When Is It Alright to Steal from Bill Gates? A Rejoinder to Bryan Caplan
By David Henderson
On July 8, I expressed my shock at co-blogger Bryan Caplan’s statement that it would be morally permissible for John, whose daughter is dying from cancer, to hack into Bill Gates’s bank account and steal the money to finance the medical treatment. I won’t repeat my argument here. If you want to know it, click on the link in this paragraph.
On July 14, Bryan responded to my July 8 post. He led by saying:
My general position, to repeat, is that we are morally obliged to respect libertarian rights unless the consequences of doing so are very bad.
So far, so good. Bryan and I agree.
Then Bryan speculates about where I think he’s gone wrong. I’m not sure why he speculates because I had already said where I think he’s gone wrong, but maybe I wasn’t clear enough, so let’s examine his speculations.
1. He might think that we are morally obliged to respect libertarian rights regardless of the consequences. This seems like a crazy view. You shouldn’t steal a dime to save the world? Come on.
No, I don’t think that. Again we agree. The case we were discussing had literally nothing to do with saving the world.
Next, Bryan writes:
2. He might think that the consequences of stealing from Bill Gates to save your child’s life are actually very bad.
He’s getting warmer.
He then walks through his reasoning:
The original hypothetical only posited a single person who had to either steal from Gates or watch their child die. Per Huemer’s general approach, I just accepted the hypothetical and ran with it. And the consequences of this one hypothetical individual stealing do indeed seem very good on net.
Here’s where we part a little. Notice that Bryan writes “the consequences of this one hypothetical stealing.” But he’s not discussing “the consequences.” He’s discussing one consequence. What other consequence is he leaving out? That if stealing is said to be alright in this case, people will come to think that it’s alright in many such cases.
Bryan, though, seems aware of that issue, as evidenced by what he writes next:
David is right that lots of people are in similar or worse positions than the parent of the child with cancer. Wouldn’t the principle that all of them are are morally entitled to steal from Gates lead to bad consequences (i.e., destroying incentives to produce wealth, plus general chaos)? No, because almost none of these desperate people are in a position to steal anything notable from Gates. If these desperate people said, “I’m hungry” and you told them, “Fortunately, it’s morally fine to steal money from Bill Gates,” they would understandably be puzzled. “And how am I supposed to do that?!” would be the obvious reaction. (Some could pirate Microsoft software, I guess, but very few could make much money off of this).
People, especially my wife, often tell me that I often take things too literally. And they’re right. Here’s a rare case, though, where I didn’t take things literally enough. I thought that if Bryan thinks it’s alright to steal thousands of dollars from Bill Gates to finance one’s daughter’s medical treatment that “has a reasonably high chance of saving her life,” then surely Bryan would think that it’s alright to steal a thousand dollars from Bill Gates when doing so gives a parent’s starving child in India or Haiti an even higher probability of saving her life.
That’s where I wasn’t literal enough. For Bryan it matters that the person who is stealing has the technical expertise to do so. I think this way of thinking is bizarre. The person for whom it’s alright to steal is the person who has a fairly high amount of human capital. But wouldn’t it then make sense for that person to use his technical expertise to make money the old-fashioned way: by earning it?
Bryan ends the discussion of theft by saying:
You could change the hypothetical so that all of the poor people are in a position to steal from Gates, leaving societal devastation in their wake. Then, of course, I’d revert to my anti-stealing default.
So he and I are agreed that this massive theft by all the poor is wrong.
Then I would ask him the following question:
How little wealth would Bill Gates have to lose from theft by many (not all) poor people so that Bryan would say it’s right? I know that in his view a few thousand dollars is alright. How about a million? A hundred million? A billion?
One of the benefits of a comments section is that commenters often have good ideas. A commenter on my July 8 post, Mark Young, wrote:
I agree with Caplan, but with a caveat that he might also accept — and which, I hope, most others here would accept as well.
Caplan says that the rights violation is OK if the benefit greatly exceeds the cost. I take that to mean that it’s not morally wrong to (for example) break into a cabin if you are lost in the woods in a blizzard. Saving your own life is a greater benefit than the cost to the cabin owner. (I hope you all agree with that.)
But the moral calculus does not end with you breaking into the cabin. Once the emergency has passed you are morally obliged to make good the damage you’ve done. You must reimburse the cabin owner for the breakage and for any other consequential damages (say if the cabin becomes water damaged when a sudden thaw lets meltwater in thru the window you broke). It’d be nice if you went beyond that (maybe treat them to a meal at their fave restaurant), but reimburse the damages for sure.
So long as Caplan agrees with that, then I’m with him. The person who stole the money from Bill Gates is required to repay the amount along with any consequential damages (the $15.00 bank charge for a bounced cheque, say). Each of the 100 million starving Indians would have to pay Bill back as soon as they can, along with extra money to cover any damages the temporary loss of funds caused him.
(Again, assuming that each stole from Bill for a very good reason (“benefits vastly exceed the costs”) and there was no alternative that wasn’t equally as bad.)
I agree. Does Bryan?
In the first comment on Bryan’s response to me, our co-blogger Scott Sumner references one of my favorite movies of all time:
Recall the famous Coke machine joke in Dr. Strangelove.
Here’s the scene. Notice what Colonel Bat Guano says: “You’re going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola company.” My sense is that the Coca-Cola company would have no problem with having some change stolen from it to save the world. Call it a hunch.