Looting National Treasures

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with millions of other people, I was appalled by the well-organized
theft of 170,000 items from the Baghdad museum. But the event
got me thinking about national treasures and the people who
loot them.

The museum’s
directors could not safely trust American troops to protect
property. But this means that the Iraqis could not safely trust
the museum’s directors to protect property. It was all a matter
of misplaced trust.

This got
me to thinking: “Who is worthy of my trust when it comes to
protecting national treasures?”

A government-run
museum relies on people’s self-government to protect property.
It opens its doors to the general public, and it rarely charges
admission. It might as well put a neon sign above the door:
“Come and get it!”

All government
begins with self-government under God. There are not enough
resources on earth to protect society from the effects of evil-doers
if society did not inculcate the principle of self-government
in its members. And when I say “society,” I do not mean “the
State.” The familiar phrase, “Thou shalt not steal,” has reduced
theft far more than any collection of police forces ever has.


The entire
region’s governments have long defined the stone idols and monuments
of past government administrations as national treasures, meaning
government-controlled treasures. In other words, they
have treated these artifacts as if they were oil reserves. Governments
in the Middle East do not honor the private ownership of large
pools of oil, either by local land owners or foreign buyers
of local reserves. This is because oil is defined as a national

When a
government identifies anything as being national, it is asserting
a claim of ownership. When governments do the defining, “national
treasure” means “nationalized treasure.” It means “too important
to be left in the possession of individuals.” The State claims
the authority to liberate national treasures from profit-seeking
owners, who would otherwise waste them. Here is the general
rule: “Show me a national treasure, and I’ll show you stolen

The Baghdad
Museum was funded by the State. Iraq’s politicians over many
decades used tax money that was confiscated from poverty-stricken
Iraqi citizens to buy up these artifacts from private citizens.
The most famous of these artifacts were relics of very ancient
regional governments that were famous mainly for stealing everyone
else’s national treasures. The Assyrians were the grand masters
of this. Assyrian kings commissioned the sculpting of large
statues of winged lions with kings’ faces. These statues surely
did more justice to the nature of State power than Saddam’s
statues ever did. I mean, a statue of a guy with an outstretched
arm proportionally longer than Wilt Chamberlain’s surely doesn’t
convey the same message of State power as a fearful beast that
will swoop down on you and tear you to pieces. (If the Internal
Revenue Service ever goes looking for a new symbol, I have a

As with
all other Middle Eastern governments, Iraq’s government placed
export controls on museum-designated national treasures. Private
citizens from outside the country were not allowed to buy them.

is a huge problem with national treasures: other governments.
They want in on the deal. In the Bible, the classic example
of this was Babylon. Judah’s King Hezekiah, not showing good
judgment, showed the treasures of his house to agents of Babylon.
“Hey, guys, look at this!” This was really stupid, as a prophet
subsequently informed him (II Kings 20). Babylon later invaded,
conquered Judah, stole the treasures, stripped the temple, and
sent the people into captivity. Thanks, King!

So, along
comes a foreign government that wants to get its hands on your
national treasure. Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. The United
States defends Kuwait. The United States invades Iraq. So it
goes. When Government A asserts ownership of a national treasure
that was discovered by citizen A on his own land, thereby prohibiting
citizen A from dealing with citizen B, who is under the jurisdiction
of Government B, Government A can expect to hear from Government
B regarding the terms of trade.

oil is the premier national treasure. My prediction: what went
on at the Baghdad Museum was a foretaste of things to come in
the oil market.


The United
States government is now liberating Iraq. It is also liberating
Iraq’s most important national treasure. Here is a basic rule
of Republican foreign policy: “Any nation that doesn’t have
national treasure to liberate ought to be allowed to remain
in its unliberated condition.” Or, to put it specifically, “No
more Bosnias.” It’s the Democrats who always get us involved
in national liberation without any hope of liberating national
treasures, e.g., World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam,
Haiti, Somalia, etc. That’s why they’re Democrats. Republicans
are not so economically short-sighted.

is a lot of oil under the ground in Iraq, just as there were
a lot of artifacts in the Baghdad Museum. A lot of consumers
would like to get their hands on that oil, just as a far smaller
number of consumers want to get their hands on those ancient

When buyers
want something, they look for middlemen to deliver it. That’s
the principle of the division of labor. Middlemen act as the
economic agents of the highest-bidding buyers. This is the free
market at work. But there are always organized groups of middlemen
that find free market competition too burdensome. They want
to cut costs by getting taxpayers to cover a large percentage
of these costs.

are today billions of people bidding for the energy that oil
provides. They really aren’t particular about the middlemen.
Chevron, BP, Shell: it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.
They think as I do: “Just post the price, guys. Let me decide.”
I don’t really care who gets my money.

But it
matters to the middlemen who gets my money. It matters a great

Back in
1916, certain middlemen in Europe saw all that oil in the Middle
East. They decided that the looming breakdown of the Ottoman
Empire presented a unique opportunity to get their hands on
billions of barrels of national treasure. As a matter of efficiency,
it was easier for the middlemen to divide up the oil market
among themselves if they had their own regional middlemen, who
in turn had the power to consolidate the regional markets by
force and parcel out the booty.

came T.E. Lawrence. Then along came American journalist Lowell
Thomas. Thomas transformed T. E. Lawrence into Lawrence
of Arabia
. Lawrence of Arabia should have been known as
Oil Slick Larry. He made a lot of promises to regional chieftains,
and these promises were validated by various British bureaucrats,
rather like various U.S. Presidents had made promises to regional
chieftains in North America. The integrity of the people making
the promises was similar. So was the outcome of the promises.

