By: Tera Ertz
This essay will endeavor to examine the Occupy Wall Street Movement, for brevity’s sake referred to hereafter as OWS, currently in progress here in the United States. We will look at this movement in the context of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi’s theories of civil disobedience, and the various theories on justice, ethics and religion in the United States. Finally, we will examine what these movements represent in the context of what constitutes a just and prosperous society for its people.
We will compare the injustices, goals, methods, and ethics of the OWS with those of the civil rights movement and Dr. King. First we will examine the idea of income inequality as economic injustice. Second, we will examine the goals of the two movements under various ethical philosophies, particularly those of Dr. King and Gandhi. Third, we will examine the methods employed by the two movements and their ethical justification. Lastly, based on these three areas, we will find that while the OWS does not conform to the philosophical basis underpinning Dr. King and Gandhi, both its premise and its methods are justified under the economic based theory of Marxism.
Income Disparity as Economic Injustice
While Dr. King and Gandhi both addressed the issue of income inequality, this was seen in both movements as a byproduct of the injustice of government violating the natural rights of man to liberty through self-governance. In these two movements, income inequality itself was never the basis for or the target of the civil disobedience practiced by the members. Neither man or movement ever claimed that income disparity alone constituted injustice. The original basis of the OWS was a call by a Canadian company called Adbusters to mobilize against the large banks in order to address the perceived injustice of income inequality in the United States of America (Chappell).We first examine the ethical implication of the claim that America is unjust because of income inequality.
The focus of the OWS grievance centers on the increase in income of the top 1 percent of households. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post calls this theft, and intimates that the Republican Party illegitimately stole money and redistributed it from poor people to rich people in order to achieve this increase for the top households in this country, thus justifying the goal of income equality as a redress of the moral wrong of theft under libertarianism, social contract theory and utilitarianism. On income disparity, in the report he referenced, we find that all income groups saw an increase in income over the course of these years. In examining the history, found in the detail tables supporting this summary, we see that as the share of income of the 1% has grown, so have their tax burden and the number of households that fall into that category, both reducing the disparity through taxation and accounting for some of the increase with more people being considered in the top 1% (CBO).
Next we examine the claim of theft through redistributing from the poor to the rich as put forth by Mr. Robinson to support the claim of income equality as justice. Under the Constitution of the United States, property is rightfully the possession of the individual who earns it. This right to property is supported by the natural law theory of ethics and justice of John Locke and Montesquieu (Lawhead 566). It is incorporated into the Utilitarian philosophy of John Stuart Mill as necessary to a society that benefits the most people (Sandel). And even John Rawls acknowledged the need for property rights, as well as the basis for justification of income inequalities in his A Theory of Justice (Lawhead 588). By these definitions, the money possessed by the rich prior to taxation in fact belongs to them. Further examination of the CBO report demonstrates that as the share of tax burden rose for the top 1%, the share of tax burden fell for the lowest 80% of households, and the income tax burden for the lowest 20% went from 0% to negative 2.9%, or actual income generation from the increased taxes on the wealthiest for the poorest population. This contradicts Mr. Robinson’s claim that the Federal government has been taking money from the poor and middle class to give it to the rich. In fact, under Locke’s philosophy it would indicate that the Federal government may indeed be infringing on the property rights of the rich to benefit the other 80% of society
Finally, on income disparity alone as injustice let us again turn to Rawls and Mill for our definition of economic injustice. Rawls posited the idea that income disparity could only be justified if such disparity benefited the least fortunate. Mill’s Utilitarian outlook posited that a system that resulted in income disparity would be considered just as long as the system brought the most benefit to the most people. The Federal system requires those with more to provide a social safety net for those with the least, while also creating a situation where every segment of the population saw income growth, and the least advantaged benefited directly from the income distribution over the period covered by this study, satisfying Rawls criteria for justice. The majority of people saw financial gains over the course of the study, thus fulfilling the requirement of benefiting the most people demanded by Mill. Under both philosophies of justice, the advances in medicine, technology, agriculture and mobility that have been facilitated by corporations, capitalism and rich people also qualify as net gains for all of society, and thus justify the income disparity they produce.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, because it focused on violation of established rights, rather than on the outcome of income disparity itself, was justified under all of the philosophies noted above. These philosophies do not provide the same moral basis for the OWS stated claim of income inequality alone proving injustice. However, Karl Marx did provide a contrary perspective on property rights in his economic theory of justice that views all capital property as communal (Lawhead 604). Marxist philosophy is not widely accepted in the US, but it can be argued that it provides a basis for the OWS claim of income inequality being in itself an injustice.
Tomorrow: Part 2 – Goals and Motives of King, Gandhi and the OWS
Tags: Tera Ertz, Herman, OWS, poor, communism, Marx, Civil Rights, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, John Locke, Eugene Robinson, CBO
CBO. Trend in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007. 18 November 2011. 5 December 2011.
Chappell, Bill. “Occupy Wall Street: From A Blog Post to A Movement.” 20 October 2011. NPR. 5 December 2011.
Hayat, Ali and Darcy Covert. “Capturing Occupy Wall Street Movement Demands.” 11 November 2011. Huffington Post. 5 December 2011.
Nolte, John. “#OccupyWallStreet: The Rap Sheet, So Far.” 2 December 2011. Big Government. 5 December 2011.
Occupy Wall Street. “Forum Post: Proposed List of Demands For Occupy Wall St. Movement.” 25 September 2011. OccupyWallStreet.org. 5 December 2011.
Robinson, Eugene. “The Study that Shows Why Occupy Wall Street Struck a Nerve.” 27 October 2011. The Washington Post. 5 December 2011.
Sandel, Michael. Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do? Episode 03: “Free to Choose”. Harvard, 8 September 2009.
YouTube. Occupy Wall Street eviction – Protester talking about throwing Molotov Cocktails at Macy’s. New York, 15 November 2011.