation on a police car. I say alleged, but the Daily Mail obtained a photograph. While overseas media seem to capture more of the facts, domestic outlets are playing true to form. Since the occupiers are evidently Left wing, American media have largely adopted them as perhaps misguided but worthy youth. In any event, the demonstrators’ behavior brings to mind the prescience of an insightful observer of the American Republic: Robert Bork.

     Nominated by Ronald Reagan for the Supreme Court in 1987, Bork, a true conservative, became the instant target of a Leftist campaign of derision, rage, and falsehood. As often happens, misrepresentation won the day. The Senate rejected the nomination, and the country wound up with Anthony Kennedy instead. Though Bork would have been good for the Court and the country, at least his rejection by the Senate did free him to write more openly than he could have as a sitting justice. In his masterful 1996 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah, (reissued and updated in 2003), Bork identified the twin pathologies of the Left: radical individualism and radical egalitarianism. Leftist ideology simultaneously holds that (1) there shall be no constraints on individual license and (2) there shall be no meaningful differences among people. Implicit in both principles is that government shall be the tool for giving them effect. Looking now at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, and their counterparts around the nation, we see a proof of Bork’s thesis. In their demands for economic leveling they denounce all differences of wealth, regardless of merit, while in their conduct they reject all constraints of public decency.

     Once more, as happened in the 1960s, public officials are tongue-tied and effectively helpless against such petty barbarism. The open question is whether these demonstrators are more the product of union agitation or are part of an authentic movement. Well, perhaps these are not mutually exclusive possibilities. Whether the unions set the spark or just blew on kindling that was already smoldering, the depth and extent of this demonstration are profoundly important to ascertain. For the deeper and broader this movement’s principles may be, the further advanced we are toward the chaos that has extinguished most free societies in history. Given the small size of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration and its brethren in other cities, there is reason to believe we have some civic vigor remaining. Nonetheless, as Machiavelli noted, republics do not fall apart until they have already become morally corrupt.

     In Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Bork wrote this about radical individualism:
The classical liberalism of the nineteenth century is widely and correctly admired, but we can now see that it was inevitably a transitional phase. The tendencies inherent in individualism were kept within bounds by the health of institutions other than the state, a common moral culture, and the strength of religion. Liberalism drained the power from the institutions. We no longer have a common moral culture and our religion, while pervasive, seems increasingly unable to affect actual behavior.
     He was right in 1996, as the 1960s had already shown, as we are seeing once more with Occupy Wall Street—though so far in miniature. Unchecked freedom is license, which is fatal to the public order and the self-regulation necessary for true liberty. It is so because it cannot sustain itself. Someone has to pay for it, to buy the t-shirts and pizzas and iPhones that license demands. Someone also has to pick up the pieces when the libertine crashes his own life through addiction or infection or irresponsible reproduction. If fully indulged, the license enamored by the Left yields social chaos. As Bork wrote, “[c]haos, which only government can control, results when other sources of authority are denigrated and diminished.” Those other sources of authority, like the family or the church, have been sources of charitable sustenance as well. However, since they sometimes make demands on their beneficiaries, such sources fail the Left’s litmus test of empowering radical individualism (which boils down to radical hedonism). The Left sees government, which dispenses palliatives as entitlements, as the only acceptable entity to sustain and repair the licentious. Hence, the demands of the Left for more license paradoxically also engender demands for more government—and the taxation necessary to provide that government. Thus license brings on tyranny.

     This line of reasoning shows the danger in the Libertarian project. Usually, when people I meet learn that I am a right-wing atheist, they conclude, “Oh, so you’re a Libertarian then.” They find it hard to grasp that anyone could be fully a conservative without religion. Robert Bork’s reasoning, however, does not depend on the truth of religion. Indeed, the quotes above only touch on its utility. The Libertarian hope is that laisser faire government, in throwing people back on their own resources, will naturally foster self-reliance. There is much to this position; it is not a wholly unwarranted hope. The problem really is that without a bedrock culture of self-reliance and moral constraint, sustained by non-governmental institutions like a healthy church and strong families, people will eagerly adopt the freedom half of the Libertarian agenda but reject the responsibility half. The occupiers of Wall Street are a case in point. Free to do what they want, they accept no responsibility for their own livelihoods—much less the social consequences of the pernicious catechism they recite—proving themselves the deluded faithful of the Left.


