My initial gut reaction to the Occupy movement was to dismiss it with a sneer. I had spent many of my post-secondary education years witnessing incoherent, ineffective, and politically-stunted protests, and I assumed that the Occupiers were cut from the same cloth. Most of the news reports I came across (both hostile and friendly) seemed to only confirm my assumption, yet the Occupy Wall Street concept has picked up steam in a way that other such movements have not. Considering that the main message, if one can be found, of the protest is against too much corporate power, libertarians in the States seriously debated if they are missing the boat by failing to engage with this crowd.
The case for engagement is that libertarians basically agree that corporations have too much power. This, however, is not a flaw with a free market system but the result of government cronyism with certain businesses. If libertarians participate and engage, then they can focus at least part of the ire on government interventionism. Perhaps they could even convert some of the current Occupiers to libertarian thought.
I was skeptical but the argument was strong enough that I wanted to test it, or at least satisfy my curiosity by looking into the Occupy Toronto protest.
Unfortunately the crowd that took over the St. James Park last Saturday was exactly the sort of people that I knew so well in university. Between giant posters of Chairman Mao and Karl Marx, I saw signs that ranged from the bizarre to the painfully ignorant. CUPE, Mohawk Warrior, and Communist Party flags were visible throughout the park and so were drum circles chanting such classic hits as, “state democracy, is hypocrisy.”
I saw a sign that blamed Rob Ford for the holder’s student debt and a sign that blamed Stephen Harper for the income distribution over the last 30 years. There was the shocking, such as a man holding up a sign titled “Kill the Rich.” And the obscene, such as a child wearing a sign asking “what is my market value?” As Plato himself once wrote, it is just not possible to enter into a rational discussion with a crank (I paraphrase).
Still there were those there who were trying. One of the first things that I noticed when I got there was a giant Ron Paul banner. After walking around a bit to see the place for myself, I approached this group and asked them why they were there. The apparent leader of the group agreed to let me record him and you can see his answer here, which is mostly the same as the argument I described above.
I asked him how he was being received and he said that he was getting some negative responses but mostly people appeared happy to see him there. While I talked to him a smiling man walked up to us to show us his Ron Paul tattoo.
I saw one other man in the crowd who was holding a sign declaring that he was against crony capitalism and not capitalism. Also I was told that there was at one point a man dressed up as Atlas--a reference to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. So it does seem that libertarian views were present even if they were dwarfed by the unabashed communists.
Encouraged, my girlfriend, who had come with me, wanted to make a sign of our own. We found some organizers who were providing material for signs and asked only that the sign couldn’t be “against anything.” With this vague instruction in mind we settled on the whimsical and obscure words “who is John Galt?” as our sign.
After walking around with this sign for a while we were set upon by a number of Occupiers. At first they couldn’t believe that our sign was serious and they demanded to know the meaning of it. I explained that we were trying to express, obliquely, that the 1% was needed.
What followed was what I can only describe as a waste of breath. As I tried to make my case, I faced absurd claims, such as citizens of the Soviet Union being immune to the profit motive, and derisive sneers in the place of argument. Eventually one of them accused me of being racist for saying that capitalism was primarily responsible for advancing standard of living.
Of the eight people that we were talking to, only one appeared at all interested in having an honest discussion and I suspect that the ire of the others would have been worse if he hadn’t dampened them repeatedly.
So no, I don’t think libertarians should bother to engage with the Occupy Toronto crowd because they are simply not interested in listening. Even if my experience was atypical, I have to wonder what the point would have been. Much like the protests in my old university’s quad, the Toronto Occupation isn’t going anywhere. It isn’t going to accomplish anything. By showing up libertarians are only confirming that they belong among the cranks and the fringe.