Saturday , September 19 2020

On looting

A good read: Graeme Wood's Atlantic essay covering Vicky Osterweil, her popular book In Defense of Looting, and NPR interview. (HT Niall Ferguson) NPR summarizes the book as an argument that “looting is a powerful tool to bring about real, lasting change in society.” If the real, lasting change you wish to effect is burning society to cinders and ...

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A good read: Graeme Wood's Atlantic essay covering Vicky Osterweil, her popular book In Defense of Looting, and NPR interview. (HT Niall Ferguson

NPR summarizes the book as an argument that “looting is a powerful tool to bring about real, lasting change in society.” If the real, lasting change you wish to effect is burning society to cinders and crippling for a generation its ability to serve its poorest citizens, then I suppose I am forced to agree. 

That's as nice a topic sentence as you could ask for.  

Looting is good, she [Osterweil] says, because it exposes a deep truth about the great American confidence game, which is that “without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.” 

Just who is going to produce those things and work hard to sell them in a looting society? Wood essentially asks that gaping question. 

Osterweil’s argument is simple. The “so-called” United States was founded in “cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalist” violence. That violence produced our current system, particularly its property relations, and looting is a remedy for that sickness. “Looting rejects the legitimacy of ownership rights and property, the moral injunction to work for a living, and the ‘justice’ of law and order,” she writes. Ownership of things—not just people—is “innately, structurally white supremacist.”

This quote, I think, provides a deep understanding of our current far left. 

Our society and our prosperous economy are built on the bedrock of private property and the rule of law which defends that property. That may not be pretty or fulfill a college sophomore's utopia, but the hard lesson of a thousand years is that only private property provides the incentive for people to maintain that property -- farms, houses, factories, stores -- and to put in the immense effort to provide commodities of value to their fellow humans. Wood puts this observation well:

Osterweil euphemizes looting as “proletarian shopping,” and no one from a place that has recently experienced this phenomenon can take seriously her assurance that it can happen justly and bloodlessly. When I think of riots and smashed storefronts, I think of Kristallnacht. I think of American businesses built by penniless immigrants who preferred to forfeit their vacations and weekends for 30 years rather than see their children suffer as they did; I think of these businesses ransacked in 30 minutes and left in ruins. Osterweil at least has the psychology right when she says that looting can be “joyous and liberatory.” I have never seen a sullen looter, but I have seen plenty of shop owners crying next to the smoking remains of their children’s future. 

What do you do when the free stuff runs out, the businesses and ordinary people who invested in your city decide not to make that mistake again, and—oops!—a few shopkeepers get beaten to death? This messy process is the “new world opening up, however briefly, in all its chaotic frenzy,” she writes. To me it sounds like a prequel to The Road.

Property rights are not in vogue. Many landlords are also immigrants or others of little means who work hard and put their savings in to an apartment building. That a Republican administration has joined "cancel the rent," tells us something about how much respect for property rights and the incentives they create remains. 

Easily my favorite line in the book was written not by the author but by her publisher, right under the copyright notice: “The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property,” it says. “Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.” 


Osterweil does not say what property-less system of government or anti-government she prefers, but I suspect it is not democracy, a term she uses only sneeringly. 

An important point. A movement that espouses violence, not just theft, that espouses political violence, and justifies such violence against all who disagree, is profoundly anti-democratic. For all the wailing about Trump's threats to our democracy, this part of the left is not just authoritarian, it is violently authoritarian.  

I haven’t yet encountered anyone who has read the actual book, which combines tedium and indecency in ways I had not previously contemplated. 

A great line for a book review. [Disclosure, I haven't read the book either. This is a review of a review 

Wood wisely sees wisdom in a book that one is simply tempted to trash. This is a deep and wise point about many bad but authoritative books:   

If Osterweil’s defense is a bad one, she has now given other pro-looters a chance to reply to it and say why. If they do not, we can assume that they agree with Osterweil, and her argument is the pinnacle of looting apologia. A week ago, you could have said that looting might not be so bad, and I might have wondered what you meant by that. Now I will ask you if your reasons are the same as Osterweil’s, and I will make fun of you if you say yes. This is progress. For that, thank Code Switch. 

My Palo Alto neighbors, white, wealthy, and living far from any actual experience with such matters, express such sympathies with looting. Perhaps they too will have to face uncomfortable truths by reading, before it comes to their doorstep. 

Looting also destroys a public property -- decades worth of progress on quiet every day relations between people of different races and backgrounds. The videos of looters, of violent street mobs, of storeowners and (last week) a pedestrian murdered in cold blood, will remain in people's brains. They will form an unstated and silenced set of expectations that no amount of lecturing will overcome until more positive everyday experiences slowly replace them. 

John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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