What’s Wrong with Economic Justice?
Europe and Occupy Wall Street are setting a terrible example for Arab reformers.


Clifford D. May

Imagine someone showing up at your home and saying: “We’re from the government. We’ve determined that this dwelling has more living space than you and your family need. There are so many people who do not have enough. So we’re going to move another family in with you.”

This actually happened to many people following the 1917 revolution in Russia. Among the legacies of the czars was glaring economic inequality. The new leadership saw that as a serious problem. To solve it required policies designed to achieve “economic justice.” So, overnight, private homes became tenements. And for more than 70 years, the Soviet Union spread poverty.

Fast forward to Europe today which is suffering an acute economic crisis. What has gone wrong in Greece and several other countries may be seen as complicated, involving sovereign debt, liquidity, and fiscal and monetary policies. Or it can be seen as simple: For years, the Greeks have been consuming more than they produce. They have borrowed money and don’t have the means to pay it back. Now they are faced with the prospect of increasing austerity. They think that’s unfair. Thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand economic justice, which seems to mean someone else paying the bills they have run up in the past and plan to run up in the future.

One might have expected Americans — self-sufficient rugged individualists that we are — to scoff at such behavior. But from sea to shining sea, the Occupy Wall Street movement is emulating the Greeks and, in more than a few instances, echoing the Soviets. They, too, are demanding “economic justice,” though it is doubtful that this collection of old New Leftists, wannabe revolutionaries, socialists, anarchists, and nihilists could agree on its definition. At a minimum, they seem to be demanding a universal entitlement to “affordable” housing, medical care, higher education, jobs that pay a “living wage,” and a comfortable, early retirement.

If people have a “right” to these goods and services, it follows that other people must have an obligation to provide them. That would be the rich — the 1 percent who are being demonized as undeserving, greedy, and selfish.

I would argue that the rich are a diverse lot. Steve Jobs, whose father was a Syrian Muslim immigrant, and who was adopted by a working-class American family, became fabulously wealthy. I see no economic injustice in that. On the contrary, during his short life, Jobs contributed enormously to America and the world, enriching, both literally and figuratively, tens of millions of people — not just the investors who risked their money by supporting an eccentric and his wild ideas, but also those who purchased his products, and whose lives and/or businesses were improved as a result.