I like to think that as long as I do nothing dishonest in making it, my money is my own. I do give to several charitable causes, but this is entirely voluntary, and I don’t necessarily believe that other people have the “right” to my money unless I have agreed to some contractual arrangement that specifies what I owe. I haven’t ever agreed to most of the things our government takes my money for, by the way, but I pay my taxes because of the threat of prison.
My Money Is Stolen From the Poor?
It is easy to have a belief like this, until new information challenges the premises and logic behind it. In this case, a book i read, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, made me rethink the concept of “my money.” In that book the author explained – as I briefly outlined on the page GDP Growth – Is it Always a Good Thing? – how various interested groups ranging from bankers to governments and corporations use fraud to effectively steal the resources of poor countries and make the poor of those countries pay for the whole process for generations to come.
Now, if you get my newsletter, Money Matters, you know I believe in free markets and in freedom in general. But these ideas – at least as I understand them – imply fair markets and fairness in general. If money is made in fraudulent ways it doesn’t really belong to those who profit, as far as I’m concerned. This seems simple enough, but then it raises another question.
What if the scale of the robbery is large enough, and the profits benefit the whole people of the United States by way of a better economy and the spreading of the wealth that happens (to some extent) in a capitalist society? Doesn’t this suggest that perhaps all, or at least many of us, have received stolen loot? And if so, is all of my money really mine?
Normally when something is stolen, it returned to the rightful owners even if it has since been sold or given to someone else who knows nothing of the original crime. This is complicated, of course, when that something stolen is a fungible item like money. If a man robs a another man of a million dollars and goes on a shopping spree, we generally don’t go to every store he visited and take the money back to return to the man who was robbed.
But really that’s only a matter of practicality. If he happened to buy a house for a wife or friend with the money he stole, the house would likely be taken and sold to recompense the victim. So really the issue of whether the money should be found, or the things it bought used to replace it is not the issue if there is a way to do it. We generally try to right a wrong if possible in a civilized society.
What about the case of large thefts of billions of dollars? What if a government plunders the citizens of another country and this is used for the benefit of its own citizens? What if corporations fraudulently profit at the expense of poor people in other countries, and the result is that we all get to pay less for some of the things we buy, as well as collect dividends from these corporations in our millions of retirement accounts? It seems impractical to determine how much was obtained in fraudulent ways, and which of us should return how much of the booty we received.
Justice is impractical, perhaps, but knowing what I know now does make me feel that perhaps I have more money than I would have were it not for these crimes – which continue to this day, by the way (a subject for another time). So I guess I really don’t mind if some of my money is used for foreign aid to poor countries, which at the moment only adds up to a little over a dollar weekly for each of us.
I understand that this is greatly complicated by a number of factors. I really don’t know the scale of these things, although the more I read the more discouraging it seems. And to the extent that unfair practices and fraud have enriched our economy in general, most of us benefit, just like the peasants of a kingdom who don’t have to work as hard once the King plunders a neighboring land to fill his coffers.
My Money – Other Qualifiers
There are some other potential arguments for why my money may not all be rightfully mine to keep or spend how I like. One is the simple fact of public services which benefit me and make it possible to have the level of income that I have. In other words, there may be some justice in forcing me to pay taxes that support the roads I use, the police that protect me, and the courts that keep me safe from fraud.
Some anarchist libertarians will argue that unless we freely choose to use these services, we cannot be obligated to pay for them. Nice theory, but it is not really possible to avoid going down those highways if I want to get somewhere, and the practical alternatives are not here yet. So I owe something.
On the other hand, I really haven;t agreed to anything that directly obligates me, so I don;t feel that it is right for others to take my money for any “services” I don’t value nor ask for. I don;t particularly like paying for wars I think are unnecessary, for example (nor do I believe that there is some secret knowledge I don’t have proving how necessary they are). I also think it is theft to take money from me or other middle-class and poor people to pay for public schools for children of millionaires. And I think they’ll manage to find a way to pay for their own kids’ education.
How much of my money is mine if I make it as honestly as I can? It’s a good question…