Religion & Liberty Online

Why looting is the worst kind of theft

The Mongol ruler Genghis Khan once asked his generals, “What is the greatest happiness in life?” When they answered that it was going hunting on a spring day while riding a beautiful horse, Genghis said they were wrong. The greatest pleasure, he said, is to be founding in vanquishing ones enemies and robbing them of their wealth.

In other words, to the man who has more living descendants than almost any person in history, happiness was found in looting.

The practice of looting has gone by many names—sacking, plundering, pillaging—and has been practiced as long as mankind has existed. Plundering in wartime was long considered a prerogative of conquerers and was even given sanction by God (under certain conditions) for the ancient Israelites (Deuteronomy 20:14).

In the modern era, though, pillaging has been outlawed by the international community and is now considered a war crime. Most looting occurs nowadays by civilians, usually in riots or in other times of anarchy. A prime example is the looting that is occurring in Venezuela as the socialist government continues to collapse.

Commenting on the destruction in Venezuela, economist Alex Tabarrok explains why looting is an especially pernicious crime:

Ordinary theft is about stealing money or valuable “final” goods like diamonds or art works. In theory, the thief receives more or less what the owner loses. Looting, however, is a special kind of theft. Looting is theft plus destruction. The person who steals a candy bar is a thief. The person who breaks a store front window and steals a candy bar is a looter. Looters destroy intermediate goods and infrastructure and gain far less than owners lose. Looting is the worst kind of theft.

If Venezuela’s experience is similar to that of America, the looting in the failed state may have as long-lasting an effect as socialism. From 1964 to 1971, as many as 700 riots erupted in cities across America and led to widespread looting. The large numbers of injuries, deaths, property damage that occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods caused considerable short-term damage on the communities. But the impact over the long run (from 1960 to 1980) was even more severe.

As Tabarrok notes, socialism is bad but anarchy is worse. While socialists may steal from the people, their theft is less likely to be as harmful in the long-run than the looting of anarchists.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).