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In Defense of Pilfering

February 18, 2003

Stealing is wrong.  It makes private property less secure and requires the diversion of otherwise productive resources to the uses necessary to reduce stealing in the future.  Stealing appropriates the fruits of someone else's labor without his permission.  

Nonetheless, those who are in the news for pilfering the shuttle debris that rained down on Texas and Louisiana earlier this month are getting a bad rap.  In the weeks following the tragic ending of the space shuttle Columbia and the deaths of seven crew members, several individuals have been caught collecting the space garbage that littered their property, possibly impeding NASA's effort to investigate this latest government failure.  

Several opportunists attempted to offer pieces of the shuttle for auction on eBay.  Indeed, by two o'clock on the day of the shuttle crash, an item billed as "Columbia Space Shuttle Debris" listed there with an opening bid of $10,000.  

Needless to say, many opinion-makers are shocked by such seemingly boorish behavior.  "These people aren't the underbelly of society," wrote The Press of Atlantic City (where much of the underbelly of society seem to live).  "They're lower than that."  

The Miami Herald's Carl Hiaasen noted that several individuals retrieved and then offered for sale the debris with full knowledge that they may be contaminated with potentially fatal chemicals and that prosecution can result in 10-year jail terms and $250,000 fines.  Hiaasen considers these people the "chronically clueless"—so uniquely stupid, in fact, that science may benefit by studying their brains.  

But to quote a famous Alabama philosopher, stupid is as stupid does.  Such pilfering may be completely compatible with an ethic of liberty, and for the state to impose such harsh penalties on this activity may actually make the recovery process all the more difficult.

The argument against the pilfering is straightforward: Columbia is government property.  Therefore, the government has the right to retrieve it, and its citizens have the responsibility to aid the government in this effort.  Such an argument is loosely connected to a property rights theory.  The pilferers are taking control of property that is not theirs.

However, there are several of problems with this argument.  To say that Columbia is government property, or to say that anything is government property, is to say that it was built by the use of coerced capital.  Taxation itself is a form of theft—both theft and taxes are examples of involuntary trade—so while NASA held legal title to Columbia, its very existence was made possible by resources appropriated by the threat of force.  

This fact places the government's property right claim to the shuttle in a different light than one's property right claim to his car, assuming that the latter was appropriated through voluntary trade. Indeed, the pilferers might legitimately claim that they were recovering wealth that had previously been taken from them in the form of taxation.

In any event, pilferers are under no strict obligation to return debris that fell on their private property.  While the government can retrieve shuttle remains on public lands in any way it sees fit, it cannot violate the rights of property owners simply because they were unfortunate enough to wake up one morning and find government property on their land.  

Mistakes happen.  Parties accidentally encroach on the property of others all the time.  But there are established common law relationships that sort out the consequences that assure that the rights of affected parties are respected.  The government's actions following the shuttle disaster illustrate what it thinks about such arrangements.

An example may illustrate.  Assume a car accident on your street results in a damaged automobile being left on your front lawn.  You would suffer legal damage if you appropriated the car for yourself or damaged it in any way, although you would also have protections insuring the vehicle's removal in a reasonable amount of time and compensation for any damage it might have done to your property. Civilized people would be appalled if the owner sent messages threatening violence if you tampered with the vehicle in any way.  

Civility is not exactly one of the hallmarks of the modern state.  Its harsh penalties being imposed on pilferers may ensure that NASA retrieves less shuttle debris than it otherwise would.  Surely by now there has been much shuttle debris that has been appropriated by individuals that will never be found out of fear of strict consequences from being caught with it.  The penalty itself causes such debris' value in extra-legal markets to increase.  Pieces that could fetch higher prices would more likely be hoarded to compensate the added cost of being caught.

NASA search efforts would have been much better served if it encouraged private individuals to collect as much shuttle debris as possible to sell on the market.  This strategy would have created an incentive for those with possible knowledge of debris locations to come forward with it.  Millions of dollars would have been saved while today's excoriated pilferers would instead be praised for providing a helpful service.  

Instead, the government blunders on, forcing its will however it wants. Overzealous? Don't worry. The lawyers will fix it later. This latest episode of government failure shows once again how accustomed society has become to the lower standards associated with government action.  

Any doubters of this statement should ask themselves:  How long would it take for lawyers to contact potential victims of fallen debris following a similar tragedy that occurred to a private defense contractor?  I don't know.  But we can assume it would be faster than it takes to get an auction posted to eBay.


Christopher Westley, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of economics at Jacksonville State University. See his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive. Send him MAIL.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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