The Fall 2011 YALterns Present #OccupyYourMinds

Joshua Parrish
Nov 21, 2011 at 6:25 PM

Many in the liberty movement have raised excellent questions about the expanding Occupy protests.  Since the latter's inception I have read several great articles critiquing and analyzing this movement, including excellent pieces from the Young Americans for Liberty blog.  I recently decided that there was no better way to get an honest assessment of this movement than physically interacting with "The 99%".

Myself and the other Fall 2011 YALterns were curious to learn more about this movement, so a few weeks ago we decided to pay a visit to Occupy D.C.  We did not want to show up empty handed, and thanks to our friends at Students for Liberty, we didn't have to.  We were able to bring a dozen or so copies of The Morality of Capitalism to donate to "the People's Library."  As we arrived, many of the occupiers were wrapping up an "Anti-Capitalism Teach-In."  Needless to say, this resulted in a significant amount of discussion.  I can happily report that while our views on capitalism were clearly in the minority, the discourse remained quite civil.  

From what I witnessed, the fundamental difference between our views and those held by the majority of the occupiers can be whittled down to Clintonesque semantics ("It Depends on what the meaning of the word is, is.").  Those who spoke up consistently used the terms capitalism and corporatism interchangeably.  While they correctly identified CEOs, managers, business owners, and the like as "capitalists," they failed to recognize that "workers" are capitalists, too.   Workers exchange their labor for currency and that currency for products and services.  This voluntary exchange is in fact, the essence of capitalism.  The occupiers we spoke with seemed to understand the concept of self-ownership, but they did not appear to understand how or why this ownership should be extended to property or the product of one's labor. 

We got an opportunity to talk with several occupiers and hear many different diagnoses of the current problems facing this nation.  Overall, I believe that our attendance and eagerness to engage in civil discourse over these very important issues was a net-positive for liberty.  I cannot say with certainty that any of the occupiers at McPherson Square will actually take the time to read the books we donated.  I can only hope that some of them will be open-minded enough to read something that challenges their current worldview.  We will follow up in a few weeks when we go back to participate in YAL's Choose Charity event.

First of all I'm really impressed by YALers taking the time to go out and actually talk to people on the ground. So much of the news that's been circulating about Occupy--on both the Left and Right--has been based on write-ups (like David Brooks') that essentialize the movement or its participants. This would be bad enough by itself if it weren't also the case that these self-same individuals typically don't bother to interview, listen to and engage active participants in the movement. If this is the face of young conservatism in America, maybe there is hope for a mutually beneficial across-the-aisle dialog on where we are as a Nation.

My only gripe is that a fair treatment of protestors' views would admit of a difference in definition of "capitalist" between YALers and the people putting on anti-capitalist workshops. A capitalist in the Marxist sense, and frankly in a broadly socialist sense, is a capitalist by virtue of her proximity to and control over the means of production. According to this definition, merely engaging in market activity doesn't make you a capitalist. This isn't merely a denigration of capitalism or a hyperbolic criticism of class power disparities in society, it is part of a material analysis of the functioning of the capitalist system. You can, after all, admit that this is empirically the case and still believe capitalism is the best means of social organization on Earth!

This definition of "capitalist" has been in use and accepted for such a long time that there's no reason to dream up a new word just because you are uncomfortable with the old word's acoustics. Let the Frank Luntz's of the world stick to polling and public opinion, and allow words with a history of accumulated meaning to keep on meaning what they mean.

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Great work Joshua.  We also handed out copies of The Morality of Capitalism at the YAL Rally for Capitalism to counter the Occupy event at the University of New Hampshire. 

Where did we get the books?  Clark, the VP of Students for Liberty, spoke at the YAL National Convention in DC this summer.  He told us how to get free books for our YAL chapter.  Thank you SFL!

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