This is the third of our four-part series on Occupy Wall Street, transcribed from a recent Heritage Foundation event on the movement.
In part three, Ben Domenech, research fellow at the Heartland Institute and editor of The Transom, reflects on his own interaction with Occupiers and explains why he’s not ready to write them off. He argues that supporters of capitalism need to find a way to reach those who have become disillusioned.
Part 3: The Untrained Grasshopper
I wanted to talk about the response from the right to Occupy Wall Street. The title of a piece I wrote in The City was called “The Untrained Grasshopper.” It is actually a nod to a Thomas Sowell story that he told, reworking with the tale of the grasshopper and the ant. In Sowell’s retelling of it, the ant and the grasshopper start the same way—one working all summer to collect food and then when the winter comes the other asks to partake of it. But Sowell adds another ant to the story who informs the worker ant that he has become educated, and what he’s learned is that the ant has a responsibility to redistribute the food that he has gathered. In fact, the grasshopper shouldn’t have had to ask for it in the first place, the ant should’ve just offered it. It’s an interesting story and I hope that you look it up, because I think there are lessons here for capitalists—the ants who work, and how they respond to grasshoppers, and the educated ants who tell them how things should be.
The way that I understand Occupy from the perspective of talking to the people in Chicago and elsewhere is that they represent a worldview that does demand a response from the right. Far too many of us, particularly those of us who work in politics and policy for a living, have been too quick to dismiss what Occupy represents as simply another uprising from the left in keeping with other more monolithic groups in the past—or that is either Astroturf or something that has been put together in a way that’s not organic. Instead I think it is something that does demand a response from us, because essentially I think it’s a demonstration of a worldview that is foreign to the American historical experience and the kinds of responses we’ve seen to challenges.
Challenges historically in America have been seen as things that are met from the perspective of individuals or communities, neighborhoods of people working together to solve a problem. As an individualistic society that believes in neighborhoods before government agencies, the perspective most Americans had was that when you get knocked down you look to family and friends for help, you look to your neighbor for help, you look to your church for help, you look to people around you for help and you deal with the challenge. You direct your path.
That’s not been the experience of necessarily the European experience or the other experiences around the world historically, where instead of being born into a country where an individual charts their own path, you’re born into a societal structure where things are controlled in ways that are completely outside of your own ability to direct. You’re a sailor on the water and you have no more control over the challenges you face than you have over the waves on the sea. Because of that, when challenges come, the response is almost always an appeal to the powerful other, to the external powers of the entrenched elite, to come in and solve those problems for you. Your destiny isn’t controlled by you but by other forces.
That’s a key difference between the American historical experience and those elsewhere around the globe. We’ve seen that attitude represented most recently in the European protests in Greece and elsewhere. And now we’re seeing it here. My understanding of Occupy after speaking to many of the people there is that they are struggling to understand the concept of destiny from a perspective of people who had far better expectations for their lives than what they’re currently facing.
Here’s one example: There was a quote from a woman who was struggling to find a job who had gone to Dartmouth and who was quoted in the New York Times about two years ago talking about how “we did everything that we were supposed to do, we did everything that they told us to do. … What was the point of all of that work if there is nothing at the end of it?” And that to me doesn’t sound like an ardently leftist statement, it sounds like one that is cry for help, one that says that capitalism is not necessarily something they reject as a system that could work, but they have lost a lot of faith in it.
Here’s another: there’s a Globescan study I cite regularly from about a year and a half ago that charted the reaction of the American public to the financial crisis and to their feelings about whether the free market system was the best system or not and you can see the graph line just dip down to the point where it’s actually gone down from about 80 percent 10 years ago to about 59 percent today, which actually puts us below communist China in terms of whether anticipation of whether the free-market system is actually the best system or not. That should concern people on the right, and if it isn’t the job of people on the right to make the case for free enterprise, whose is it?
From my perspective, the response needs to be one that addresses the essential demands of the people in this movement who I view as persuadable. That doesn’t necessarily include any of leaders, but one of the women that I talked to in Chicago just said flat out, “It’s not that we hate capitalism, we just want it to work again.” And the impression that has really taken hold is that it doesn’t work. Whether the reason that it doesn’t work from their perspective is more complicated than people would like or not, it needs to be something that needs to be addressed in terms of the concerns that they have and I think the way that we address it is one that needs to acknowledge that the American experience in terms of destiny is not one that can be as big as the one that we’ve promised to this next generation of Americans.
Let me be clear what I mean by that, because I think our aspirations need to be focused, even as they remain high. From a young age you’re told that you can do anything, that you can do everything, but that is kind of a trap when you actually think about it. It leads to people who are told that they can essentially study anything they want, they can plan for anything in their lives, they can go anywhere and do everything and they come out at the end and find they can’t do that one thing that they actually need to do in order to have a job, or build a career for themselves.
There’s a line from Walker Percy about a character who is having an epiphany, who suddenly understands that “he is not destined to do everything but one or two things—Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that any possibility is open to him.” And that I think is something that is actually an important distinction to make, that you do have—the whole world is wide open to you but that doesn’t mean that you should try to do everything in life. You can be good without being perfect. You aren’t a disappointment if you don’t become an astronaut.
So I think there’s something that needs to be said from the right for a more conscious understanding of not just the limits of sort of the free-market economy in the sense that you can’t do all of these different things but also that the meritocracy of earned success is the key to human flourishing. This is something that Arthur Brooks and Eric work so much on over at AEI, but it’s an argument I think we on the right have not been quick to make. There’s too much Gordon Gekko and not enough of an understanding of the kinds of arguments that we need to bring to people to be convincing on these points.
What I would just ask you to take away from this event is that there’s not something about the Occupiers which ought to make people on the right stand up and say “we don’t need to talk to them, we don’t need to address their concerns, we don’t need to listen to them, we don’t need to pay any attention to this cause, there all just a bunch of leftists.” That’s simply not true. And I think that the thing we need to recognize about this is that we do ourselves a disservice if, like the story that Sowell tells, if we just concede the point. If we just give in to the idea that these people are going to be lost, that they’re never going to accept the ideas that we have, and conclude we might as well not waste time talking to them, I think we do them a disservice. We do our generation a disservice by not standing up in making the case that the pursuit of happiness is something that’s good, that individual liberty is something that’s good, that you have a birthright claim—not to entitlements, not to realizing all your dreams, not to a list of all sorts of free things—but to that pursuit.