Rethinking Robin Hood

This is the horror which Robin Hood immortalized as an ideal of righteousness. It is said that he fought against the looting rulers and returned the loot to those who had been robbed, but that is not the meaning of the legend which has survived. He is remembered, not as a champion of property, but as a champion of need, not as a defender of the robbed, but as a provider of the poor. He is held to be the first man who assumed a halo of virtue by practicing charity with wealth which he did not own, by giving away goods which he had not produced, by making others pay for the luxury of his pity. He is the man who became the symbol of the idea that need, not achievement, is the source of rights, that we don’t have to produce, only to want, that the earned does not belong to us, but the unearned does. . . . It is this foulest of creatures—the double-parasite who lives on the sores of the poor and the blood of the rich—whom men have come to regard as a moral ideal. . . . Until men learn that of all human symbols, Robin Hood is the most immoral and the most contemptible, there will be no justice on earth and no way for mankind to survive.

— Ragnar Danneskjold, in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

We draw the wrong lesson from the 20th century version of the Robin Hood legend. His virtue was not in stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. He didn’t steal from King Richard, for example, because Richard was just and treated the people fairly. Robin began “stealing” only after the king’s brother John took charge and began plundering the peoples’ property. In response, Robin sought justice, recapturing what was stolen and returning it to its rightful owners.

Robin was indeed a hero for taking on the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. But by mischaracterizing his deeds we demonize all the wealthy (even the beloved King Richard) and legitimize the stealing of their property. We buy into the unjust notion that we have a “right” to our neighbors’ property simply because they have more than we do. This, of course, turns morality on its head. I don’t have a right to steal my neighbor’s car merely because he has two of them and I have none.

Most everyone is raised to know that it’s wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to you. But many of us fall into the trap of thinking “it’s different” if the things we’re taking belong to the “evil rich” and we’re just “spreading the wealth around.”

When President Obama says he wants to “spread the wealth around,” he’s talking about taking what doesn’t belong to him. He’s talking about stealing.

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