The Occupy movement — largely fueled by pervasive social media — represents an attempt from “the crowd” to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo. In a way, these protesters are behaving like all the other anonymous bands of groups who engage in civil disobedience, railing against some real or imagined injustice.
Other such groups include: the people running Wikileaks, the Anonymous group of web hackers, illegal music downloaders, and even the students in the UAE who cheat on their final exams by spreading the answers via BlackBerry Messenger. I see a link between these seemingly disparate groups — they all have a beef with “the system” and use technology to fight back.
But my column is really about trying to understand the anger of the Wall Street protesters. Of course, the anger persists in the populations of Americans, Greeks, Spanish, and many other countries. My conclusion — it seems as though politicians and executives have lost sight of their moral compass:
Political conservatives often tout the writings of Adam Smith, the 18th-century author of “Wealth of Nations,” who persuasively argued for the benefits of the free market. In it, he stressed that an “invisible hand” helps guide the market toward providing good for all. Smith said that a businessman would provide more benefit to society than any “lawgiver or statesmen” even though he is “pursuing his own interest”.
Economists such as Marx, Keynes and Friedman have debated for years over whether this “invisible hand” really works. But, capitalism — not government spending — has some clear advantages. Many people have gotten a kick out of seeing protesters on Wall Street getting money out of ATMs and buying Starbucks coffee, for instance. Despite all our complaints, many of us enjoy the comforts of living in a world that free-market capitalism has created.
But, one part of Smith’s philosophy receives too little attention. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith wrote that “by acting according to the dictates of our moral faculties, we necessarily pursue the most effective means for promoting the happiness of mankind.”
Smith assumes that everyone will operate with some type of ethical oversight, what he called referred to as “moral faculties”.
Perhaps more than anything, these protests represent a belief that some corporate executives have lost touch with the idea of virtue — ethical underpinnings about the right way to act that transcend all boundaries. During this economic downturn, many observers have called for a fundamental recalibration of our values. They’ve asked us all to step back for a moment and make sure we’re living life according to the right set of ideals.
Probably a good idea.