Since I first broke the news of the Occupy Wall Street protest plans in this space over a month ago, events, as predicted in that column, have turned into a cluster-hug of groups and causes. A collective of union members, antiwar activists and young people with apparently nothing better going on have gathered to vent their frustrations.
Here’s a thought—why not just ignore Wall Street, the government and wealthy people, and live your own life? Let’s pretend, for argument’s sake, that after all those hours sleeping among the Financial District’s sewer rats to further your cause, you eventually manage to persuade the government to do everything you’re asking. If President Obama and Congress decided tomorrow to end American military action worldwide, create a government-funded health care system, and rightfully stop bailing out Wall Street banks, would you really be satisfied? Would that solve all your problems? I doubt it.
It may seem like a radical notion in this age in which socialism now pervades nearly every aspect of our lives, but true capitalists can live freely and independently without having to spend their time ear-bending the government or Wall Street, because capitalists prefer all of the above to shove off and leave them alone, so they can simply trade their skills for pay without interference. But there’s a catch: You have to hustle and can’t expect anything to be given to you without earning it. And nowadays there are too many people who have grown accustomed to taking things for granted—whether it’s mom and dad’s hospitality or an employer’s time and money. The idea of fair and just compensation in exchange for commensurate effort has been so corrupted that true capitalism is a rarity—even on Wall Street, where screwing up means being bailed out through corporate welfare. Ironically the protesters occupying Wall Street have that in common with those they purport to oppose: They all want government handouts, and no one wants to hustle to change their predicament.
As someone with a consulting business, a lucrative client contract recently permitted me to offer extremely well-paid, interesting work to some professionals in my network at several times the market rate. I offered the work to a few friends who appear to be constantly complaining—usually publicly via Facebook or Twitter—about their lack of opportunity and income. They either turned their noses up at it and continued whining in their next breath about the shortage of work—or they said they’d be thrilled to do it, but then failed to meet the requisite deadline. This, unfortunately, exemplifies most of the Western world today.
Being free and independent of government or anything else means leaving the comfort of your parents’ sprawling home, and shedding many of its associated luxuries, including the use of their cars, kitchen, and expensive home entertainment systems. It might mean starting over in a hole-in-the-wall studio with a futon on the floor, and deciding that investing in a skills-based education is worth downgrading or ditching your iPhone and associated monthly bill. This is how it’s supposed to be for someone just starting out. Take it from someone who moved to New York City at the beginning of her career and slept in a tiny room with three other people, with a single bathroom and shower per floor, while living on nothing more than a muffin and a giant slice of pizza per day. It always gets better from there—because it has to. There is no better motivator than discomfort.
Both Madonna and billionaire Mark Cuban, for example, lived similarly when they were starting out. At no point did it ever occur to me that the government would solve my problems or get me out of that cramped studio. I started with small chances that allowed me to prove myself while supplementing my income with work completely outside of my field. I lived within my means, however they might have changed over the years, and therefore never needed anything from either Wall Street or the state. It may be a struggle, but then so is fighting for sleeping bag space among your fellow protesters obsessed with persuading the government to improve your life. I’ll take true capitalism any day.