No seriously, there is no non-political definition of “theft”

The correct view on the naturalness of distribution is that it isn’t natural. Who gets what is all made up and we can make it up how we want. That’s not to say it’s all arbitrary and all ways of doing it are equal. It is to say that you have to come up with normative principles for your preferred distribution that don’t assume that things inherently and naturally belong to people. An argument that relies on such an assumption is always invalid.

Sometimes people make an argument that seems to not rely upon this assumption but secretly does. It goes like this: if I buy a home and then you change the distributive rules at some point so it doesn’t belong to me anymore, then you really have taken from me. The upshot of this argument is that you don’t need a normative theory of entitlement or a belief in a natural distribution to say something is confiscatory. But it fails.

What it reduces to is the claim that all changes to distributive rules are somehow theft because they change what would belong to people relative to the no-change baseline. The house example is a good one. Suppose we change the rules so the house doesn’t belong to you anymore (so it belongs now to someone else or some other group of people), and then we change the rules back so that it does belong to you again. If you actually believed that changing the rules was theft, then you’d think this was two bouts of impermissible theft.

But a person who claims changing the rules in the first case is theft doesn’t believe changing the rules back would also be theft. They believe that the first rule change was theft and the second rule change was distributing the house back to its rightful owner. It was untheft. But that indicates then that they have some other idea of what deeply and truly belongs to people, and that it is this idea that actually underlies their claim of theft. They don’t actually believe rule changing is theft. They believe rule changing that is inconsistent with their theory of deep entitlement is theft. But then that just pushes us back into a totally normative debate about who is entitled to what. We never escaped into some neutral world where we can decide something is theft in and of itself without reference to a normative theory of entitlement.

What belongs to who is always a contestable political question about how we should construct our relationships between one another. This really seems to bother people, but it shouldn’t. You can still argue for whatever distribution you prefer even if it is an extremely unequal one. You just can’t argue for it by pretending it’s some kind of neutral, default, pre-political, primordial distribution of the universe.

I suspect the reason the right-wing is so reluctant to give up the “neutral default” nonsense approach to arguing about distribution is because they know how horrific it would seem to actually argue that we should consciously construct distributive institutions that create such extraordinary misery on the bottom. So they desperately hold on to saying that we don’t construct our distributive institutions at all, saying instead that they just exist naturally and separate from our own machinations. By denying their inherently constructive nature, they can support extraordinary inequality while denying that we are its creators.