When you look at the Occupy Wall Street protest and the cascading imitations now in play across North America, it would be a grand mistake to write the protesters off as misinformed. While in some cases, they are that, some are also well-intentioned.
Writing them off also risks missing at least two possible animating motivations that need to be addressed: a desire for equality and concern over poverty.
The Occupy protesters have a plethora of complaints, including how profit is private but financial losses are socialized, the existence of pollution, stagnating wages and home foreclosures.
But some demands can be contradictory. For example, more jobs and a better environment should not always be placed in opposition to each other. Entrepreneurs who invent ecologically-friendly technology are a good example of business and environmental interests working in concert.
On a more specific and recent issue – the disruption of land if an oil pipeline from Canada to the United States is built but which will put unemployed Americans back to work – protesters who want more jobs but also oppose disturbance to the landscape are not being realistic.
While I sympathize with the protesters’ concerns, those sincerely interested in creating a better world must understand that slogans, demands and a snap of the finger won’t do it. To reduce poverty, foment prosperity and avoid political favouritism for anyone, here are a few principles protesters should promote:
Principle One: Subsidize only people in need, never the wealthy or corporations. People occasionally need help. The debate comes down to who should do the helping. One thing that is clear, however, is who doesn’t need a subsidy: the wealthy and corporations. My rationale is not difficult to understand: the wealthy don’t need income transfers from taxpayers; as for companies, they are artificial entities which will rise and fall. So let them.
Real people work in companies and that’s the point: it is human beings down on their luck who should receive help, not corporations which come and go. Trying to ‘save’ corporations through taxpayer money only sets government up to intervene between competitors and to pick winners and losers.
Wall Street protesters are right to oppose the socialization of losses on Wall Street and the same goes for Detroit automakers and any other situation where private losses are paid for by taxpayers.
Principle Two: Be neutral in tax policy
Whether in Canada or the U.S., the personal and business tax codes are riddled with loopholes disguised as ‘tax credits, deductions’ and ‘exemptions.’ Regardless of where one thinks the overall tax levels should be, job creation (except for accountants) could be helped by broadening the tax base and simplifying collection. Lower, flatter and simpler taxes are always preferable to higher, convoluted and confusing taxes.
Principle Three: Always favour consumers over producers
Want cheaper food prices for the world’s poor? Then stop favouring farmers or anyone else with subsidies, protective barriers and ‘supply management’ boards (which are essentially cartels). All that does is protect the market share and prices of producers at the expense of consumers. Instead, embrace open competition.
Principle Four: Oppose government-sponsored “Ponzi” schemes.
Governments throwing another borrowed billion or trillion dollars at the economy is an attempt to generate political returns now at real costs to future generations. Such a ‘Ponzi’ scheme forces the last people in to pay for the services received by previous generations as well as their own, in the form of higher future taxes to pay off the debt.
Principle Five: Favour opportunity, wherever it appears.
Some Wall Street protesters decry so-called entry-level jobs but that’s an insult to those who hold them and who work hard to improve their lives. There is great dignity in all work, in any field.
So, in general, embrace opportunity. Look at what it did for Steve Jobs. Consider how he improved the world with his inventions and entrepreneurial drive. Ponder how many people’s lives he improved with employment and expanded opportunities.
Mark Milke is a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.