More on Looting

After a withdrawal-inducing absence of several days, Jeanne d’Arc returns with a couple of great posts, and some links on looting, most notably this article entitled, boldly enough, “The Case for Looting”, by one Steven E. Landsburg writing for Slate. Landsberg’s thesis is that there’s really not much wrong with looting in Iraq, on the grounds that the looting did not remove wealth from the Iraqi economy, it just shifted it to new owners. Since most of the wealth in Iraq was obtained illegitimately, there is nothing wrong with Iraqi looters reclaiming some of it for themselves. All in all, he says, “I’m sure that a lot of glass and more than a few noses have been needlessly broken, and I’m sure that some goods have been transferred to people who won’t fully appreciate their value. (On the other hand, I’m also sure that some goods have been transferred from people who didn’t fully appreciate their value.) But in the scheme of things, this is small potatoes.”

I respectfully disagree. So I wrote to Mr. Landsburg.

Mr. Landsburg,

I can’t quite get my head around your “case for looting”. First of all, I don’t think that the comparative extremity of the past several days looting and the past several decades’ kleptocracy (that’s what I’d call it, if I were to call mobs breaking into buildings and stealing stuff “looting”, which I do) [Note: A reference to Landsburg's statement "...if you insist on calling it 'looting'--in which case, I have no idea what word you'd use for the depredations of the old regime..."] have anything much to do with each other, but that’s not important right now. What is important is that, by looking at abstract, generalized definitions of “theft”, you’ve overlooked the specificities of the particular acts of looting that have gone on in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq over the several days. Doing so has kept your argument focused on monetary wealth, which I guess is that basis for your comparison with Saddam’s sticky-fingered reign, but there are other sorts of wealth and value that are greatly diminished by these acts of looting.

The outrage over the current looting has been mainly focused at two particular acts (or sets of acts). The first is the looting of hospitals and theft of beds, medical equipment, and medicines. Although the monetary value of this equipment has not been lost to the total Iraqi system, it has been lost (in the form of replacement price–which is likely to be higher than the actual monetary value of the goods stolen) from Iraq’s already beleaguered hospitals. More importantly, the *use value* of those objects has been lost entirely–stolen medicines and equipment cannot be used to treat sick or injured Iraqis. Even if all the material was returned, most of it would be worthless for medical use, having been out of the controlled environment of the hospital/clinic and potentially contaminated. For a people that are currently living in the middle of a war, this hampering of the medical system represents a great loss, even if, on the other hand, individual looters are able to sell or otherwise use the materials they stole.

The second major source of outrage has been the looting of the Baghdad Museum. A price has been put on the stolen objects of 17 billion dollars. But even if Iraqi looters were somehow able to obtain the full value of these objects–which seems unlikely given their illegitimate possession of these artworks and artifacts, the necessity to work through brokers, smugglers, and other middlemen in getting the objects to market, and the lack of specialized knowledge of the objects by the Iraqi looters–the value that these objects represent to the people of Iraq as a whole, the symbolic value as icons of Iraqi and Muslim history, tradition, and peoplehood, cannot be recovered. Furthermore, as with medical equipment, outside of the controlled environment of the Museum, these objects will rapidly lose even their monetary value, as well as their scientific and historical value. It is not very reasonable to assume that Iraqi looters are capable of caring for these objects, many of them fragile with age, the way the Museum’s curators can. As these objects are mishandled, they will likely suffer from environmental exposure, breakage, wear, and soiling, reducing their value and making some heretofore priceless pieces, worthless.

I fail to see how any of this helps the Iraqi people or, indeed, the world as a whole, although I am sure that the looting of the Museum will at least make art collectors everywhere very happy–when the objects turn up in their neighborhoods, anyway.

As yet, I haven’t gotten any response–it’s only been a couple hours–and I honestly don’t expect one. But I would love to know how Landsburg justifies his argument in light of the clear damage done by looters both to the Iraqi medical system and to Iraqi cultural patrimony.

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