Column on Needing Doesn’t Justify Stealing

Needing Doesn’t Justify Stealing

Tibor R. Machan

What one needs depends on one’s goals. And much of the time what one needs to pursue various goals is produced by other people, including some rather important stuff or services. Nonetheless, among genuine free men and women whatever it is that one needs may only be obtained voluntarily, not by coercion. Even if the need is great.

Yes, now and then one’s needs can be urgent and great, as when one must get the services of a surgeon lest one lose the use of a limb. Yet, one isn’t by any stretch of the imagination authorized, morally, and should not be legally, to conscript those who can provide the necessary service. That would make slaves of those professionals! And no one is justified in enslaving anyone, however urgent one’s needs may be.

One would think these are elementary matters in a society that has experienced slavery or involuntary servitude and finally abolished it. But no. I recently objected to the first class mail monopoly that the US Postal Service enjoys, as a Constitutional grant in fact, and someone commented that people often need first class mail, so surely it must be provided to them.

Doesn’t follow at all. We often need things quite badly that others can supply but they and their labor doesn’t belong to us so we must obtain them voluntarily. And that has proven to be a very workable arrangement, much more so than have coercive alternatives. Why then do people often support the idea that it is OK to conscript other people’s work?

Maybe one reason is the regrettable precedent of taxation. For a while even in the USA, a supposedly shining example of a polity of human liberty, the military draft was legally accepted, tolerated. And of course for centuries on end coercion was routinely used by the powerful to obtain what the less powerful produced. Today it is quite common to have major political and academic figures chiming in favoring robbing the rich because, well, they have what others want from them. The idea that it belongs to them and thus must be obtained without resort to the violation of their basic rights doesn’t even come up. It’s just wished away, silently, as if it should be forgotten in the face of the needs of others. But then, of course, at one time these needs were used to justify chattel slavery and servitude to the ruler. It is not an accident that the Southern social theorist George Fitzhugh considered and favored slavery as a quintessentially socialist institution.

But just because an older generation got wise about these matters it doesn’t follow that we inherited this wisdom. Many of us are perfectly willing to forget what we should have learned from history, including that no matter how precious our goals may be, conscripting others to serve them is morally and should be legally prohibited. So the president of the USA, shamefully, is advocating robbing the rich so as to help him carry on with public policies that he prefers but cannot find sufficient support for.

At this point, of course, it isn’t very simple to sell the public on the idea that the rich must become slaves, so various theories are rolled out that maintain that the rich owe it to us, so taking it from them is just fine. That is the thesis candidate Elizabeth Warren was airing when she was campaigning for a Massachusetts Senate seat. And she wasn’t the only one. Such thinkers as NYU professors Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy, Harvard Law School’s Cass Sunstein, and others have been making some amazingly spurious arguments that support the notion that all wealth really belongs to the government instead of individual citizens. Sunstein has also been peddling the incredible idea that all rights are grants from government, an idea directly opposed to the American tradition of individual rights (developed mainly by John Locke). Nagel and Murphy wrote a little volume The Myth of Ownership, for (of course) Oxford University Press back in 2002, which would, if it had any merit, clear the way to the government taking from us whatever it wants.

You need to realize, though, that government is nothing more than some people who are hired by others for specific, limited purposes; indeed their proper purpose is to protect or secure the rights of the citizenry, their natural rights! But that is, sadly, still an unfamiliar idea in many circles that stick to the reactionary notion that you and I and our belongings aren’t really ours but were granted to us provisionally by those other people, the government. How they came to have such authority is of course a complete myth. Let’s get past it already and carry on with the American revolutionary idea that citizens are the sovereigns, not the state.

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