  1. Where classical liberalism split from high liberalism seems to be around the time when John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty. I vaguely recall (struggling as I was with the slightly disorienting English Mill used) that he wrote about achieving independence from society's rules as well as from government coercion. High liberals embraced this position, and went on to become today's liberals. Classical liberals didn't.

    I recall a Rauch article about 'soft communitarianism' which I think highlights the difference Bork mentioned. ( Rauch says that while they may appear similar to more hedonistic libertarians, the difference is that soft communitarians recognize and respect the 'unwritten rules' that govern society, such as basic decency. Anyway I thought the article might interest you if you hadn't read it.

  2. It would seem to me that whatever you think of their political position, the absolute minimum level of respect that the Wall Street protestors have earned is that they are active participants in the public debate. And we all benefit from a well informed debate. For example, until these protests brought it to my attention I had no idea just how unequal a society America has become. This certainly seems on the face of it unfair and a breach of 'the unwritten rules that govern society, such as basic decency.'

  3. Hortensio, thanks for the tip. I’ll check out the article.

    Historyscientist, I’m very glad for your comment, because thoughtful challenges ultimately improve or change opinions. Two responses come to mind, which I post for your consideration.

    First, there are more data points about the protestors’ actions and agenda than I had room to include. The group in Atlanta has refused to allow a civil rights hero to speak, then shouted down the one among them with the decency to attempt an apology. This is to pass over in silence about public drug use and sexual conduct. (Only a Cynic could approve of public sexual intercourse, as Zeno the Stoic showed when he threw a blanket over Crates and Hipparchia in medias res.) As for contributing to informed debate, even their champions have had trouble isolating a coherent set of demands. The two I cited are impressive for their clarity, at least, among a vague cloud of discontent.

    My second point of reply is to your understandable challenge that there is a great disparity between the richest and poorest Americans. This problem is very old, may even be an inevitable outcome of human nature. As Hume noted (see the Musings tab above), even if you leveled all citizens, they would immediately begin to drift up and down economically relative to one another. Only a continuously operating state apparatus of redistribution can keep all citizens even near the same economic levels, and such a state is by necessary implication illiberal. Moreover, as Thomas Sowell has pointed out, the same citizens do not necessarily wind up at the top of the heap year after year. Most of those who are poor in the U.S. are young—as we should expect. Throughout their lives, they generally move up through the income brackets until they are making far more than what they made in their first full-time jobs. In my case, that’s about thirteen times. Comparing my income with the income of a 19-year-old is unfair to us both. It also creates a false impression of inequality. Fair enough, these days many middle aged folks like me are losing their jobs and sliding back down to levels of income they may not have seen in 20 years. Still, if you accept as I do that the cause of the widespread unemployment is inept (and ultimately corrupt) government intervention, then it is hardly fair to blame the free market for their plight. As for the super rich? Those making not ten or twenty times the minimum wage but hundreds of times? Correct me if I am wrong, but I understand they tend not to be on Wall Street. They tend to be music and sports and film stars, many of whom are among the most outspoken Leftists. And while there certainly are celebrity families whose access to sports or music or film stardom is partly based on connections, the lightning of fame also strikes unknowns every year. In a secular-economic apotheosis, they are raised to fame and fortune out of (often) very humble circumstances. It hardly seems indecent of a society that success should come to such people.

  4. I just ran into that same Rauch page researching communitarianism & that's a great piece. That's the direction I've begun to go. Slouching towards reflective equilibrium, y'might say.