Why modern Robin Hood outlaws should be prosecuted


Many movies have been made in praise of Robin Hood and his Merry Anglo-Saxon outlaws who raided the coffers of rich Norman barons and knights in order to dispense their loot to down-trodden fellow-Anglo-Saxons during the absence, leading Crusades, of King Richard I, when his evil brother, Prince John, ruled England with a heavy hand.

Now that period of history was one of absolute dictatorship and our instincts naturally – and most probably justly – lie on the side of the severely oppressed. After all, William the Conqueror’s Normans were foreign invaders, who had seized Anglo-Saxon wealth at the point of the sword (and arrow). Rough justice requires an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Aaron Swartz, who died by his own hand earlier this week, represents a very different kind of outlaw, even if much of the media is reporting his thefts in terms reminiscent of those episodes in Sherwood Forest. For Aaron Swartz was stealing from the rich to give to the poor within the environment of modern democracies operating under the rule of law.

In so doing, Swartz was eroding property rights. And property rights are the fulcrum of economic progress within the capitalist sector of any economy. Without clearly articulated and protected property rights, no modern economy can function. Contracts become impracticable, and a barter economy, in the absence of property rights, descends into a state of nature that we describe as a Hobbesian jungle.

In essence, if the Aaron Swartz’s of this world are allowed to prosper and multiply, they will take the advanced economies back into the Middle Ages of King Richard I and Prince John. I assure you that that is not a pleasant environment in which to fight for survival. It is not a world in which you would choose to live.

Aaron Swartz faced a lengthy jail sentence – as much as 30 years – for deploying computer hacking skills to download illegally millions of academic papers from an electronic library. Five years ago, Swartz had elected to become an outlaw by signing a guerrilla open access manifesto. He complained that the ‘world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage’ was in the process of ‘being digitalised and locked up’ by a handful of private corporations. He advised computer hackers to ‘take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world’.

Well, that is communism well beyond the vision of any Marx, Lenin or Stalin. When information that is costly to produce and process is distributed without charge to anyone who wishes to gain access, then assuredly such information will no longer be produced and processed. That is the nature of any market system.

Should governments then take over the role of markets in the production and dissemination of information, history tells us two things: (1) market-relevant new information will fail to appear; and (2) government-information will be produced and disseminated in a manner designed to destroy individual liberty and to promote tyranny.

So we should not judge Aaron Swartz as a Robin Hood attempting to ease the burdens of tyranny. Rather we should judge him as a promoter of communism, attempting to take down democracy and capitalism, and to replace them by absolutist government. For that crime, 30 years is a modest penalty. The gallows might be viewed as more appropriate.

In any event, Aaron Swartz delivered himself into judgment without any cost to society. And that decision ironically conforms with his personal philosophy. Aaron Swartz surely was not a hypocrite.

Hat Tip: John Gapper, ‘Aaron Swartz suffered from an illusion over research’, Financial Times, January 17, 2013

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10 Responses to “Why modern Robin Hood outlaws should be prosecuted”

  1. OyiaBrown Says:

    Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  2. charlesrowleyCharles Rowley Says:

    Excellent news. Thankyou.

  3. Sinclair Davidson Says:

    You’re being too kind – he wasn’t even stealing from the rich to give to the poor – he was just stealing.

  4. Olivier Braun Says:

    Dear Prof. Rowley,

    Just two comments :

    - as far as I recall the Robin Hood movies, Robin Wood stole the very money the Norman rulers extracted from the people by taxation. It is not so, as the popular saying goes, that he “steals the rich” (though you hinted at that point)

    - as for that hacker : sure he stole private property, but note that he didn’t take AWAY the property from the rightful owner, so that the later is DEPRIVED of his property, he (illegally) intruded into a private person or corporation to make copies of papers. That is to point out that the sentence, 30 or 35 years, is largely disproportionate with the crime (or delict). Even murderers are not convicted that long in many european countries (I don’t know for the USA). (Sorry for the use of capital letters, I didn’t see any other way to underline).

  5. charlesrowley Says:

    Olivier:

    You make good points. However, the fact that information has some publicness characteristics – i.e. that stealing information leaves that information behind – does not deny the fact that if such stealing is tolerated it will destroy the private information-gathering industry. Too many people will refuse to pay when they can secure for free. The reason why pursuing a lengthy sentence was appropriate is that this type of criminal is very difficult to catch and bring to justice. To establish an effective punishment one must multiply the actual punishment by the probability of arrest and conviction. This is especially important when the crime is likely to impact on significant areas of economic development.

    • Olivier Braun Says:

      Dear Prof. Rowley,

      Thank you for your kind answer. Surely, I don’t dispute the fact that the hackers (and virus makers and diffusers) must be punished, and I agree that “The reason why pursuing a lengthy sentence was appropriate is that this type of criminal is very difficult to catch and bring to justice.” But if I understand clearly the law and economics arguments (which apply also for exemple for the death penality when the probability to catch a murderer is low), I still don’t think that in (my conception of) Justice, you can have such a disproportionality with the nature of the crime.
      For example, our cities are often disfigured and ugly because of taggs on walls, etc. To tag on other people’s property is disgusting and impose costs in the owner. (same thing for littering in the streets, which Singapor reduced considerably thanks to harsh punishment). But to search for a emprisonment sentence as great as if a murder were commited is disproportionate, and the difficulty of catching the offenders doesn’t in my ming justify a lenghty jail sentence. Moreover, if the sentence is so harsh, it won’t be applied in many cases, and that fact would undermine the respect for the rule of law.
      I would prefer to increase the probability of catching offenders and the certainty of a condemnation, though it would no doubt raise the public spending on security and jails. But on the other hand, there are many “victimless crimes” that should be repelled, and spending on activities way outside the proper function of a State to cut.
      But here I am still dreaming, and I take the chance to thank you for the time you take having such a blog on top of your academic work to maintain the classical-liberal tradition, so the dream could materialise in a not too distant future.

  6. singhvishu Says:

    I fully agree with this post.

    Interesting discussion on the post at

    https://www.facebook.com/Vishu.pratap.singh/posts/157538814394903?comment_id=410275&notif_t=share_comment

  7. Ashish Says:

    I fully agree that property rights are at the foundation of the capitalism and if they are not protected, then a capitalistic society can’t thrive. You must have the rights to own what you produced and therefore feel incentivized to produce more, get prosperous. The collective result of such a society will create a vibrant economy and lots of prosperity. However such a system also creates massive disparity between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ . US income disparity situation is fairly public information for anyone to analyze.

    Now replace the word “property” by “knowledge” or “information”. Capitalizing knowledge doesn’t yield the same results as capitalizing property. When you spread knowledge, it doesn’t reduce, it increases… and therefore offers upward mobility of society’s intelligence level. It directly augments economic capitalism to thrive.

    Knowledge disparity is dangerous .. hopefully it should be evident by the fact that Honey Boo Boo is the most watched show in the country, because all the good stuff is locked in somewhere.

  8. charlesrowley Says:

    Ashish:

    Your argument rests on the notion that information is out there waiting to be used. This is not so. Information is costly to secure and process. If a return cannot be made on it, it will not appear. Information is property like any other scarce commodity. That is why theft is so dangerous.

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