The Corner

Occupy Wall Street and that Elusive Fairy Tale Ending

He was a fairly well dressed and sometimes well spoken middle-aged man and, having given me the typical anti-corporate screed, he wanted to talk about Walt Disney. This piqued my interest. But then he surprised me: “Walt Disney,” he said, “was a whore….How much money have they made out of Snow White….Why can’t we start using it in mashups or whatever…?” 

Leaving aside the possibility that anybody who chooses to make the availability of copyrighted video footage the central feature of their revolutionary platform most likely has too much time on their hands — it is the equivalent of responding to Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal “let them eat cake” with an inquiry as to which flavor she was offering — the conversation that followed perfectly highlighted the basic difference in attitude between those on the statist left and those on the free-market right. As Kevin Williamson might say, it basically comes down to risk.

Walt Disney made a lot of money from Snow White, something my new friend considers unfair. But then Walt and his brother Roy also took a lot of risk. Originally estimating that the movie would cost $250,000 to make, the final bill ended up at around $1.5 million, in 1937 dollars. During the three grueling years of production, Walt was almost universally laughed at for his ambition, including by his wife and brother. In Hollywood, the project was known as “Disney’s Folly,” in part because the studio quite literally had to invent most of the processes necessary for the production of a full-length animated film. It had never been done before, and he was banking the studio’s future on it turning out alright. Through sheer will and charisma, and the hard (if skeptical) work of his brother Roy, Walt managed to borrow enough money to realize his vision. And here is the kicker — he also remortgaged his house to help pay for it. 

I told my OWS friend this in response to his appraisal, albeit in less detail. His response: “So what? I lost my house…I filed bankruptcy twice trying to play the game with their rules.”

Well, in a free society that will happen. Markets go up. Markets go down. You win some, you lose some. Walt Disney could well have lost everything; the smart money was certainly on his doing just that. But he didn’t — he followed his instincts, he risked everything, and he struck gold. Almost overnight, he became one of the most famous and popular men in the world, and he blazed a trail we now know all too well. I do not know what my interviewee did in order to become bankrupt twice, but I find it hard to believe that his story is anything more than that he lost a game that carries a real risk.

There is a case to be made that Wall Street managed to circumvent the consequences of the risk game, thus avoiding having to take the rough with the smooth. There is an argument that the bankers relied on the sort of welfare that those of us on the economic right like to disparage. It is complex topic — while culpability for the financial crisis is spread widely enough to render the witch-hunt mentality of the OWS crowd hopelessly simplistic, we should nonetheless have some sympathy with the sentiment that there was an injustice somewhere. What we should have absolutely no sympathy for whatsoever, however, is the naked rejection of the American system, as espoused by my Disney-hating friend. Whatever one thinks of Wall Street, Walt Disney won fair and square and deserves our veneration not our oppobrium.

It is the sort of attitude displayed by this protester, which I have encountered widely, that devastates their wider cause. Were the Occupy Wall Street movement focused like a laser on the bailout, their complaint would warrant serious examination. But where there is a general opposition to capitalism, to the opportunity to get rich, and to risk in general, it is hard not to ask the question of whether the bailout is just a convenient excuse to recruit useful idiots to a more insidious cause. The gentleman in question started his conversation with me by saying that “we have to get rid of the economy as it works. It doesn’t work.” That, I am afraid, is indicative of a general principle, and not a specific opposition to one policy. For all that the signs intimate that a good system has been corrupted or rigged, the words which accompany them tell you that the system is the problem and has to go. 

What chance of an Occupy Disneyland?