In the last few weeks the ‘Occupy’ protests have developed from one protest in New York to a global movement, with similar protests appearing globally. The protesters in New York and elsewhere seem to be broadly in favour of less corporate influence over government and oppose the special treatment government shows financial services. Across the world these occupy protesters have adopted an anti market rhetoric which emphasises the disparity of income and the lack of regulation which caused the current financial crisis as primary motivations.
Ironically the occupy protests have a lot in common with another recent American protest movement: the Tea Party. Both the Occupy protesters and Tea Party activists argue for an end to corporate welfare, and for a more transparent and honest political environment. Given that both groups have important similarities it is worth examining why the Occupy movement has spread globally, while the Tea Party movement remains to be copied.
Political narrative and economic rhetoric are both at the heart of why a movement like the Tea Party has not emerged outside of the United States, and why it is unlikely one ever will.
In the United States there is a history of movements like the Tea Party emerging; what has developed in the last few years in America is not unique. The American political culture is conducive to those who believe in individual liberties and free markets, and Americans have a narrative which has at its focus a return to classical liberal roots, which most other countries cannot boast. Tea Party activists are able to play on the reverence almost all Americans have, regardless of their political affiliation, to the Founding Fathers and the spirit of the American Revolution. As the Tea Party developed it became more political and broadened its remit from taxation and economic policy to values and virtues. It was not long before guns and god, two of the three big Gs of American politics, began to feature heavily in Tea Party rallies and events. It is this distinct American flavour which has confined the Tea Party to the United States.
In both America and the rest of the world big government activists have had rhetoric on their side. To make the case for redistribution and increased regulation is easier than making the classical liberal case. Words like ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ have more emotive pull than ‘freedom’ and ‘individualism’. It is easier to convince people of the need to tax the rich more in order to save public services than to make the case for reductions in public spending and lowering taxes. While the cause of the financial crisis is an incredibly complicated matter, arguing that the crisis being a direct result of too little regulation and government oversight is simple and convincing.
The best hope for the classical liberal movement has to be in shifting the economic rhetoric, through discussion and education. When I was at the Occupy protest last week in London I was struck by how many of the protesters believed that advocating the divorce of government and the private sector was incompatible with the free market position. A worrying number of the protesters believed that a support of free markets entailed a support of huge corporations and businesses and the favours they receive from government. It is unrealistic to hope that a movement like the Tea Party will emerge in the UK. In fact a Tea Party movement in the UK would almost certainly be damaging to classical liberals, as such a movement would inevitably become seen as a conservative pressure group. However, through direct dialogue and education classical liberals can show the Occupy protesters and those who support them how a free market system and limited government will not only deliver a safer and more responsible financial service sector, but will do far more to alleviate poverty, promote peace, improve standards of living, and increase social mobility than any government program or mass redistribution of wealth.
Matthew Feeney is a member of the Liberal Democrats and a former staff member at Liberal Democrat Headquarters.