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The Joy of Looting

April 10, 2003

Public and social authority having collapsed in Iraq, property was suddenly unprotected and available for the taking. Swept up in the euphoria of the moment, everything in sight was seized. 

I speak not of the mobs in Basra that stripped clean the Sheraton Hotel as the U.S. military looked tolerantly on, or the masses in Baghdad who ran away with everything not nailed down, or of the marauding gangsters who ransacked European embassies. 

No, I refer to scenes in the oil city of Kirkuk, where "coalition forces" entered to seize control of the oil fields, and in southern Iraq where U.S. and British forces have "secured" all 1,000 oil wells. These are the real prizes of this war. 

Who will end up with the loot? It's hard to say who, but it's easy to know under whose authority the assets will be divided. As the Washington Post reports, "While France and other United Nations members say Iraq's oil production should remain under U.N. control, the Bush administration wants new Iraqi leaders to take charge of oil sales and development as quickly as possible." 

Moreover, the paper adds, "It might be possible for the United States to sell Iraq's oil on the country's behalf relying on rights of a military occupation force under 'customary international law.'" As for preexisting contracts, "there already might be pressure to not honor" them. 

The foreign press was appalled that the U.S. military effectively oversaw the small-scale looting that took place in city after city. The explanation from Washington was that the military did not want to be seen as protecting any aspect of the regime. That might help explain why nothing was done to stop the looting of public buildings, but what about the shops, restaurants, homes, stores, and hotels that were ransacked? Here the problem is more complicated. In the end, it was clear to the troops that stopping the looters might put a bit of a damper on the celebrations that were playing so well on American television. 

"I can't tell if they like us or if they are just happy they have been able to loot all that stuff," one unnamed colonel told the New York Times. Only one brave soldier, Corporal Bryon Adcox of the Seventh Marine Regiment, was willing to go on record. "A few hours ago, they were shooting at us, now they are having a party," Corporal Adcox said. "Are they truly happy we are here?" 

In any case, what the civilian looters took pales in comparison to what the coalition forces have at stake. Of course, we are assured that the forthcoming oil revenue will be used to rebuild Iraq, a fact which causes attention to turn to the crazy contracting dispute that has broken out in Washington. Actually, the dispute is not difficult to follow. Democrats want the cash to go to their friends, while Republicans want the cash to go to their friends

No matter what figures are being tossed around today, everyone knows it will require lots more to fix and repair what the U.S. just finished blowing up. There are two sides to the debate: those who want to spend more and those who want to spend even more. 

Not all looting in the postwar environment is the subject of dramatic pictures on television. Next week, U.S. taxes are due. The U.S. soldiers in this war receive automatic extensions and all the income they have received for fighting is exempt from all taxation. As for the rest of us, we will pay 30 cents out of every dollar of income to government for its services, and that which we do not pay, we loan to government in the form of holding its secured bonds (which right now look far more attractive than private-sector stocks and bonds). These bond holdings make it possible for the government to bleed red, and should we decide not to hold them, the Federal Reserve stands ready as a purchaser of last resort, creating money out of thin air. This form of looting is lawful and orderly, and funds the biggest and best-armed government in the history of the world. 

But doesn't all talk of the spoils of war take away from the celebration of new-found Iraqi freedom? Ah, the joy of toppling statues of government officials! Here is a libertarian impulse at work. The desire to overthrow the regime is a wonderful instinct, as is the joy that comes when one falls. The U.S. is tapping into that instinct in calling forth national celebration over the fall of Saddam.  How wonderful it would be if that were all there were to it. 

Alas, this was not a case of a regime collapsing in the same way East European dictatorships collapsed at the end of the Cold War. What we have here is a case of the bigger fish eating the smaller fish—one large invading state employing large machines to crush a small state with only small machines to defend itself. Ten years ago, the U.S. railed against Iraq for taking this same approach in its dealings with Kuwait. The point of the first war against Iraq was to deter such aggression wherever it might occur. But who deters the deterrers?  

To celebrate the victory of a mightily armed imperial power over a small despotism is not a libertarian impulse. From under the rubble of buildings demolished by bombs, the corpses of tens of thousands of dead, the billions and billions spent by government, and the whole world impressed at the effectiveness of raw power, symbolized by millions of Americans raising their fists in the air at this equivalent of the ancient Roman games, we can detect some very bad omens for the future. 

Victory celebrations are inevitable but dangerous. They rejoice in destruction, not creation, cheer violence, not cooperation, herald the doings of mass armies, not the creativity of individuals, and glorify the actions of bureaucrats and politicians, not the productivity of society and enterprise. 

Waging war is no greater achievement than any other act of destruction. It involves a government grabbing as much as it can get from its own population through taxes and borrowing and inflation, turning those resources into machines that kill and wreck, and then unleashing those machines on an enemy country. 

Governments may not be able to create wealth—which is why socialism cannot work—but they can destroy it, which is why wars do work. Bombs, built on the backs of taxpayers, destroy not just military targets but the products of genuine human creativity: houses, markets, restaurants, schools, and hospitals. Take this model far enough and you can wreck the whole world. For this reason, the wars of the nation-state, even if just and necessary, should never be celebrated. 

Successful wars send the message that our freedoms are secured only by armed agents of central power, and many are tempted to cede control of their lives to the executive state that prosecuted the war. We look to the top for leadership, which in the aftermath of an easy victory, is punch drunk with power. Already, we see every high official citing the alleged achievements of war as a basis for trusting the government to provide for us in every way. If we can overthrow Saddam, it is said, surely we can overthrow illiteracy, poverty, sadness, and social dysfunction right here at home! Clear the way for the total state. 

As the warmongers cheer not only the war and its destruction and death, but also the new D.C.-run military dictatorship being set up in Iraq, lovers of liberty need not regret their support of peace and trade. In the ancient contest between power and liberty, power has long had the upper hand. But it is to the few shining moments when liberty overtook power, when trade and contract prevailed over looting, when peace prevailed over war, that we owe civilization itself.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. (Rockwell@mises.org) is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of LewRockwell.com. See his Mises.org archive.


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