Thursday, March 4, 2010

Robin Hood - a Noble Thief, But Still a Thief

Don't we all love the story of Robin Hood?

According to legend, he was a nobleman, required like all nobleman in exchange for the land that he was given, to serve in the King's military forces during 100 Years War. That's an important point, too. Robin of Locksley had lands, which he was given or inherited, and his job, as a nobleman, was to protect the King's interests, and he fulfilled his duty to the King.

But when he returned to England after many years of fighting in the Holy Land, he found his home in shambles, under the tyrannic thumb of the minimally sane, extremely greedy Sheriff of Nottingham, whose job it was to enforce laws and collect taxes in the King's absence (the King, as we recall, was off fighting in the Middle East).

As the legend goes, the people were suffering, cold and hungry, and the Sheriff was growing fat and rich, basically stealing from the King's subjects. He wasn't a very good fellow. Robin Hood began a campaign of taking back from the evil Sheriff.

One might argue that it was an act of Civil Disobedience. The people were being forced, by law, to pay all of their money to support the Sheriff, who would have argued that the money was going to support the King's war in the Holy Land, and those who could not pay their taxes ended up in jail. Robin Hood's answer was to take the money away from the Sheriff - often by force - and give it back to the people.

As noble as his cause, it was not an act of "civil disobedience", but rather it was stealing. Plain and simple.

Better would have been to rally the people against the tyrannical Sheriff and orchestrate a rebellion. Instead, he engaged in a guerilla conflict, behaving not much better than mercenaries or anarchists, and just taking from the rich travelers who passed through the forest. He and his band of Merry Men were stealing.

I was reading an article the other day. Basically, the article was about ways we can get ourselves out of debt, other than doing the responsible thing and paying off the debt. The premise of the article seemed to be that we've been duped into this sort of lifestyle by some forces over which we have no control. The argument was that *we*, the average, middle class working stiff, didn't know what we were doing, because we were being manipulated, and therefore, we should not be held accountable for our massive debt load.

Frankly, I find it a little insulting to insinuate that I was too stupid to understand the complexities of free enterprise, and when I accepted the terms of my credit card or my mortgage or my car loan, it was only because I am too dim-witted to understand that I was being toyed with - like a cat with a defenseless mouse.

An aside: I had a cat a few years ago, who didn't have any teeth, because she was old. She caught a mouse once, and was holding it in her mouth, trying to squeeze it to stun it, and it bit her, and she dropped it with a yowl. Observing that scene forever erased the idea that mice are defenseless.

The authors recommended several courses of action to mitigate the debt problem, and I didn't have a problem with any of their suggestions, except that they called it civil disobedience, and I disagree that what they are advocating falls under that definition.

The definition of civil disobedience is active refusal to obey certain laws, demands and commands of a government, and last time I checked, there were no laws requiring that citizens apply for and use credit cards, take out student loans, borrow money, or buy homes and enter into mortgage contracts.

For years, many years, in fact, we have enjoyed this glut of credit, and now, when things are going poorly for a lot of people who accepted ... nay, demanded unsecured credit on the promise that they would pay back the loans, we have well respected authors, authority figures whose opinions are sought and trusted, advocating that we just walk away from these loans, because ... well, it wasn't our fault, and the banks are the bad guys, anyway, and so in our Robin Hood fantasy, it's okay to take from them, the rich, and give to us, the poor.

Personally, I'm not buying it. I think it's irresponsible. We can argue all day about how evil the banks are, but in the end, if we play their game on their ground, are we any better?

We have options. In fact, that article I read did give one or two good pieces of advice. The first one was to stop, and that's, really, the only one of the four possibilities that I could get behind. We can stop making the rich richer by refusing to take the things they offer.

We can stop shopping.

Most of us have a houseful of crap, and we could live for YEARS without buying something new if we just reused and repurposed what we have.

For those things we feel we do need, we could find them used at thrift stores, on Craigslist or through freecycle.

We can grow or forage all of our food.

We can stop driving and walk wherever we go.

We can.

That we choose not to is something altogether different, but we are able to do any and all of those things. It is possible.

The other option is to continue to buy the things we want and need, but to adopt a cash-only lifestyle. We can drive our cars, if we were able to get the car without a loan. There are many people who live this way, quite successfully, and what they've found is that without the lure of easy credit, they spend less on things they do not need, and therefore, actually have more money to spend. It's funny to note that by not borrowing other people's money, we actually have more money to spend, but it's true.

Walking away from one's debt is not civil disobedience but if we really wanted to engage in civil disobedience, how about some options that don't require us to compromise our integrity in the way reneging on our obligations does?

How about ignoring some of the more restrictive ordinances and home owner policies instead?

How about planting a garden in the front yard;

... stringing a clothesline;

... raising livestock - without registering them;

... having a pet dog without a license;

... digging a well or a root cellar, or remodeling the inside of the house to allow for more space for tenants or roommates, or putting in a woodstove, or setting up a solar array or windmill, or setting up a storage shed or woodshed without a building permit?

