Occupy DC and the Rule of Law

Over at Moneybox, Matt Yglesias writes that “a misguided offshoot of the Occupy DC movement managed to briefly occupy the vacant Franklin School building which the city is looking to sell. Their idea was to stage a sit-in ‘vowing to stay inside the school until it is converted for community use.’”

Matt writes, correctly, that the right public policy is to sell this vacant government building to the highest bidder, which is likely to be a for-profit entity. But the reason these protesters are misguided goes far beyond the specifics of a land-use question—even if the correct public policy were for the government to retain this property or give it to a non-profit, the protesters’ actions would still be misguided.

The real problem with the Franklin School Occupation is that the Occupiers showed contempt for the rule of law. Rather than trying to cause the government to make policy choices they agree with through legal channels—either by influencing electoral outcomes or lobbying elected officials—the Occupiers’ strategy is to illegally interfere with the operations of government in order to prevent Washington DC’s duly elected mayor and council from using their legal authority to sell this property.

The action also reflects the Occupiers’ rejection of the idea of excludable property. While the Franklin School is publicly owned, that does not mean that any given member of the public has a right to be in the building, just like I can’t waltz into the Lincoln Bedroom or take up residence at the DMV. But across the country, Occupiers have asserted their “right” to use public and private property in ways contrary to the rules set out by the owners.

The rule of law and private property are good institutions which have served Western society well. They are fundamental underpinnings of the mixed economy. Unless you are an anarchist or a communist—and most of the Occupy protesters are not—you should want to retain these institutions. So why are elements of the mainstream Left getting so swept up in a movement that seeks to undermine them?

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