I have been intrigued by the swift spread of the ‘Occupy’ movement. It’s already a world-wide phenomenon. While its purpose has not clearly been articulated in the media, it’s got me thinking.
Campbell Jones offers as plausible an explanation and statement of purpose for the movement as any I’ve seen. His Dom Post article is worth a read. Here’s a taster:
The Occupy movement is, however, not only about economic and political forces, but equally about ideas. It objects not only to the remarkable inequalities between and within countries, but also challenges the ideas that have up until now sought to justify those inequalities.
The movement is fighting the idea that unregulated capitalism somehow benefits everyone, and argues instead that it is a system involving systematic inequality that principally serves the interests of a small elite.
Truth is, it is difficult to escape markets in the modern world. New Zealand sells dairy and other produce in the international market. Within New Zealand, buying and selling (a market) is our preferred method of distributing goods and services.
Markets have been working – more or less – since the caveman. (Routine profiteering in markets is relatively new, but that’s another story). Markets are created to efficiently solve distribution issues. But let’s not forget that they are a human construct, to solve human problems.
And markets are not the only solution.
Markets have no intrinsic sense of fairness. A simple market-economy would allocate the bulk of health and education resources to the highest bidder – likely those with the largest inherited wealth. And most people don’t think that’s fair.
If we accept that all people should have free access to decent healthcare and a reasonable level of education, it is because we think everyone should have the opportunities that this brings, and because we think our whole society benefits from it.
In the case of healthcare and education, we decide that a market cannot allocate these resources fairly, and so we find another method of allocating them – according to need.
Yes, the Occupy movement is drawing attention to the way in which resources are unevenly distributed, and the way in which they serve entrenched interests. But the movement is also reminding us that markets are not the only way in which resource allocation questions can be answered. (Think rapid redistribution of wealth during the French Revolution, for example.)
We should never think that markets are the only option. And if we think a market is the right option for any given question, we should always ask how it is set up, and whose interests it is designed to serve. These things can be changed.
In many if not most situations, markets make excellent servants – but terrible masters.