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When It’s Alright to Steal from Bill Gates: A Reply to David

Summary:
David is shocked by my claim that it is alright to steal from Bill Gates to save your child’s life: If Bryan thinks it’s right to steal from Bill Gates to finance expensive cancer surgery with “a reasonably high chance of saving her life,” then that principle must apply to tens of millions of people who could have their lives saved even more cheaply by being able to get food. Think of, say, 100 million of the poorest people in India. They could ward off starvation for a year or even two with an extra ,000. That’s 0 billion, which is enough to wipe out Bill Gates’ net worth, especially after Melinda is done with him. That seems wrong to me. How few people have to benefit from stealing  from Bill Gates to make it right to steal? 10 million? 1 million? 10?

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David is shocked by my claim that it is alright to steal from Bill Gates to save your child’s life:

If Bryan thinks it’s right to steal from Bill Gates to finance expensive cancer surgery with “a reasonably high chance of saving her life,” then that principle must apply to tens of millions of people who could have their lives saved even more cheaply by being able to get food.

Think of, say, 100 million of the poorest people in India. They could ward off starvation for a year or even two with an extra $1,000. That’s $100 billion, which is enough to wipe out Bill Gates’ net worth, especially after Melinda is done with him.

That seems wrong to me. How few people have to benefit from stealing  from Bill Gates to make it right to steal? 10 million? 1 million? 10?

Working backward, it seems wrong to me for even one poor parent in India to steal from Bill Gates.

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 where does David think I’m going wrong?

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.

2. He might think that the consequences of stealing from Bill Gates to save your child’s life are actually very bad.  I’m open to this possibility, but let me walk through my reasoning.

a) 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.

b) 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).

c) 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.

d) At this point, you could demur: “While people shouldn’t steal due to the bad consequences, Bill Gates is still morally obliged to voluntarily give all of these poor people the money they need.”  I say this overstates; see Huemer’s Objection #6 to the Drowning Child hypothetical.

Still shocked, David?

P.S. I’m on vacation through the end of August, so expect light posting until then.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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