In the comments to Tina Griego’s recent favorable column on the “Occupy Denver” movement (http://www.denverpost.com/ci_19375895?source=bb), I noticed a cartoon showing how much more respectable the Tea Party participants are than the Occupy participants, various comments about how “sad” and otherwise disreputable the latter are, complaints about the “liberal media” and its fellow travelers dismissing the Tea Party as a radical fringe movement, and at least one completely gratuitous xenophobic rant blaming all of the woes of the “Occupy” participants on illegal immigrants (and illegal immigration on Tina Griego). Mere non-condemnational attention to those protesting Wall Street is enough to unleash a torrent of those simultaneously reviling them and rallying to their never-mentioned ideological counterpart. It’s clear that not only is our government caught in the gridlock of two opposing political ideologies (at least one of which is too uncompromising for any cooperative action to be achieved), but our nation and population are also caught in a tug-o-war between two diametrically opposed (but in many ways overlapping) movements.
Several commenters engaged in the remarkable contortion of simultaneously dismissing the participants of the “Occupy” movement as subhuman parasites, while bitterly complaining that liberals have dismissed the participants of the Tea Party movement in a similar fashion. This in itself almost completely captures the underlying essence of the ideology these folks are embracing (so lost in an in-group/out-group world view that identical actions are defensible when they commit them but reprehensible when their “enemy” does). But they do have a point: While their movement is almost completely saturated in this attitude, their opposition exhibits far too much of it as well. It is one thing to make unflattering but accurate observations; it is another to foam at the mouth while doing so.
So let’s transcend the debate about which movement is more irrational and belligerent, and contemplate the movements themselves. I have criticisms of both the Tea Party and the “occupy” movement, and see some legitimate points being made by each. For example, I think the “Occupy” movement errs by trying to claim that any otherwise illegal act is protected by the Constitutional right to free speech, and the Tea Party movement is correct that the exercise of power by government is problematic and difficult to control. But, taken on balance, I do indeed consider the “occupy” movement to be more on target than the Tea Party, not based on comparisons of how the respective members of the two groups dress or clean up after themselves or who is better employed or any other misdirectional irrelevancies, but rather because the content of the concerns of one is closer, in my assessment, to what is most economically and politically rational to be concerned about. In other words, my relative support of the two movements is based on their substance, not their form.
The basic divide is between those who see government as the primary threat to liberty, and those who see large corporations as the primary threat to liberty. An argument can be made for both, and both spheres of power are certainly problematic. Both are comprised of entities which exert formidable control over our lives, profoundly affecting us all in service to the welfare of some more than of others. Both also serve valuable purposes, either producing wealth or acting as a collective agent negotiating the challenges we face as a polity, respectively. Both are necessary, and both need to be subject to checks and balances such that we do our best to maximize their benefits to our welfare and minimize their costs to our welfare, all things considered.
But the emphasis on reducing the power of government is a strategy which reduces the one nexus of power which is at least somewhat controlled by a democratic process, in favor of the other major nexus of power which is not at all controlled by a democratic process. The result is to cede power to the more despotic and less democratic vehicle through which power is exercised, leading to more rather than less tyranny.
In the modern era, democratic, constitutional government is less the vehicle of tyranny than the bulwark against tyranny. It is still problematic; those who exercise power within it are still hard to rein in and control; the “agency problem” of ensuring that our agent (our government) acts in the interests of the principal (the people) rather than of the agent and its allies (the government officials themselves, and those who do the most to keep them in power) is an ever-present and very real challenge we must face. But, in the case of government, well established, long-standing, and relatively (if imperfectly) effective mechanisms exist for confronting that agency problem. In the case of corporations, only very weak and difficult to implement mechanisms (such as boycotts) exist to do so.
Government is the portal through which we, as a polity, have the opportunity to stand up to, tame, and channel the loci of power that inevitably exist, and that can serve broader or narrower interests depending on how well we continue to refine our social institutional arrangements. To relinquish that one opportunity in fear that we can’t control it after all is to relinquish our liberty completely, and surrender to power over which we have no effective control at all instead.