When the Occupy Wall Street protest began, most Americans didn’t know what to make of it. Some immediately passed judgment (“They’re just a bunch of want-to-be hippies!”), some immediately took to its defense (“They just want equality!”), but most people watched in a mix of confusion, appreciation, fear and fascination.
“Millennials” – that is, people born in the 1980’s and ‘90’s – have the most at stake when judging this protest, which is disproportionately driven by their peers. And Millennials have reason for frustration. We’ve come of age during a global economic slowdown, and many are struggling to find entry-level jobs in the worst job market in recent history. Many heeded advice about a college degree as a ticket to a good job and career, and now face student loan bills in addition to lousy job prospects. The youth unemployment rate hovers around 18 percent.
But Occupy Wall Street isn't just a protest against the general economic condition. Protesters have coalesced around a specific agenda, or at least a list of demands or changes they’d like to effect. Millennials should thoughtfully consider whether or not we, as a generation, really want to align ourselves with the ideas represented by OWS.
Here's a laundry list of OWS's demands: Stop corporate cronyism, abolish corporate personhood, eliminate private contributions to politicians, reject the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, apply the “Buffett Rule” to our tax system, implement single-payer health reform, pay off the national debt, expand the powers of the EPA, forgive student loans, end the federal reserve by moving it into the Treasury Department, end the wars, end outsourcing, reform immigration and public education… and the list goes on.
It’s difficult to fit all these demands into one coherent philosophy about society and government. But there's a theme at least: Too much control is concentrated in the hands of the few, while the little guy – the “99 percent” – is left with the short end of the stick.
That's a sentiment that many, perhaps even most, Americans can relate to. Washington has long been too cozy with big business (including green energy companies like Solyndra). Payouts to politically-connected companies create a disadvantage for less-connected competitors, and leave taxpayers and everyday citizens to foot the bill.
Another legitimate concern is with the national debt. Previous generations have spent excessively, and now the effects of the resulting debt – future tax hikes, economic uncertainty, even political polarization and class warfare – are left for Millennials to deal with.
Yet if Millennials correctly identify the source of the problem that faces them— that government and big business have become too powerful and corrupt—their proposed solutions almost uniformly fail at the task of actually addressing that problem. How will individuals be empowered if we simply give more money and control to the government?
Other OWS demands contradict themselves: How will we expand entitlements (such as single-payer health care or free college tuition) and pay off the national debt at the same time? How can we increase taxes on job creators and expect that more jobs will be created?
Occupy Wall Street needs to first realize that the core problem really isn't Wall Street at all. Undoubtedly there are greedy bankers out there who try to game the system. But the real problem lies in Washington D.C., which has opened the door for Wall Street, big businesses, and other politically powerful interest groups to rig the game in their favor and at our expense.
The only way to reverse our current path is by reining in government’s power, not doubling down on it. The only protection for the rights and opportunities of 100 percent of Americans is a small, limited federal government.
So Millennials are left with a choice. We can throw our support behind the Occupy Wall Street protests, or we can thoughtfully discern which public policies will ultimately lead to positive change for our economy and our government.
The right choice is clear: Millennials shouldn’t occupy Wall Street. Ironically, the solution to our generation’s problems lies in the time-tested principles of America’s founding: Our founders knew that concentrating power in government would inevitably lead to corruption and create a ruling class, so they sought to limit government specifically so that the “little guy” could pursue happiness and prosperity. Today Millennials can save our country from ruinous debt, restore a level playing field, and empower everyday citizens by embracing this original American idea: Limit the influence of government on Wall Street, and on Main Street, and return power to the people.