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You Can’t Legislate Morality, Wall Street Edition

October 24, 2011

After the Tea Party Takeover of 2010, conservatives celebrated the success of political participation.

Now that Occupy Wall Street has turned the tables, conservatives are trying to write the newly active off as a crazed socialist mob. As Herman Cain said at the most recent GOP Debate, “They’re protesting in the wrong place.” But pundits and politicians alike are missing the point:

OWS protesters are essentially taking a conservative approach to a liberal problem.

The Tea Party is the first modern conservative movement to use protests as a democratic tool, but this isn’t about the method, it’s about the reasoning.

In choosing to protest on Wall Street rather than the National Mall, Lafayette Park, or in front of the Federal Reserve, the OWS protests are appealing to economic actors themselves. They have acknowledged that the the government isn’t solving the problem* and have chosen to concentrate on the free market.

Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly was intended to limit the power of the government by granting specific powers to citizens. These freedoms, powers, and rights would then be used to participate in the government and protect citizens from an abusive government. Citizens have no such rights or protections in the free market. They have the very powerful freedom of choice, yes, but that is limited to purchasing power.

Today, citizens are applying these freedoms to the free market. Acknowledging that economic actors have as much, if not more, decision making power than our elected officials is a resounding statement on our democracy.

Cain’s suggestion that the people protest in front of the White House or the Federal Reserve will fall on deaf ears. He would know that if he looked at why the OWS movement has become so popular. What he suggested was that business leaders should not be held to the same standards of ethics and accountability as political officials. From a business perspective this makes sense: a business man goes to work to profit, he is responsible for himself, his business, and its bottom line. This came up in the first debate, too. Cain had said that the executives of a financial company had “acted responsibly” when it paid large dividends to its shareholders rather than use the funds to “create jobs.” The business, he argued, had satisfied the needs of those it was supposed to be accountable to.

A business can only be liable to its employees and customers, not to the general public. It is the same line of reasoning used when a conservative says that businesses shouldn’t be “limited” by responsibility for pollution or unsafe products.**

It’s the old conservative failsafe: You are responsible for you, and you alone.

You cannot legislate morality.

The question is: will the movement affect business or politics?

After the Tea Party Takeover of 2010, things changed: incumbents were replaced. Then they didn’t. Democrats started listening to the no-longer-silent majority of disgruntled Americans, those that still had their jobs that is. Republicans, even freshman Tea Party darlings, went right on writing the wrong checks, attempting to undo everything the previous Congress did, and discrediting President Obama’s policies.

The Tea Party’s big accomplishment was cleaning house, but one year later very little has changed. Occupy Wall Street’s very existence seems to prove that Americans have lost faith in the very foundation of our democracy: accountability to the voters.

*In this case, the problem being the control of the political system by the financial system and gross economic inequality as a consequence, among other things.

**I don’t buy this cop-out either.

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