All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1974

The Sanctifying of Plunder


The law…has converted plunder into a right, In order to protect plunder.    -Bastiat

The commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” would be far better kept today had not theft assumed various disguises under which its practice has been generally sanctified. The gilding of an evil gives it a virtuous face — a Mr. Hyde’s ugliness covered by a comely Dr. Jekyll mask. Why such subterfuge? To be thought of as a thief by others or to so regard oneself is utterly revolting to all but stunted mentalities; so, we try to sanctify our plunder!

The sanctification of plunder is as old as the history of man. If thievery was indeed the first labor-saving device, it was developed out of sheer ignorance. Survival is a laudable objective; therefore, if thievery is thought to be the only means to that good end, it must perforce be good. Thus is plunder sanctified by those who know no better.

Many tribal societies have practiced plunder, raiding their neighbors, taking home all the loot they could garner. But we can hardly be critical of them without criticizing ourselves.

Perhaps no other book has more wisdom between its covers than the Holy Bible. Yet, we find written there about twenty-three centuries ago: “Men do not despise a thief, if he steals to satisfy his soul when he is hungry.”1 This was written centuries later than “Thou shalt not steal.” How can any practice be more sanctified than by biblical endorsement! However, we must understand the times lest we render too harsh a judgment.

Move on another fifteen centuries to St. Thomas Aquinas:

The superfluities of the rich belong by right to the poor…. To use the property of another, taking it secretly in case of extreme need, cannot, properly speaking, be characterized as theft.’

The Rich, Back Then

Seven centuries ago, at the time of Aquinas, who were the rich? They were plunderers, the feudal lords who lived off the serfs — the poor. In all justice, what the lords possessed belonged less to them than to the serfs from whom they had taken it. Considering the politico – economic darkness in medieval times, it is understandable how a religious leader might sanctify plunder by those who had been plundered. The axiom, “Thou shalt not steal,” was but an ancient flash of light with no sustaining source of energy.

There is no need for further illustrations of plunder sanctified. Every age and all civilizations abound with examples of this primitive trait of gilding evil that it may appear virtuous, a weakness which prevails to this day. There were some excuses in times past, prior to a knowledge of free market phenomena. But what of the present? How do we now sanctify plunder?

Today, whichever way the majority votes is generally conceded to be the criterion for what’s right and wrong.3 Once this nonsensical foundation of morality is accepted — approval by the majority — plunder is legalized and thus sanctified. Legislation, being a collective action, leaves hardly anyone with a sense of guilt. Why? The evil is depersonalized. Comparable is the mob that hangs Joe Doakes. The mob did it! The truth? Each of the lynchers committed the murder precisely as each person who is a party to legal plunder is guilty. Yet, the collective action affords each participant a false sense of absolution.

Legal plunder in the U.S.A. today, in dollar amount, is many thousands of times greater than, say, at the time of Aquinas or even during the lives of our founding fathers. In those days someone stole a pig or chicken or some other small item, not because thieves were more scrupulous then than now but simply because no one owned very much. However, my guess is that the proportion of all private property which is stolen or plundered is substantially the same today as in the past. What has changed, aside from the method of sanctification? The total quantity of property owned is thousands of times greater now than before. There is incomparably more to plunder, that’s all. The propensity to plunder — to live off the fruits of the labor of others — appears to be as persistent a trait as it is evil.

In the light of free market, private ownership, limited government practices with their moral and spiritual antecedents —of which the American people have had a remarkable sampling — how is this possible? I am now beginning to understand. This way of life has been but a flash of enlightenment, as dimly perceived as “Thou shalt not steal.” The freedom philosophy, with but few exceptions, is no better understood than was the commandment against theft of more than thirty centuries ago. No intellectual muscle in either case, no sustaining force.

Cause and Effect

With few exceptions, the masses of people in this and other “advanced” countries have not correlated the fantastic outburst of creative energy with the practice of freedom. Ortega pinpoints this failure:

The world which surrounds the new man from his birth does not compel him to limit himself in any fashion, it sets up no veto in opposition to him, on the contrary, it incites his appetite, which in principle can increase indefinitely. Now it turns out — and this is most important — that this world of the XIXth and early XXth centuries not only has the perfections and the completeness which it actually possesses, but furthermore suggests to those who dwell in it the radical assurance that tomorrow it will be still richer, ampler, more perfect, as if it enjoyed a spontaneous, inexhaustible power of increase…. They believe in this as they believe the sun will rise in the morning. The metaphor is an exact one. For, in fact, the common man, finding himself in a world so excellent, technically and socially, believes it has been produced by nature, and never thinks of the personal efforts of highly endowed individuals which the creation of this new world presupposed. Still less will he admit the notion that all these facilities still require the support of certain difficult human virtues, the least failure of which would cause the rapid disappearance of the whole magnificent edifice.4 (Italics added)

Is there a remedy? Yes, but the price gives the appearance of being too high. First, there is required of you and me a far better understanding of the freedom philosophy than we now possess and, to top it off, brilliant explanations of its efficacy. In a word, show the correlation between the abundant life and freedom so attractively that others are bound to take heed. Actually, this is not a high price — it is the very least we should do for ourselves, if not for others.

Second, let us begin to call this practice of “robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul” by its right name: legalized plunder. Frederic Bastiat gave us the measuring rod more than a century ago in The Law:

See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime. (Italics added)

This question of legal plunder must be settled once and for all, and there are only three ways to settle it:

1 — The few plunder the many.

2 — Everybody plunders everybody.

3 — Nobody plunders anybody.

We must make our choice among limited plunder, universal plunder, and no plunder. The law can follow only one of these three.

Finally, there must be a recognition that might—majority rule—does not make right. Counting noses is no way to decide moral, ethical, or economic matters. This accomplished, plunder will lose its legal backing and, thus, its sanctification.

Let the law defend the rightful owner of property rather than the thief. Let freedom prevail!


1 Proverbs 6:30 (King James version). It might be noted that modern translations render this passage differently.

² See Thomas Aquinas, 2a, 2ae, quaestiao 66, art. 7.

3 For an excellent analysis of this fallacy, see “The American System and Majority Rule,” by The Reverend Edmund A. Opitz, The Freeman, November 1962.

4 From Revolt of the Masses by Jose Ortega y Gasset (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1932).

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”