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Libertarians and Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street has come under fire from some libertarians, on the grounds that it’s relatively silent about the role of big government, and its proposed remedies lean heavily toward increased government intervention.

But it’s quite understandable that many in the Occupy movement position themselves in opposition to the “free market” and in favor of government intervention.  After all, ever since they were born they’ve heard loathsome cretins like Dick Armey, Tom Delay, along with the usual suspects on CNBC and the WSJ editorial staff, defend corporate capitalism as we know it and the unbelievable concentration of wealth and power as the result of “our free market system.”

Every time you look at a debate on economic policy, the liberal is saying the free market can’t be left to itself because the inevitable result is polarization of wealth and corporate tyranny.  And the conservative is saying corporate tyranny and polarization of wealth are good things,  and that government should stay out of it.

All the things the Occupiers are rightfully against, like the plutocratic oligarchy and abusive corporate power, they’ve seen defended — or attacked — in terms of “our free enterprise system.” If I thought the free market meant what Dick Armey said it was, I’d hate it too.

It’s not their fault they’ve never heard a free market critique of corporate power, never heard someone pointing out that big business is the biggest beneficiary of big government, and never heard an argument for why genuine, freed market competition would operate as dynamite at the foundations of corporate power.

Even many libertarians who at least sometimes pay lip-service to condemning corporatism, it seems, are inclined to react defensively when they see what Nixon used to call the Dirty Effing Hippies criticizing big business.

There’s a virally popular graphic making the rounds, a wide-angle photo of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, with objects tagged “Cameras from Canon,” “Phone from Apple,” etc.  This is just the umpteenth iteration of a recurring meme, each time presented with a knowing smirk as if it were some sort of original or witty observation — despite the fact it’s already been dragged out by everyone, including a third-rate hack reporter at CNN.

It’s a right-wing mirror image of the popular liberal “argument”: “But how would we get our roooaaads?!!” To look at the technological products which arose within a corporate-state economy, and to argue that anyone who uses those products is a hypocrite for criticizing corporate statism, is about as wooden-headedly stupid as Elizabeth Warren arguing for some sort of “social contract” where everyone’s obligated to pay “their fair share” because they rely on taxpayer-funded roads or police.

One might as well take a photo from Tiananmen Square or from Moscow in the last days of the Soviet Union, and attach tags like “Bauxite from the Ministry of Non-Ferrous Metallurgy,” “Cameras from Ministry of Consumer Electronics,” etc.

As Charles Johnson, of the advisory board at the Center for a Stateless Society, puts it:  “… if your aim is to use visual rhetoric to lodge a criticism of the people at Occupy Wall Street, then an image whose upshot is, roughly, ‘the activities of giant corporations inescapably pervade absolutely every aspect of your everyday life’ … may not actually be as effective a criticism as you think it is.”

There’s nothing hypocritical about making the best choice available from the limited range of alternatives, despite paying rents in the process to companies in whose interest that range of alternatives was restricted, and simultaneously criticizing the injustice of hooking those companies into this system of state-enforced monopoly.  That’s for the very same reason that there’s no hypocrisy involved in using state roads or post offices as the best alternative given one’s limited choices, while still criticizing the state.

The folks occupying Wall Street are right on the mark when it comes to identifying the central evil in our economic system, regardless of sometimes fuzzy perceptions of the causality at work and wrongheaded proposals for remedying it:  The unholy alliance of big business with the state, and the plutocracy that’s enriched itself beyond human comprehension by extracting rents from the rest of us.

There are libertarians who get mad when they see Dirty Effing Hippies attacking big business, and there are libertarians who get mad when they see “libertarians” defending it.  Whether or not libertarianism is a relevant movement for our time depends on which side wins the battle for its soul.

Kevin Carson is a research associate at the Center for a Stateless Society. his written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online.

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Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

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