Sunday, April 17, 2005

Legal Robbery and Murder: Someone Help!

Legal Robbery and Murder: Someone Help!

My latest experience visiting the conflict ridden South Sudan is one that taught me a lesson I am not soon to forget, and one that I had to experience personally rather than read about in order for it to be fortified in my mind. It is a lesson that I would like to share with all the young people in Africa and around the world who have also wondered like me, why Africa is incomprehensible.
The thought of a strong powerful government for a long time conjured up images of security and stability in my mind. A government that had the power to regulate everything and keep everyone in check felt like what a country needed to preserve order and thus to create an environment in which people would be able to go about their economic activities, and prosper.
I discovered that this kind of government, contrary to what I thought, can actually be the recipe for total disintegration of society, turning human beings into beasts and creating a system in which chaos reigns, literally a man-eat-man society.
I saw first hand that oppression is created by law, and it doesn't matter who is doing it, the injustice is the same and it causes the same kind of suffering to the oppressed, subjecting them to poverty, death, misery and suffering.
Our parents and teachers tell us from childhood, and these are basics, that people can live and acquire the things they want, and a desirable standard of living only by working hard, and applying their talents and brains to the resources around them. This process is the origin of property. It is the noble, decent process of earning a living, where the key word is "earn".
But it is also true that people can live and satisfy their wants by taking and consuming the fruit of other people's labor by force. This process is called robbery, and is a crime in most countries around the world. It is undesirable, unjust, unfair, and no one likes being a victim to this. People who do this should be punished in order to discourage this kind of behavior in society.
To my shock and dismay, robbery and murder are not only encouraged by law in the countries I visited, but are government policy and perpetrators are rewarded by being allowed to keep and sell what they "legally" acquire by force with out payment to the owners, since at law the owner's rights are not recognized!!!
Imagine living in a place where if someone wants your property, instead of renting or buying it, they decide it is cheaper to kill you, and then proceed to make a law that entitles them to do this unabated, and guess what, you can't turn to the government for justice because these guys are the police and the army!!! So all you can do is run for your life. With your children and family, you run.
In the Sudan, the government has a written policy to clear the land within a 50 Kilometer radius of any oil rigs of all human life. So if you happened to live on a piece of land and oil was discovered there, no one asks you how much you would be willing to take for it. No, you don't sign a lease agreement with anyone giving them permission to set up shop on your property for a certain length of time. The government militias come in tankers and bomber planes and get rid of you, so you teach your kids how to recognize the sound of a bomber from the sound of a relief food airplane, so that they run for cover when they hear the former, and run for food when they hear the latter -- either way, running for their lives.
If you fly over south Sudan, you clearly see "cleared land". I saw it. Many patches of white, that were the floors of people's huts, now burnt to the ground for miles and miles around the oil rigs. If I wondered before what incentive people had to take up arms and go to war against their government, it did not take much work to see that this was clearly one of the reasons. If I wondered before why the majority are poor, and only a small political elite is wealthy, it takes little brain work to see that one of the reasons is because they have no institutions that protect their right to their land, so that they would profit off its value, and no time and stability to set up a home, let alone a functioning economy.
So they live running for their lives, unable to make plans for tomorrow, unable to set up schools, hospitals, infrastructure, markets to exchange goods and services, and then people's first reaction is to send them food, medicine, and aid of different kinds (when it is safe).
I ache for these people. I met and made friends with some of them and discovered that young people there want the same things I do. The parents wish for the same things I hear my parents speaking of.
They want to produce things and get paid for them, they want to be able to buy things other people have produced, they would like to able to make plans for the future, to invest in a decent education, to travel, to celebrate their success and those of their children, to find better, faster and easier ways to do things, to rest, to sample different cuisines, enjoy other people's music, discuss ideas, opinions and views of the world, and even in the unstable life they have, they teach their children how to work hard, to earn a living, not how to rob others or be a beggar relying on the charity of others.
Governments can do much more than protect people from plunder and coercion. Government's power to tax can indeed be used to pay for police, courts, and military defense but the same power may be used to dispense other benefits. To someone who can influence the government, its power can be a tool for gaining access to other peoples' property. It is no more just and no less destructive than the criminal plunder of a thief. If people can compete for legal access to their neighbors' wallets and purses through the political process, it will not be long before a government designed to protect peoples' rights becomes one of the greatest threats to those rights.
Understanding the dangerous incentives inherent in concentrating power in a central government, I realize that many African countries need the devolution of power in order to give people less reason to want to fight to be in power, since if my being in power does not enable me to interfere with your life and pursuit of happiness, then it makes no difference whether I am from your tribe or not. But when the reverse is the case, then we could have the same skin color and speak the same language, but I would still feel threatened by you.
In order for people to be engage in productive activity and thus earn a living, they all need to have the freedom to do so. Robbery is robbery, whether the law says it is ok or not. Spades are spades and not big spoons. Laws are man made, and I would think they should thus serve the people they are made for rather than disenfranchise, oppress and relegate them to suffering.
To do what is right makes sense, to do what is wrong throws society into chaos, and the only way to end the chaos is to do what is right.
A legal system with no institutions to protect the property rights of individuals is a recipe for robbery, murder and poverty. I was told by people in Sudan, and it is self evident when I look around the world at the countries that clearly define and protect property rights.

June Arunga

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