[Slate] The Case for Looting

Gordon Mohr gojomo at usa.net
Tue Apr 15 02:27:56 PDT 2003

Contrarian take on looting during the social transition in Iraq...


- Gordon

everyday economics
The Case for Looting
By Steven E. Landsburg
Posted  Monday, April 14, 2003, at 10:33 AM PT

In Iraq, the main looting ended when the coalition troops arrived. Sure, there's been some pilfering of food, appliances, medical
supplies, and historical relics. But by the standards of a country whose rulers have routinely expropriated billions in oil revenue
and seized whatever property struck their fancy, walking off with a jar of peanut butter and a fridge is more petty mischief than

Even if you insist on calling it "looting"—in which case, I have no idea what word you'd use for the depredations of the old
regime—the question remains: What, exactly, is wrong with it?

Objections to looting—or more generally to theft—fall into two categories: the economic and the moral. The fundamental economic
objection is that looting diminishes wealth; the fundamental moral objection is that people shouldn't take things that don't belong
to them. Let's consider these separately.

Start with the economics. It's not immediately obvious that theft does diminish wealth. If you steal my bicycle, I'm one bicycle
poorer, but you're one bicycle richer. Average wealth hasn't changed. No resources have been lost; they've just changed hands. The
economic objection to theft doesn't kick in until your thievery starts distracting you from productive activities. If I've already
got a bicycle, and you spend a day building a bicycle, we end up with two bicycles between us. If instead you spend your day
plotting to steal my bicycle, we end up with just one bicycle between us. That's a bad outcome.

But does that objection apply in present-day Iraq? Does anybody want to argue that if only they hadn't been out stealing, the
citizens of Baghdad would have been reporting to work, producing goods and services for distribution in smoothly functioning
markets? The fact is that in the (hopefully brief) chaos of liberation, there probably aren't a whole lot of useful tasks for Iraqis
to do. From an economic point of view, that means their time has very little value—so they might as well spend it stealing.

Another economic objection to theft is that it inspires potential victims to take costly precautions to protect themselves. Instead
of hiring someone to build you a patio, you hire someone to install iron gates and a burglar alarm. The world ends up one patio

But again, this hardly seems relevant to a society that has been suddenly and temporarily plunged into chaos. Nobody in Baghdad is
building patios right now anyway. (Of course, there might be some patios that went unbuilt a few months ago, as people installed
iron gates in anticipation of today's looting. But that harm's already been done, whether the looting occurs or not.)

The final economic objection to theft is that people will not work and save to accumulate assets that are liable to be stolen. But
this objection applies equally well to assets that are liable to be appropriated by the state. I'll bet you a dollar that the net
effect of the liberation—inclusive of all the looting—will be more productivity and saving, not less.

Turning now to the moral issue, most civilized people (my ex-wife and her attorney excluded) instinctively recognize the fundamental
human right to retain one's earnings, and therefore react with abhorrence to unrestrained thievery (and, if they are intellectually
consistent, to marital property laws and the taxation of income). But I wonder how much of the property in Baghdad was legitimately
earned in the first place. Iraq, for at least two decades, has been a society where many rewards have flowed not to those who served
the needs of the marketplace, but to those who served the needs of the tyrant. If those rewards are redistributed to the tyrant's
victims, that's fine with me.

That's not to say that the crowds' exuberance has been harmless; I'm sure that a lot of glass and more than a few noses have been
needlessly broken, and I'm sure that some goods have been transferred to people who won't fully appreciate their value. (On the
other hand, I'm also sure that some goods have been transferred from people who didn't fully appreciate their value.) But in the
scheme of things, this is small potatoes. Iraq has been systematically looted for two decades. This is, one dares to believe, the
beginning of the end.

Steven E. Landsburg is the author, most recently, of Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the
Meaning of Life. You can e-mail him at armchair at troi.cc.rochester.edu.

Photograph of Baghdad looter by Odd Andersen/AFP.

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