Warehouses, Theft, and Starvation

I got a chuckle out of this post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. Jason Brennan is justifiably annoyed at the facile view expressed by this graphic:

1374238_784568528277580_3220370305162781028_n.jpg (627×405)

I meant to blog this issue last year, but didn’t get the chance: As readers of PoT know, last August, I did some volunteer work in Nicaragua with a colleague of mine from Felician, along with students from his class on global capitalism. While there, we spent a day building wheelchairs at the facilities of the American Nicaragua Foundation, a charitable organization outside Managua. Words are inadequate to convey the admiration I have for the people who work there.

One of the things that impressed me while there were ANF’s gigantic warehouses filled with food and other goods, intended for distribution to the poor. I took some photos of the warehouses, but never uploaded them to the PoT site, so they’re still sitting on a Sandisk back home in New Jersey. When I get a chance, I’ll upload a shot here, but meantime, just click the ANF link, and you can see a few photos of them there. They’re big–bigger than the average American supermarket. And ANF had several of them at that location alone.

Another thing that impressed me was that ANF’s warehouses were, one and all, guarded by armed guards fully prepared to shoot anyone, rich or poor, who tried to muscle his way into the warehouses and loot their contents. In addition, ANF’s grounds were surrounded by fences with barbed wire. Sometimes, good fences really do make good neighbors, even if you have to throw some barbed wire into the mix.

It’s no secret that Nicaragua is a democratic socialist country ruled by a former Marxist junta, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). News flash: even there, theft is illegal, stealing food is against the law, and you can let someone–maybe lots of people–starve to death while you own a warehouse full of food. You can do all of that with a clean conscience, because while generosity is a virtue, and charity is an instance of it, neither the virtue nor the activity imply that benefactors are rightless beings. After all, if benefactors were rightless, beneficiaries would be equally so, since both sets of entities are human beings. Even the Sandinistas know that (or have figured it out), despite the fact that they view ANF’s activities with some suspicion and discomfort–partly because they regard it as a front organization for the United States, and partly because its existence draws attention to the inadequacies of the regime’s own social welfare efforts.

Anyway, I hate to break the news, but the preceding–that theft is wrong, that theft of food is wrong and should be illegal, and that the poor cannot be allowed, en masse, to loot the wealthy–are not distinctively capitalist insights, and are not distinctive features of specifically capitalist political economies. People have known the preceding things for a long time, and have acted accordingly. There have always been food markets and food storage places in the world, and it’s always been a crime to steal from them. The only people who don’t seem to grasp that are the people among us who insist on arguing in images and slogans. That’s not a distinctively capitalist phenomenon, either. But for better or worse, capitalism is where the activity involved pays the most handsome wage.

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