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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

On disrespectful protesters and police-state tactics.

A photo going around Facebook shows an image of an Occupy Wall Street encampment next to an image of shoppers camped outside a store waiting for Black Friday. (See photo on right.) The images are captioned: “Illegal” and “Legal,” respectively. The message is that “we” treat similar gatherings differently, presumably because their attitudes differ toward commerce and other “mainstream” values.

As arguments go, this one is pathetically weak. One obvious point is that those camping out in front of Best Buy did not set up house indefinitely (they’ll be gone when the store opens), nor are they leaving mounds of trash and human excrement all over the place. Even given the sporadic reports of in-store mayhem last Friday, I do not believe any Best Buy lines saw murders, rapes, or armed robberies, as have several OWS sites.

Less obvious perhaps is that the lines in front of stores are there because the stores themselves “invited” shoppers with early opening times. The stores can do that because, for the most part, they are located on private property, either their own or that of the mall or shopping center they contract with. In either case, the “occupation” is part of a consensual relationship between sellers and buyers. OWS, by contrast, is either on private property without the owner’s consent or on public property. This is a difference that matters.

Taking Care of What You Own

Political economy teaches that people take better care of resources they actually own than those they simply use. Best Buy has every reason to make sure that those waiting in line overnight behave themselves, and it has the ability to enforce whatever rules it puts in place. If queuing customers made a fraction of the mess that occupiers have, Best Buy would lose business, hence its incentive to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Aside from Best Buy’s ability to enforce whatever rules it deems necessary, its customers are less likely to misbehave in the first place. This is so not just because they know the property belongs to someone else, but more because Best Buy is offering them something they want. That gives them reason to respect its property. The mutual benefit of commerce creates a very different relationship between those camping out and those who have the right to control the site than does the generally adversarial nature of political protest, especially when the property in question is either public or an ill-defined “privately owned but mandated to be publicly available” space like Zuccotti Park in New York City.

Attempting to compare the peaceful, temporary, respectful lines created by the mutual benefit of commerce with the less peaceful, ongoing, mess associated with political protests — which include demands for redistribution rather than mutual benefit — is an extraordinarily weak bit of political rhetoric.

Violence Against the Nonviolent

The other big OWS topic in the last week or so was the casual pepper spraying of nonviolent protestors at UC-Davis. Even if those protesters were blocking access and even if they had been told to leave or face consequences, the reaction of the campus police was over the top, particularly the casual near-joy the officer took in spraying the protesters as if he were watering his garden. This was not the only violent overreaction by police.

Whatever we as libertarians might think of the views of the OWS movement, we cannot be silent in the face of this sort of police behavior. Responding to nonviolent protests with pepper spray or other physical violence is wrong, and libertarians need to join those on the left who have rightly condemned it. In addition, the news that police actions to remove protesters were coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security should give libertarians even more reason to raise our voices. What we saw last week was yet another symptom of the increased militarization of the police. It does not matter whom such tactics are used against – they are a sign of an encroaching police state.

Perhaps libertarians can offer our friends on the left a little bargain in the process: We will join them in protesting the police-state tactics being employed against OWS if they will join us in protesting the occupiers’ often disgraceful treatment of the small businesses that surround their camps, particularly those run by immigrants trying to make an honest living. The reports of damage to businesses and threats to owners are no less troubling than casual pepper spraying and the like. If you object to violence against nonviolent protesters, you should also object to violence against nonviolent entrepreneurs, especially those struggling to support families.

The lesson from both of these issues is one the occupiers could benefit from: If you want a peaceful, prosperous, and pleasant world, work to encourage commerce and limit the State. It’s the bourgeois virtues of a commercial society that create the orderly sit-in known as the Black Friday queue, and it’s not businesspeople who pepper-spray their patrons.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.