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Moral Looting in the Aftermath of Disasters
Moral Looting in the Aftermath of Disasters
Looting for necessities (and only for necessities) under certain conditions following a natural disaster should be either a legal, or at least an almost automatically pardonable act, not subject to punishment for theft.
The conditions required for such looting to be pardonable are the following:
• 1) There is no other legal, legitimate, or more reasonable way for those who loot to obtain necessities
• 2) It is reasonably not the looters' fault they cannot otherwise obtain the necessities they take
• 3) They would have been able to obtain the necessities legitimately if social/economic mechanisms of an interdependent society had not been disrupted
• 4) The necessities are in a place under conditions where those who would normally sell, trade, or distribute them are unable to do so because of the disaster conditions.
• 5) The looting in question is limited to minimally damaging theft of necessities (i.e., involves only the damage necessary to get to the necessities and remove them, but does not involve vandalism or wanton destruction)
• 6) Looters do no bodily harm or threaten any bodily harm to persons while taking necessities.
The presumption behind these six conditions’ justifying looting is that life is more important than property, and that an interdependent society that has a mechanism for sustaining life under normal circumstances – a mechanism upon which people in the society are dependent – should still sustain life when that mechanism temporarily breaks down due to a circumstance beyond the society’s control. To put it succinctly, the economics can be fairly and reasonably sorted out later, but the life threatening emergency measures should be taken care of, insofar as possible, as they arise.
Expressing it another way, though this may not say quite the same thing or have the same consequences or entailments: the consensual or conventionally accepted right to private property in an interdependent society is based on being part of a mechanism that meet the needs of as many people as possible who acquiesce to the system, and when the system of which “private property” is a part breaks down through no fault of victims of a disaster, the right to ownership of necessities does not extend to what is tantamount to hoarding them for sale later. It especially does not extend to hoarding what will spoil while conditions are still disastrous.
The sixth condition is problematic when owners of stores try to prevent looting by hoarding necessities for sale later instead of distributing them voluntarily in some way, and cannot be peacefully dissuaded from that position nor overcome without force that leads to harm. It seems wrong to me to prevent people from having necessities, particularly for their vulnerable loved ones, simply in order to assert a property right – especially a property right over property whose loss will be reimbursed in some way after the disaster. And while I do not condone violent theft, I do not condone violent, particularly pointless, hoarding either. It seems to me that property rights are not operative or binding, in an interdependent society, under the conditions described above. This does not mean that under such conditions the basis for “civilized society” has disappeared; it means the basis is different under conditions of disaster from under normal conditions. Certain kinds of property rights are part of the basis of social order only under normal conditions, not dire ones.
Notice this does not mean that outside of an interdependent society property rights do not apply under dire circumstances. One cannot simply steal from others what one wants or even needs, if one has not been part of a system for the owner’s acquiring those goods in the first place, and if there is not a surplus for those who produced the goods. That is, if someone on his own out in a wilderness, or the people of a small isolated community, have independently produced things for themselves, which they will need, through their own labor, one does not have the right to take it from them, even if they ought to be willing to share under dire conditions. One may deserve charity, but one cannot demand it or take it by force. In terms of the “Grasshopper and the Ants” fable by Aesop, the ants have no obligation to feed the grasshopper through the winter with food they have gathered and stored through hard work without any help from the grasshopper who has also done nothing to store his own food. And the grasshopper has absolutely no right to take it.
(The morality of the situation is more difficult to determine when someone in need comes upon a surplus of goods produced by others, or when one comes upon a cache of goods one does not know is a surplus or not and there is no way to find out.)
In an interdependent free market society during normal conditions, services are often contracted on an unequal basis whereby those in greatest need are at a disadvantage in negotiating a fair wage. That is not always the case, but it is often the case. When people employ others for an unfair return of the profit they help produce, just because they can, that is often tolerated because it is not a matter of life and death. Or when a society progresses at the expense of those who produce much of the labor, it is tolerated because it is not then an immediate case of life and death or of totally involuntary slavery or servitude. But that does not mean that the financially wealthy and materially well-off have generated their wealth or material comforts independently of others. They have done so at the expense of others in many cases, particularly when they have not rewarded those who work for them any more generously or any less miserly than they had to. Looting of necessities that meets the above conditions is then not really taking something one has no moral right to take because one did nothing to help produce the goods one is taking. In an interdependent society, everyone who works and helps the society progress, is at least in some small measure contributing to all that is produced and acquired, and under circumstances of life and death, ought to be able to take what (and only what) s/he needs if it is available (and if there is no more deserving person who ought to have it when there is not enough for both).
