The Philosophical Foundations of King, Gandhi and the OWS – Part 1

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

To read more from Tera Ertz, check out The Pursuit of Happiness Show or become her friend on Facebook.

Tags: Tera Ertz, Herman, OWS, poor, communism, Marx, Civil Rights, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, John Locke, Eugene Robinson, CBO



Works Cited

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. 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.


About sswimp

I am not an "African-American'. I am a proud American, who happens to be of African descent. I am Christian. My personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the Word of God shapes my concepts of what it means to be a conservative. I am Pro Life. Devoted to the principles of free enterprise, limited government,and individual responsibility. I believe in the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman.
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5 Responses to The Philosophical Foundations of King, Gandhi and the OWS – Part 1

  1. Strongly suggest adding a “google+” button for the blog!

  2. Your arguments sound very logical at first blush. I take issue with several of your assertions.

    1) Robinson is correct. There are very wealthy folks that did steal vast sums (by fraud) from mostly the working/middle class. This came in many forms including predatory lending, encouraging people to secure mortgages they couldn’t afford, but more commonly by gambling with people’s pension funds on high risk derivatives. I know what you’ll say, that they should have known better than to borrow more than they could afford, and in principal, I tend to agree. However, with 14 million jobs evaporating, many of the borrowers had every reason to believe that they would be able to make the payments. With their pensions having less or no value they can’t subsidize the payments until things turn around. Now when the value of their dream house has gone down the drain and no buyers at any price in sight, they have little choice to default.

    2) The rich do pay a smaller percentage in taxes than the lower income brackets do. I have seen many references to the more than 40% who pay no income taxes. I don’t argue with that assertion but it is not the complete picture and I find it disingenuous. Payroll taxes and sales tax will illustrate. FICA is approximately 12% (split between worker and employer) with a cap at 106,600 (I could be off a bit but it works as an example). Someone earning $106,600 will pay $6396 (6.0%), someone earning $1,000,000 will also pay $6396 or .064%. Losing the arbitrary cap would go a long way to solving any social security issues that could crop up in the 27 years that the SS fund is calculated to be fine. After all, there is a $2 trillion surplus (as soon as the Feds pay off their IOUs). Sales tax is similarly regressive, mitigated by the more expensive items some people buy. But some things just can’t be avoided without living a life of deprivation. Ultimately, even that “freeloader” who pays no income tax ends up paying a much higher percent of their income in taxes.

    3) As for the advances in medicine, technology, agriculture and mobility that have been facilitated by corporations, most of which I could argue that they weren’t such great achievements. I can see no connection between those and the top end’s increase in earnings. In fact, what the big finance guys do has no discernable social value at all. How does moving money around and creating imaginary financial instruments so toxic that they bet against them have any redeeming value what-so-ever. I can’t see how you could defend the obscene bonuses of tens and hundreds of millions (with tax payer financed bail-outs).

    I guess my point is simply that to characterize the OWS as protesting income disparity is to miss the bigger picture of what they’re about. The sign that is most often seen and the chant that is most common is: The Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out. It’s true isn’t it? And it’s not fair that us taxpayers kept the banks afloat with hundreds of billions (and lately it came out that the Fed may have given them trillions) and in return all the banks are happily foreclosing on families and putting them out on the street. All the while, fraudulently robo-signing fake mortgages to back up their claims. Have you read the Official Statement of OWS. It seems to not have made it into the mainstream media, so you may not have. You can find it at Our World Report. I think you’ll find it enlightening and broaden your view of the movement.

  3. terajean says:

    First, I had not read the link you provided before, thank you for the information. It did not however dispute the point that this movement was sparked by a call to arms against income inequality. Nor does it challenge the premise of this paper. Perhaps a clarification of the purpose of this paper would help you better understand. This originally started as a paper for a philosophy class. The assignment required us to address the issue of income inequality in the Civil Rights Movement, Gandhi’s movement and the current OWS, as well as the philosophies involved. There is nothing in the link that goes to the premise of this paper. The paper also does not seek to discredit OWS, but to illustrate the comparison of perceived injustice, goals, motives and methods under the philosophical doctrines practiced in the US. King and Gandhi’s movements both based their doctrines and actions in classical liberal philosophy and religion. OWS finds justification in the philosophies of economic justice proposed by Marx. That is the basis of the analysis, and the link provides no information that would contradict that conclusion.

    As for your arguments, Eugene Robinson made that statement in the context of the tax code, not the spending processes of DC, stealing money from the poor to give it to the rich. That is a patently false statement, as the data tables in the report he was referencing clearly show. Same for your second statement, the rich DO NOT pay less than the poor in taxes, and the poor make money on the tax system. Again, see those tables. If you don’t agree with that, take it up with the CBO. Even your arguments regarding sales taxes, etc. does not hold water. If one person has 10 thousand in disposable income and spends it and pays a tax of 10% and another person has 100 thousand in disposable income and spends it and pays a tax of 10% the person who spends the hundred grand is still paying 10%, but they are paying 10 times more than the poor guy. Yes, those are really generalized numbers, but that’s the beauty of flat taxes that apply equally to everyone, they apply equally to everyone and take more from those who have more as a result.

    As to your last point, please read John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, and then get back to me. If you are unfamiliar with their work, then you will not understand the justification. Put simply, even if those folks aren’t making those things, they are buying those things, thus creating demand, as the supply increases to meet the demand of the very rich and corporations seek to increase their profit by both lowering their costs and increasing their market share the prices on consumer goods drop. This you can now buy a pretty decent laptop for $400 that would have cost three times as much for a computer about a 10th as powerful 10 years ago, because rich people wanted better products and were willing to bear the higher cost of research and development that is always included in new products. This dynamic of rich people liking toys and being willing to pay for them is what has driven innovation across all industries in this country, thus increasing access for all income levels to technological advancements in every area. Whether you believe those advances are good or bad is irrelevant to the argument. Under utilitarian and Rawls’ philosophies of justice, the benefit the most people (Mill) and they benefit the least advantaged in society.

    And last, at no point in this article did I justify the bail outs of banks and other corporations. Please do not project opinions of what you think I was talking about into an academic discussion, it hurts your argument. Thank you for your interesting post, and I hope you have a blessed days.

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