“Thou shalt not steal.”
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s property.”
Anybody who has seen a James Bond movie can imagine one of the villains being patterned after a Russian oligarch. These guys use their government connections to amass billions and some of them certainly are loyal to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. And Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is certainly an immoral act.
Nevertheless, it is still wrong for Western nations to seize these oligarchs’ property, including their massive yachts. You can read about it here:
The oligarchs are being charged with “avoiding sanctions.” These sanctions were imposed just a few weeks ago. Up until then, the Russian oligarchs, who head large Russian companies in the energy and steel business, among others, were simply being capitalists, which is what the West wanted Russians to do for decades when they were under Soviet rule. They were trying to use their connections, smarts and resources to make profits, which, let’s face it, is what all entrepreneurs do.
Are these oligarchs corrupt? Probably yes. But then so are many of the executives at Pfizer, who are deliberately promoting drugs they know are harmful, and paying off U.S. government bureaucrats and media companies while they do so. And it would still be immoral to seize the assets of Pfizer oligarchs, even though they have done plenty of seemingly iniquitous things.
Are these oligarchs crony capitalists? Of course they are, but let’s face it, so are the leaders of many large companies these days, from Facebook to Google to most large insurance companies.
Are these oligarchs breaking the law? Well, as I say, they are breaking laws that were arbitrarily imposed upon them by government officials just a few weeks ago in response to Russia’s invasion.
So, let’s say that a random country — Indonesia, for example — decides to confiscate the yacht of an American executive because that executive broke a law. Not all laws are morally correct, even if they may be legally correct. In the history of global capitalism, there have been millions of government seizures of property that may have involved the breaking of a law, but nevertheless the seizure of property broke moral laws against theft. Was it morally correct for the Bolsheviks to seize without compensation all of the property of wealthy Russians at the beginning of the Russian revolution? Well, if you have ever seen “Dr. Zhivago” you must have some sympathy for that poor family having their house stolen by those revolutionaries in 1917. And if you don’t, you have an empathy problem.
How would you feel if a group of people suddenly took your house or car or boat by force, deciding you “did not deserve it?”
What is happening to the Russian oligarchs is, at the end of the day, a group of powerful government officials deciding these rich people “don’t deserve their property.” Really? Do you know the work habits and the moral status of ALL of these people? And by what standard don’t they deserve their belongings? Remember, most Americans are wealthy by worldwide standards. The same standard applied to confiscating Russian oligarchs’ property can later be applied to you.
The problem with basing society on a standard of “that person doesn’t deserve their wealth” is that it promotes lawlessness, not the law. Whoever has the power gets to decide who deserves and doesn’t deserve something. It promotes theft, which is a sin, and it promote covetousness, which is also a sin.
Thus the importance of “due process,” which has been a key feature of Anglo-Saxon law since the Magna Carta in 1215. The original Magna Carta said: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”
Over time, the English common law came to understand “due process” as reflecting that people have natural rights to life, liberty and property, and that these natural rights are inalienable (meaning they cannot be taken away). And the people who should judge whether due process is taking place are “equals,” meaning other people who may have their property taken away. So, who should decide whether it is just to confiscate oligarchs’ property? Other rich people who may eventually have their stuff taken away.
We can see this reflected in the jury system, where we are judged by a jury of our peers. Under what system are we most likely to be treated fairly? Under a system where people who are like us consider our case and then wonder how they would feel if they were treated the same way. Most people have an inherent sense of justice and can feel empathy for others being put on trial. What is “just” and “fair” very often can only be considered by people who are walking in your shoes, so to speak.
The decision by Western governments to confiscate the possessions of the Russian oligarchs is the opposite of due process. It is powerful governments using their power to take stuff from other people simply because they can. There is simply no moral difference between this and a king deciding to confiscate somebody’s property because he has more soldiers than his victim. The Magna Carta mentions judgement by equals precisely to control unlimited regal power.
So, the bottom line is that everybody has a right to their property, even the apparently evil Russian oligarchs. And if their property should be taken away, it should only happen through a procedure of lengthy due process, which involves a lot of proof and consideration of the complete consequences of the action. Ideally, some of kind of jury should consider the issue, and that jury should not be composed of power-hungry government officials.