November 5, 2011
Occupy Wall Street and the Founding FathersBy Ron DeSantis
They claim to represent 99% of Americans, but as Democratic pollster Doug Schoen has shown, the protest group Occupy Wall Street is anything but representative of a vast swath of the public. At best, the protesters represent a far-leftward slice of American political thought: they pine for the redistribution of wealth and generally reject the free enterprise system.
Yet, this stubborn fact hasn't stopped the media and left-wing pundits from serenading the movement with praise. One writer has even argued that "our founders would ... be standing on the front lines of the Occupy Wall Street movement ... were they around today."
Is the Occupy Wall Street protest our generation's version of the Boston Tea Party? Would George Washington, if he were alive today, eschew Mount Vernon in favor of a tent in Zuccotti Park?
Not a chance.
Much of what the Occupy Wall Street movement seeks isn't new. The Founding Fathers -- particularly those who participated in creating the Constitution -- rejected many of the very ideas that the protesters espouse.
Take, for example, the "demand" of Occupy protesters that governments simply extinguish "all debt on the entire planet[,] period." This is beyond foolish, but even if one (charitably) construes this demand to be primarily concerned with debts involving student loans, consumer credit, and home mortgages, it is still the type of idea that the Founders decried.
In The Federalist No. 10, James Madison argued that the principal benefit of the Constitution's configuration was its tendency to stymie "wicked projects" such as a "rage for ... an abolition of debts." Under Madison's view, the legislative abolition of debts, while perhaps providing temporary relief to a debtor, demoralizes creditors, undermines a critical component of the economy, and harms the public good.
The obsession of the Occupy Wall Street protesters with the redistribution of wealth is similarly at odds with the views of the Founders. Put aside the sheer irony of the fact that some of the protesters are crying foul because a wave of thievery in Zuccotti Park has resulted in the redistribution of thousands of dollars' worth of their personal property to opportunistic thieves. Or the fact that the some of the same protesters demanding "free" college education are beside themselves that homeless people have been raiding the park "kitchen" for "free" food.
To be sure, if the protesters were simply mad that some very wealthy people enjoy their riches by feeding off the government trough -- whether through taxpayer-financed bailouts or other artificial privileges -- then they would be expressing a sentiment shared by the overwhelming majority of Americans, including and especially Tea Party activists.
But the protesters' views are not so narrowly confined. They seek to engineer a synthetic equality of outcomes through what Schoen characterizes as a "radical redistribution of wealth."
To these protesters, government's power to tax is an instrument of "social justice," not merely (or even) a means of raising revenue for government's basic functions. Those who have enjoyed spectacular financial success -- even if unrelated to finance and unaided by the taxpayer -- are the subject of their redistributionist wrath. Under their view, it is not "fair" that some earn more than others, so government must level economic outcomes.
The Founding Fathers believed in equality before the law, but they rejected the notion that there should (or could) be an equality of economic outcomes in a free society. At the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton pointed out that an equality of property was neither possible nor desirable and "that an inequality would exist as long as liberty existed, and that it would unavoidably result from that very liberty itself." For his part, James Madison warned of the deleterious effects of the "leveling spirit" (which sought the redistribution of property through government action) and he designed the Constitution, in part, to inhibit the implementation of redistributive schemes.
Given their radical redistributionist ambitions, it is not surprising that the protesters are proudly couching their movement in terms of class warfare. Signs such as "Say Yes to Class War," "Class War Right Now," and "Class War Ahead" litter the protest crowds throughout the country.
Founding Fathers such as Madison considered class-driven conflict to be a danger that American institutions needed to avoid. Madison noted how the unequal distribution of property has traditionally "divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good."
A major key to establishing a successful republic was to establish a constitutional design that muted this tendency. The elected official, imbued with a sense of "patriotism and love of justice," was supposed to harmonize these competing interests, not exacerbate tensions between them through demagogic rhetoric, as President Barack Obama has done.
Some have argued that the Occupy Wall Street movement represents righteous indignation at those elite financial institutions that precipitated the economic downturn. The protests, though, are occurring three years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the enactment of the bank bailout.
Indeed, the actions of the protesters plainly cannot be explained merely by a reaction to the financial crisis -- they have staged targeted protests against wealthy individuals, such as Charles Koch and Rupert Murdoch, who had nothing to do with the financial crisis of 2008 but who offend the protesters because they reject leftism.
To be sure, the protesters have not made any effort to protest outside of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac -- even though those institutions were a major factor in the distortion of the mortgage market and a major cause of America's economic collapse. If anything, Fannie and Freddie are precisely the types of government institutions that the protesters believe should be a more pervasive component of the American economy.
At bottom, the Occupy Wall Streeters are not the second coming of the Founding Fathers. The Founders placed a premium on individual liberty. The protesters are statists whose outrage is selectively directed at private industry and who seek a vastly expanded role for the federal government.
Occupy Wall Street's political prescriptions -- the radical redistribution of wealth, the exacerbation of class tensions, and the abolition of debts -- represent ideas that the Founding Fathers held in contempt and wanted to prevent.
If they were around today, would Founding Fathers like Madison, Washington, and Hamilton really repudiate their work at the Constitutional Convention and the principles outlined in The Federalist Papers so that they could hang out in a messy, disorganized camp populated by disgruntled leftists?
It is unlikely that they would be interested in taking a mulligan on the American Revolution.
Ron DeSantis is the author of Dreams From Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama.
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