Is it looting if you’re looting the looters?

By Tibor Machen

This idea that Iraqis are criminals for looting is full of problems. To begin with, can you loot from a dictator? What about from a dictator who isn’t even in power any longer? After the dictatorship collapses, whose stuff is being looted anyway? To whom does the money in those government banks belong? To whom do the artifacts in museums belong?
Well, they belong to no one — or to everyone. If they do not belong to no one, then there is no looting going on, only some grabbing of stuff that’s lying about, left there by, well, the original looters who accumulated this stuff with the money they stole from the people who are supposedly doing the most recent looting.
If the stuff belongs to everyone, it’s like public property and everyone who is part of the public has a claim to it. Sure, in modern societies, public stuff is usually controlled by the government. The government, in turn, hands it out to people who have jumped through various bureaucratic hoops to obtain it. But when the bureaucracy itself is in shambles, the public stuff is obtained mostly by random, disorderly pickings.
Think of it for a moment: The Iraqi “looters” now dubbed criminals, sometimes even being shot for engaging in “looting,” had been systematically looted for decades. So, now that they realized that their original looters — dictator Saddam Hussein and his gang — are no longer in power, they decided to go scavenger hunting.
Sure, the American officials in charge there now may have wanted to have it all left to be sorted out by them or their newly appointed bureaucrats. But that may — or even need — not be much of an incentive to all the previously victimized Iraqis to abstain from grabbing some valuables while the picking was possible.
In short, maybe what we had and still have in Iraq in the aftermath of the dictatorship’s demise is a version of the tragedy of the commons. That tragedy goes on in most countries, only in more orderly fashion. All those lobbyists flocking to centers of government holding out their hands for what the public servants might hand to them from the loot they have taken from nature or the pockets of the citizenry are but organized looters, actually. And as it has been so well shown by economists and others, since the time of Aristotle to Garrett Hardin, when stuff is owned in common, there is a problem environmentalists should be very concerned about. As Aristotle put it, “that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.”
What might help in restoring a civilized approach to the treatment of valuables in Iraq? It is something with which they aren’t very familiar, namely the institution of private property rights. But since such an idea has meant the encouragement of greed, avarice and similar sins, rather than what it actually does, namely promote responsibility and care for things, it isn’t likely that Iraqis will see much of it very soon. Not even American officials who may try to assist the Iraqis in restoring order have much of a clue about the merits of full privatization.
So, perhaps the “looting” Iraqis ought to be viewed with more understanding and even compassion. The main difference between their looting and that done by others around the globe is but a detail: The rest follow some sham rules, while the Iraqis made no pretense at having any such rules where public “ownership” is concerned.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at