GRAVER: The duty of intellectual cogency

Like many before her, Abigail Carney ’15, in her piece “The duty of the top 1 percent,” falls into an intellectual trap. The existence of poverty is not a conclusive defense for liberalism. But too often, be it in a classroom or on the pages of the Yale Daily News, it is seen as such.

Yale’s left responds to calls for fiscal responsibility and defenses of capitalism with scattered anecdotes to support a narrative of a broken system. If only we conservatives “saw the real New Haven” or “went to rural Mississippi” we would see the (seemingly) undeniable truths that are the welfare state and moderated capitalism.

The entire column, full of important reminders for us Yalies to “realize that the impact we have on the world is just as important as our profit margins” and not to just “worry about six figures,” boils down to a single idea: Don’t be Gordon Gecko.

Great. Good people should care about others. Ayn Rand does not lay forth an acceptable moral philosophy. I’m all with you. But, seeing this thesis in the whole context of her piece, we can see the dangerous underlying presuppositions that guide Carney and her likeminded “Occupy” individuals.

First and foremost, Carney isn’t right in stating, “Occupy Wall Street does not yet have set goals.” There is a very important difference between goals and ideas about how to achieve them.

Let’s be clear: these are angry leftists seeking leftist goals. You will not find any disciple of Milton Friedman or F.A. Hayek in that crowd. Rather, they are people guided by what Carney calls “disgust for a system where anyone is allowed as much wealth and influence as the top 1 percent of Americans.”

Right there, though, clear objectives and values are implicit. A free-market system must be fundamentally changed, either through incredible regulation or just eradication. Furthermore, there is an objective number (exactly what number is beyond me) at which people have earned too much money. The interests of the top 1 percent are intrinsically different than the rest of ours; any concentration of power is inherently contrary to the majority’s wellbeing.

Let’s not be so naïve — as Carney urges us to be — to see these movements as discontent, yet rational and responsible, Americans just hoping for better dialogue and cautious reform. Harrison Schultz, a protest organizer, would shudder at such a moderate assertion: “This is revolution, not reform.”

But despite lofty goals, there’s a horrific lack of specificity in the Occupy protests. But don’t take my word for it — take Schultz’s: “As far as the specifics, we don’t know yet.”

It’s important to note that this decision to avoid any concrete propositions is not the product of some careful Burkean temperance, a commitment to slow and mediated change. Instead, this is just the innate abstractness and obscurity intrinsic to the mandate of “social justice.” Change has no definitive merits for this movement besides the fact that it’s apparently a good in itself.

The gut impulses and obscure social metrics that guide Occupy Wall Street are symptomatic of a larger problematic intellectual movement. Amid these call for “fairness,” “justice” and “equality,” people forget the simple fact that words have meaning.

The illusory grounding for these terms becomes readily apparent when their advocates are pushed for specifics. Schultz is at least honest about his shortsightedness. Calls for “discussion” and “dialogue” by people like Carney and our president are specious forays back into a perpetuated cerebral arena.

But this move somewhat makes sense. Such a worldview can only exist exclusively in the realm of ideas, where human nature is a construct, not a constant, where social arrangements are as mutable as our desire to change them is and where good intentions are the sole requisite for “good” results. In this fanciful reality, passion trumps rationality.

We do not need to be reminded condescendingly that people are suffering in this country, as if we are not aware of stark realities, nor should their plight serve as the shoulders for the self-righteous to stand on.

The good intentions encapsulated in Carney’s tone (the same good intentions that have arguably institutionalized the poverty she bewails) are overshadowed by her imprudence. Success is nothing to be ashamed of. It comes with no inborn guilt.

The moral onus to love thy neighbor, country and fellow man is a universal one mandated by God, not “social justice.” Let’s not have it co-opted by unbathed, partially clothed 20-somethings in a park claiming to fight for the “99 percent” of us.

Harry Graver is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact him at harry.graver@yale.edu.

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