For the past month, thousands of Americans have “occupied” a park near Wall Street in New York, as well as many other American cities. The so-called Occupy Wall Street (OWS) throngs have had a hard time agreeing on a coherent list of demands, but they seem to agree that America’s free enterprise system—or what’s left of it—has got to go. They look at America and see greed, inequality, and a top one percent of income earners who take more than their fair share, and leave the rest of the 99% percent, supposedly, in destitution and poverty. If there’s one policy the protesters seem to agree on, it’s that the government needs to confiscate the wealth of this one percent and give it, apparently, to the protesters.
We’ve encountered a few well-meaning Christians who agree with the OWS movement. This concerns us, because Occupy Wall Street has mixed up a few legitimate concerns with envy and economic confusion.
The protestors are right to be bothered by the cozy relationship between the federal government and some businesses and banks. During and after the 2008 financial crisis, Americans sensed that the rules were manipulated and suspended for the politically well-connected. We saw the government protect and bail out certain banks and businesses because they were supposedly “too big to fail.” Whatever you call this—crony capitalism, crony socialism, corporatism—it’s a problem.
Some businesses are only too happy to solicit government favors to protect themselves from competition and to regulate and restrict their competitors. And we saw several keep their private gains but pass their losses on to taxpayers. Politicians for their part often assume the authority to pick winners and losers in the economy, using other people’s money. This is wrong, and we ought to denounce it, just as we would denounce a referee who tried to change the rules to benefit one team in a football game or any athletic competition.
But cronyism is not an example of the free market at work. As Christian friend and economic adviser Dave Ramsey points out in a recent column, the OWS protesters don’t seem to realize that tea partiers and defenders of the free market oppose these policies, too.
OWS is also fueled by the fact that millions of Americans are hurting. Unemployment has been over nine percent for most of the last three years, and most experts think that won’t drop much for the next year. Many of the protesters are disillusioned college students who have tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, but can’t find jobs that pay well enough to repay their debt. Our hearts go out to them.
So what do the OWS partisans propose to do about unemployment? Instead of calling for policies that free up business and entrepreneurs to invest in the future, they have issued scatter shot attacks on free enterprise, business, corporations, and the wealthy in general. Most of their unofficial list of demands calls on Congress to expand its power over business, the economy, and our lives.
Where do they think jobs come from? It’s been said that few people were ever employed by the poor. The last thing businesses and entrepreneurs need is more discouragement from the federal government.
Just because a few businesses seemed to conspire with government to escape the disciplines of the free market, and a few may have broken the law, that doesn’t mean that business, free enterprise, or financial success is the problem. It doesn’t mean that “Wall Street” is the problem. “Wall Street is a street that people drive on,” Dave Ramsey notes.“The New York Stock Exchange is a building where people exchange stocks in New York. This is the flea market of the financial world.” Where do the occupiers think businesses like Apple go to raise the capital to create jobs in the first place? Without a stock exchange, all of us would be much poorer.
Unfortunately, the occupiers don’t seem to understand how a free economy works. They imagine that the only way for Peter to get rich is by robbing Paul. Poverty, they imagine, is a side effect of wealth. Market competition leads to mass destitution.
But as we explain in detail in our forthcoming book, Indivisible, free enterprise does not mean that anything goes. The rich are not free to steal and defraud others. A free market is played according to certain rules. It only exists where there is respect for the rule of law, enforceable contracts, property titles, and the like.
Sure, there are winners and losers when businesses compete for the same customer, but free enterprise is not a zero-sum game overall. It’s a win-win game, where the success of our neighbors often benefits us as well. That doesn’t mean we all end up equally well off. It does mean that we’re all better off in a system that provides opportunities, rather than guarantees or entitlements, and that rewards hard work, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and creativity.
As Dave Ramsey says: “Sure, there are some scoundrels, but the vast majority of successful men and women got that way by working hard and serving people—lots of people.” Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who recently died from pancreatic cancer, did not get rich by stealing his wealth from the other 99% of the population. He got rich by hard work and ingenuity, which ultimately created wealth for himself and for others. The same is true for many, if not most, successful business people in this country.
Many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters have iPhones and iPads, and benefit in untold ways from the productivity of the reviled “one percent.” In fact, without modern technologies, these protests, staged from New York and Philadelphia to San Francisco and Seattle, would never have gotten off the ground.
Besides their economic confusion, many of the protesters are consumed with the sin of envy. Though their outrage is often camouflaged as moral indignation, if you read the comments of the OWSers, you soon discover that many of them hate people who have more than they do. They should remember what Jesus said: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
Ironically, compared to the poor in the developing world, most of the OWSers are wealthy. We’re not just talking about Hollywood liberals like Michael Moore and progressive evangelical Jim Wallis, whose annual incomes are already close to the top one percent of income earners in the US. The occupiers’ incomes, on average, are almost surely in the top five to ten percent worldwide. They have benefited from free enterprise, whether they know it or not. And now they seek to destroy it.
We should do what we can to make sure that everyone plays by the same rules in the market. Policies that privatize profit but socialize loss have no place in a free and just economy. The OWSers are right to be upset about cronyism and high unemployment. In a time of economic hardship, however, we must resist the false prophets of the politics of envy.
We suggest you take Dave Ramsey’s challenge seriously. “And stop complaining that companies are TOO RICH while also complaining that they aren’t RICH ENOUGH to hire you! I’ve seen a lot of you guys. I wouldn’t hire you, either. But if you take all of that energy and excitement and pour it into something new and creative, you’ll get the chance to serve a whole lot of people really well, and over a decade or two, you’ll get to become the very thing you’re now protesting: rich people who actually earned their money.”