Last week the mayor of a Spanish town in Andalusia was orchestrating raids to local supermarkets for the purpose of stealing food to feed the poor. He was quoted as saying: “Someone has to do something so families can eat.” Mr. Sanchez Gordillo, an avowed communist and a member of the Andalusian regional parliament for the United Left (IU) party organized the looting, apparently because soup kitchens are struggling due to increased demand amidst Spain’s economic austerity measures. Twelve shopping carts filled with looted food were donated to local soup kitchens (http://rt.com/news/spanish-mayor-hero-supermarket-thefts-886/).

To an avowed communist this was a natural solution: take food from those who have it, such as a “rich” supermarket chain (its owners), and give it to those who do not have enough–problem solved. This solution, however, is profoundly immoral and impractical.

Stealing from the rich (who have legitimately earned their wealth) in order to help the poor is immoral and impractical. It violates several moral principles discussed by Ayn Rand, such as justice: those who produce wealth deserve to keep it or trade it on mutually agreed upon terms. Those who own supermarkets or other food stores have invested money to distribute and sell food, which takes significant effort. If anyone can enter a store claiming that he needs food and takes it without paying, he is getting something he has not earned while the store owner(s) is being robbed of his property—which he has created and earned.

If the store owner(s) does not have a right to his property (another moral principle), there is no incentive for him to save money to start and operate a store. Without the incentive of property ownership and return on investment, there will be no well-equipped, “rich” supermarkets for communists to loot (only state-run stores with limited supply of inferior-quality goods and frequent shortages).

Looting supermarkets is impractical because it solves the problem of people not having enough to eat only temporarily—until the police arrests the looters (like in Mr. Sanchez Gordillo’s town, with the exception of the mayor himself who was let go due to his position as a regional MP), or if property rights are not protected, until the food stores go out of business.

What would be a moral and practical solution to the problem of lack of food for poor people? Moral principles not only help us recognize that looting is the wrong solution; they also help in finding a right solution—one that is consistent with the requirements of long-term human survival and flourishing.

The principle of rationality would tell us to focus on reality. If we want to eat, we cannot evade the fact that food, and food stores, do not just magically appear—like all other material values, they have to be produced by someone. (That is the principle of productiveness.) Rationality also reminds us that we cannot evade the fact that for someone to produce food and to create and operate stores with a great selection at affordable prices, they have to have the incentive and freedom to do so—they need the protection of individual rights, including property rights.

The principle of rationality would also lead us to observe that the long-term solution to having enough affordable food is a system of free markets where competition pushes individuals and companies constantly to seek more efficient and effective ways of producing safe, healthy foods, and other material values, at increasingly low costs while respecting the individual rights of others.

Such a system—capitalism—would truly help the poor, unlike modern-day Robin Hoods such as the Spanish mayor. In a capitalist system there would be more affordable food available, not to mention more jobs and income opportunities for everyone. Converting to such a system would take time, but the interim solution is not to loot the rich but to depend of voluntary charity to help feed those who truly cannot help themselves.

Originally posted 16 August 2012

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad.Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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