The case for looting.

How the dismal science applies to your life.
April 14 2003 1:33 PM

The Case for Looting

Redistribution of wealth, Baghdad-style
Redistribution of wealth, Baghdad-style

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 looting.

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?

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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 poorer.

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, ofMore Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics. You can e-mail him at armchair@landsburg.com.