Last Thursday I was a panelist for the Heritage Foundation’s Occupy Wall Street: A Post-Mortem event. During the Q&A session, Alex Cortes of Let Freedom Ring asked a question about the “unseemliness” of today’s capitalist winners. It was part of a larger discussion of what drives Occupy protesters–and if images portrayed in the media and elsewhere of golden parachutes, golf getaways, and sky-high bonus checks might, in part, add fuel to the Occupy fire.
(video added) My segment starts at 12:30:
Research I conducted at The Frontier Lab answers just these questions. In sum, the rank-and-file Occupy protesters (who are quite different from the professional operatives) choose their movement because it fulfills three values: purpose, a sense of meaning, and community. It is only by replacing Occupy as their means for achieving these values that freedom-marketers can hope to promote other American ideals.
Understanding these crucial points shows that debating the unseemliness of capitalism back and forth with an Occupier will be a futile exercise in the near-term.
But outside the Occupy setting, the unseemliness of capitalism remains a question in everyday Americans’ minds. Even at Cornell’s Johnson School the question routinely came up in Business Ethics and other courses preparing us for the incredibly “PC” business world we would be entering.
My answer has always been that the market resolves these questions without government intervention. That when the public decries astronomical displays of wealth, it is not in the shareholders’ best interest to pursue them. Conversely, the market is also the largest reason why businesses invest so heavily in sustainability processes and employee 5K runs for various diseases. As soon as the public tires of these fads–and they will–so too should the business need.
A more interesting question is why observing the grandest successes of our uniquely American system appears to be met with more hostility than in prior generations.
For some, observing the highest levels of economic success impels them to work harder, to produce more, and to provide themselves or future generations with the basis from which to achieve the same, if they wish. In order for that belief to take hold, we must believe that we live in a meritocracy.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters ultimately cannot entertain arguments about the value of the free market because they seek out and embrace a culture of dependency, where advocating for more benefits for themselves and others fulfills their deepest values.
If we are to solve the problem of the Occupiers–and help them in the process–it requires a long-term rejuvenation of the pillar institutions that have provided meaning, purpose, and community to so many throughout history.