If you
want to read about the creation of the region’s original political
middlemen, which required the invention of new States, read
David Fromkin’s magnificently titled book, A
Peace to End All Peace
. Then read Janet Wallach’s Desert
Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

The political
legacy is clear: “If deal-doers want to do deals, they need
other deal-doers.” If Iraq weren’t there, we would have to invent
it. Fortunately, the British did. So, oil after 1918 became
a national treasure, i.e., a resource in the budgets of national
treasuries. Deals were made. Promises were made.

But then,
in 1971, Libya’s Gadhaffi (or is it Ghadaffi, or Qadaffi?) decided
that the national treasure just wasn’t national enough. He nationalized
BP’s refineries and reserves. Then he did the same to Bunker
Hunt’s. The OPEC cartel’s members waited to see what the West
would do in response. The West sent official protests. The West
thereby sent them a message: “Come and get it!” The result in
1973 was well described by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1957: “whole lot
of shakin’ goin’ on.” Or, better put, “sheikin’.” The great
sheikdown began. OPEC hiked the price of oil in 1973. This worked
so well that they did it again in 1979.

They looted
Western oil companies. The creeps!

That is
why we are in Iraq today. The marginal price of oil is established
by its marginal supply, and the U.S. government now has its
hands on the spigots that establish the marginal supply. Dubya
of Arabia is about to re-allocate the ownership of 110 billion
barrels of national treasure. The re-negotiation of contracts
among the middlemen will soon begin. “High bid wins.”


The world
— or at least lovers of old stuff — is outraged at
the looting of the Baghdad Museum. Yet it is not equally outraged
at the looting that made possible the Baghdad Museum. The world
has been trained to think of museums as collections of national
treasures. This means that the world accepts the economics of
national museums. The economics of national museums is as follows.

  1. The
    State restricts the sale of privately owned property, thereby
    creating an oligopsony (government-approved group of buyers)
    or a monopsony (a single buyer: the government). This reduces
    the prices offered to property owners.

  2. The
    State confiscates from taxpayers the money to buy the artifacts.

  3. The
    State brings the artifacts to the city where the State’s
    senior bureaucrats and its richest and most powerful supporters

  4. The
    State opens the doors of the museum to anyone in the name
    of The People.

  5. Since
    most of The People really aren’t interested in artifacts,
    the museums are visited mainly by — I have to say it
    — artsy-fartsy rich people who have had advanced formal
    educations, usually funded by the State, where an appreciation
    for really old stuff is inculcated.

face it: hillbillies and farmers sell their old stuff to middlemen
(antique dealers) for city people (mainly wives of well-to-do
husbands), and they are glad to have the money. What State-funded
museums are all about is allowing an elite group of city people
to admire really old stuff at taxpayers’ expense.

In short,
it’s all about looting.

I say
this as a man who, in March, 2003, spent half a day in London’s
Victoria-Albert Museum, half a day in Britain’s National Gallery,
and half a day in the British Museum. I even sat in the same
chair in the British Museum where Karl Marx used to sit. Without
that State subsidy to Marx in the 1850’s and 1860’s, a hundred
million people would not have been killed in the twentieth century
by their Marxist governments, and there would have been no Adolph
Hitler, who rose to power in the name of anti-Bolshevism. How’s
that for Museum Power? If Marx had been asked to pay a free
market price for access to that chair, maybe he might have decided
to try once again to get a job with the railway, which had turned
him down the first time because of his poor handwriting.

What has
outraged Western art lovers and museum-attenders is that a group
of profit-seeking Iraqi middlemen have taken possession of the
government’s loot. These profit-seeking private looters are
now in the process of re-allocating the booty to private owners,
who will hide the stuff, piece by piece, in private rooms, and
not let the tax-funded elite see it any more. The creeps!

What happened
in Iraq is that, for a brief period, the caretakers of the booty
formerly administered by the recently departed looters —
the Ba’ath Party — did not have the fire-power of the private
looters. Meanwhile, the armed looters of oil (U.S. military
forces, who are acting on behalf of the profit-seeking middlemen
in the oil distribution cartel) stood by and let it happen.
The horror!


It is
a symptom of our era that the Great Thinkers of our day never
ask the following interrelated questions:

doesn’t oil belong to the people on whose land it is discovered?

gives the State the right to set the terms of trade in the
oil markets?

Why don’t
historic artifacts belong to the people on whose land they
are discovered?

gives the State the right to set the terms of trade for these

gives the State the right to sell the oil to wholesalers?

gives the State the right to take money from people who don’t
visit museums, so that people who like to visit museums don’t
have to pay for them?

I don’t
like looting. I don’t like looters. I like private property.
I like governments that systematically protect private property.
(Let me know if you spot one.) This is why I don’t like the
idea of government-created oil cartels or the idea of government-funded
museums. Nevertheless, I do buy gasoline from the most price-competitive
members of the cartel. I also visit museums. I mean, if the
British Museum subsidized Karl Marx, who am I not to get in
on the deal for a few hours?

Call me
schizophrenic. I don’t care. I’d sit here and argue with you,
but I have to go to the library.

21, 2003

North is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.freebooks.com.
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