More at Link...
In Israel, recession pressures boil over into looting
March 19, 2009
Isolated outbreaks have erupted after beleaguered business owners or managers defaulted on debts, stopped paying workers and went into hiding.
Reporting from Hatzor Haglilit, Israel -- First came the employees, shortchanged two months' pay and laid off by the supermarket called God's Blessing. They rifled through their shuttered workplace, helping themselves to crates full of groceries.
As word spread through the small town, the store's jilted creditors joined in. They dismantled the light fixtures, ripped out wiring and absconded with the cash registers, even as television cameras rolled.
Within hours the parking lot was jammed with ordinary shoppers. They left car engines running and brought their children to help pick the shelves clean. Finally even the shelves were hauled away, leaving latecomers to scrounge the floor for leftover fruit.
The two-day spree shocked and puzzled Israelis, who assume that the rule of law prevails in their society. Yet this and other recent cases of looting have coincided with news that the economy, flattened late last year after half a decade of enviable growth, had slid into recession.
The outbreaks are isolated and few, but labor activists and social commentators warn that many Israelis are becoming desperate.
"What we're seeing are small stories about collapsing businesses and layoffs that threaten their livelihoods," said Dafna Cohen, a spokeswoman for the Histadrut, Israel's trade union federation. "These small stories are the beginning of a big fire."
For months, the spreading hardship has been obscured as Israel's political discourse focused on regional security threats and the fight with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But aides to Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu say the economy will top his agenda after he takes office in the coming weeks.
The economy is expected to shrink 1.5% this year, according to the Bank of Israel, compared with growth rates of 4% or more in the previous five years. The global downturn is taking its toll; the bank forecasts an 11% decline in Israeli exports, which account for half the value of everything the country produces.
But as the crisis moves from one workplace to another, Israelis are blaming other Israelis: the tycoons who gambled in overseas real estate and lost, bringing down Israel's financial markets; the bankers who tightened credit; the entrepreneurs who faltered under impossible debt burdens and started bouncing checks.
The anarchy at the supermarket is one of three well-publicized cases of looting that erupted after beleaguered owners or managers defaulted on debts to suppliers, stopped paying workers and went into hiding.
Victims intent on payback have taken matters into their own hands.
Nearly 200 workers locked themselves inside the Chicken of the Valley processing plant in Ramat Yishai last week after the principal owner vanished, having failed to pay their February wages.
To cut their losses, they raided the freezer and sold about 100 chickens to motorists in the streets of Haifa, a nearby city. Holding up protest signs along with red plastic packages of frozen fowl, they turned the looting into a televised rally against the remaining shareholders' threat to close the plant.
"It's a symbolic act," said Moti Saar, the plant's union representative, who has joined a round-the-clock encampment of protesters inside the workplace. Selling pilfered chickens "won't cover our lost wages," he added, "but it says something: 'People want to work.' "
Like the supermarket, the chicken plant is in the Galilee, a northern region with higher unemployment and lower public investment than Tel Aviv and other wealthier areas in the center of Israel.
Many in the Galilee feel neglected and angry that policy discussions are mainly about bailing out tycoons who lost other people's money.
"There isn't much talk about saving people who do an honest day's work, earn the minimum wage and don't have much bargaining power," said Barbara Swirsky, executive director of the Adva Center, a think tank specializing in economic and social issues.
Tel Aviv has its own tale of pain and retribution.
The Pine Garden banquet hall and its artificial lawn once hosted the weddings, bar mitzvahs and corporate dinners of the city's elite. The business collapsed in January as wealthy Israelis began to feel the recession and thinned out winter social calendars.
The owner fled the country, reportedly leaving debts of nearly $20 million to banks, suppliers and families that had plunked down advances as high as $30,000 for their celebrations.