When the Occupiers Got Occupied
As the remaining Occupy campsites in Canadian cities are being dismantled, it is hard to pinpoint any achievement the movement will have been responsible for. Reading the recent headlines, I wonder however if some of the protesters will not be leaving Victoria Square in Montreal with a renewed appreciation of some of the fundamental aspects of the capitalist system they've been denouncing for the past two months: private property, personal responsibility and the rule of law.
One of the most revealing and ironic illustration of the importance of those basic rules occurred last week. As in other cities, the camp had gradually been invaded by drug addicts and homeless persons who found there a place to stay and food distributed for free. The situation finally became untenable: at night especially, there were continual fights, some tents were transformed into shooting galleries, death threats were being uttered.
The occupiers, who had appropriated land that did not belong to them* in the name of a vague right to express their indignation, got a taste of their own medicine: they themselves became occupied!
And how did they react? Just like typical property owners would do when faced with invaders: they asked the police to expel these "undesirables," as they called them. Hilariously, the police said they had no way to justify expelling some of the occupiers while tolerating others. And indeed, from a legal as well as a moral perspective, nobody had more reason to be there than others. The two groups, occupiers and undesirables, are interchangeable, depending on one's perspective.
A group of occupiers then decided to take drastic action to get rid of the undesirables: they refused to give daily food rations to those who could not prove that they participated in the camp's organization. The food distributed in Occupy "people's kitchens" across the continent was of course not bought by the participants themselves but donated by outside organizations and supporters. Occupiers realized that handing over free stuff encouraged unproductive and parasitic behaviour, and that this could not go on without obvious economic and social disadvantages.
For someone who understands the fundamental laws of economics, all of this was of course entirely predictable. This is fundamentally the same problem that our bloated and bankrupt welfare states have been facing for decades. Money does not grow on trees, and getting something in exchange for nothing cannot serve as a basis for a sustainable economic system.
The final blow came when thieves got away with $10,000 out of the $25,000 collected in donations from the public that was being held in an improvised piggy bank in one of the tents. Some of the organizers admitted to the media they had a good idea who was responsible, and that they were… other organizers of the movement!
If we are to believe the official discourse of the occupiers, wealth belongs to everyone, we should tax the rich to give to the poor, and everyone should get as many goods and services as possible for free. So, one might ask, what's wrong with some of the organizers deciding to "spread the wealth" in a way they thought more appropriate?
The reason why we need private property and its legal enforcement by social institutions is precisely to avoid the chaos that would ensue if anyone could take over anything he wanted, be it money, food, or a piece of land.
Private property was invented by our ancestors as an alternative to the barbarian notion that "might is right." It is because we have a widely respected process to determine what belongs to whom that we don't need to protect our personal belongings with clubs or private armies. And the rich are not those who benefit most from such a system: they would have the means to defend themselves anyway. On the contrary, it is those without connections to the rich and powerful who most need the rule of law for protection.
Unfortunately, the occupiers are so confused by their collectivist theories that they can't even logically defend their own interests. The article relating the disappearance of the $10,000 has a picture of the campsite showing a placard with the words (I translate): "Thieves, stop here. We are a people." That may sound poetic, but if wealth belongs to nobody in particular but rather to "the people," then thieves, "undesirables," rich capitalists, corrupt politicians, opportunist Occupy organizers, etc., are also arguably part of "the people" and can justifiably take a portion of it for their own benefit.
Only a clear definition and enforcement of private property can prevent this war of all against all. But of course, a group of activists who believe in private property would never have defined their whole movement as based on the "occupation" of land belonging to others.
Let's hope some of the occupiers at least learned that lesson. Next time they organize a protest, perhaps their demands will be a little more realistic.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon est président et directeur général de l'Institut économique de Montréal.
*Whether the land being occupied belongs to a private sector landlord, as was the case with the Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, or is a public park administered by the municipality, as in Montreal and other cities, is irrelevant. A public park does not "belong to everyone" and cannot be used by anyone as they like. It has usage rules which allow for optimal social benefit. Those who contravene those rules, like the occupiers, violate the rights of other users.