Occupy Wall Street: It's not jealousy, Mr. Cain

by John MacBeath Watkins

Herman Cain, addressing the Value Voters summit, said that the Occupy Wall Street protests are being staged by "jealous" Americans who want to take somebody else's Cadillac.

It's not the first time I've heard this from conservatives. On a boat forum I frequent, one conservative said the following:

"Personally, I feel that if you're unhappy with how much wealth and power others have in relation to yourself, you would be well advised to generate more of same for yourself instead of aimless protesting. And this from a still practicing , leftover child of the 60s."
 It's a theme I've run into often enough -- conservatives equate any criticism of the money/power distribution in this country envy of the "haves." Anyone wishing to regulate the way wealth is accumulated or tax income at, say, a rate far less than that under Nixon, is seen through the prism of envy.

That's a fascinating bit of projection, and a convenient condition for acknowledging the protest. Well, if you don't like what the plutocrats are doing to the country, become a plutocrat! Buy into the power structure you object to, in other words.

Herman Cain has devoted his life to gaining money and power. He admires and envies those who have more of it than he does. He therefore assumes that anyone who objects to the current power arrangements in this country wants what he does, more power and money for themselves.

Mr. Cain, the people holding up signs that use the term "banksters" do not wish to emulate the people who drove our economy off a cliff. They want to reform a system that allowed "banksters" to make themselves rich by taking unconscionable risks with other people's money. They are addressing a problem that you find it inconvenient to acknowledge, that the financial markets failed.

Every economist is familiar with the concept of market failures. They are the result of poorly designed markets, which give rewards for the wrong behavior. However, I doubt Mr. Cain would be willing to admit that markets fail.

Markets, after all, are a human artifact. Conservatives may wish to believe that markets are the natural state of man, but they are constructed and supported by society. Without government to protect property and adjudicate disputes regarding property, markets would cease to function and be replaced by banditry.

Consider this market failure:

The two men were seized as they drove to the airport at Bosasso in Somalia, along with two Somali journalists who had been assisting them, after having completed their assignment for the Telegraph newspapers and website.
It appeared that they were seized by the bodyguards escorting them to the airport, the Telegraph said.
The bodyguards had a contract to safely deliver the journalists to the airport. Because no one enforces contracts in Somalia, they felt free to violate that contract and hold them for ransom instead. In a country like the United States, they could expect agents of the government to track them down, capture them, take their ill-gotten gains through the action of government courts, and imprison them for a long period of time in a government-run gaol.

Now, I suppose the natural extension of Mr. Cain's argument would be that market failures don't happen, because markets exist in a state of nature prior to governments. Perhaps the journalists should have bought their own guns and taken their own hostages if they didn't like the way power is distributed in Somalia.