All of those things are against the law in some places - the civil law, not the criminal law, and more and more we find that those laws serve no purpose but to force us into a dependency that is becoming more detrimental to our health and well being. The inability to grow one's own food has forced us to depend on others to satisfy the most basic of our needs, and what they are feeding us is making us sick. We would do a lot better concentrating on getting those laws changed ... and the result would be that we'd save a great deal of money by being more self-reliant, which we could, then, use to pay off our debt obligation.

Thoreau's essay, Civil Disobedience, was not about money in the sense that the above referenced article was. His essay was about not allowing the government to make us dependent. It was about encouraging us toward self-reliance.

It is our right and our responsibility to refuse to obey laws that force us into a position of dependency.

But when it comes to our personal debt - our mortgages, our credit cards, student loans, car loans, bill consolidation loans - arbitrarily deciding one day that we're not going to repay our obligation to our creditors, because we've come on hard times, and, well, they're all corrupt anyway, is *not* civil disobedience, and using the term thus is an insult to the hundreds of individuals who fought to overthrow tyrannical governments by peaceful refusal to follow the laws they were trying to enforce.

Refusing to pay one's debts is irresponsible. No person in this country was forced to accept the handouts of easy credit, and we all willingly accepted the opportunity to live a life we could not afford. Now that we're realizing that we can't really afford the things we thought we needed to be happy, we've started blaming the banks for giving us the money?

That's like blaming your mom when your life turns out badly, because she gave birth to you.

But being pro-Life.

We can't have it both ways. We can't buy into the consumerist lifestyle, until it gets too hard, and then decide we just don't want to play anymore, and then stop paying our bills, but at the same time, refuse to change our lifestyle (you know, like, not paying the mortgage, but refusing to leave the house).

Either we want the consequences of our hedonistic lifestyle - which is debt.

Or we don't, which means we don't get to drive a sports car, and maybe we live in a tent down by the river, instead of in a four bedroom, two bath colonial with lake frontage.

We can't have it both ways, and we can't expect to get something for nothing. That's what children do. As adults, we have to do better.

Taking something that someone else owns without being willing to provide some sort of compensation is stealing, not civil disobedience, and Robin Hood, for all that we love his courage and tenacity, was simply a thief, which is great in fantasy, but not so much in reality.


  1. I'd agree that defaulting on your loan and calling it civil disobedience is a stretch. But I certainly wouldn't call it theft either.

  2. I agree with you I think. And yes it is theft, because you made an agreement to recieve goods in exchange to pay in installments. when you still have those goods and you dont pay its the same as if you walked out the store without paying. Difference is when u default on a loan it wasnt your intention in the first place.

    The hedonistic lifestyle doesnt work. But most are grown up thinking that it is the only lifestyle. Even making it illeagal to not consume to the standards of today. when the spend spend spend lifestyle catches up , they want to default so they can continue that lifestyle. What ever happend to ," sorry I cant afford it" ? I'll tell you what happend to that, She started looking for a boyfriend or husband that could afford it if you couldnt. So Id have to say only that the lack of morality and values have a big role in this spend spend lifestyle. my 2 cents... and thanks for the post

  3. I'm one of those persons who has no debt. Paid cash for our last vehicle and bought it now. Have money in the bank. My frugal life is lived that way because I want to. It wasn't always that way. We lived from paycheck to paycheck when we were young because we had to. This way is so much better.

    I do have a credit card, but I use it for convenience. At the end of each month, I pay the bill off and that allows me to pay NO interest. Plus I get a little "cash-back bonus" every month.

    I pay my bills. When people don't pay their bills, the company that loses money on us has to make it up somehow. So they increase their fees on everyone else. I will not be responsible for this sort of thing done to other innocent folks. And that people think they can run out on paying their bills and that loss just floats up into the air and disappears just reeks of stupidity and selfishness. This is why businesses fail. We all pay a price for this in our taxes and in higher costs of goods and utilities. Think about it.

    I love to go to yard and garage sales. Nowhere can you see how wasteful people are than at these sales. There are tables and tables of EXCESS -- stuff the person bought that they THOUGHT they had to have, and then got it home and found out they didn't need it, afterall. So it goes on the sale table priced at a tenth, or less, of the purchase price. Money down the hole. Then at the end of their sale, they count their money and they are happy because they "made money". No they didn't. They just cashed in their losses.

  4. It's not theft, it's just a simple breach of contract. The contract spells out the consequences. If you are willing to accept the consequences of breaking the contract, how is that theft? The bank has some money, plus full ownership of the house. The defaulter has bad credit. I don't understand what has been stolen.

    If we're talking about people who stop paying and keep living in the house, maybe there's a case to be made. But it's still fuzzy. The bank can have the defaulter evicted at any time, but they sometimes choose not to for their own benefit. An empty house loses value and has added maintenance costs.

    But it's just a contract like any other. Either party can walk away if they accept the repercussions spelled out by the agreement (and those that follow from it).

    I guess the best argument to be made is that none of this would be handled by a criminal court. It's a civil matter, like divorce. Not paying your mortgage doesn't land you in jail. No crime has been committed in the eyes of the law.

  5. e4 - What you say is true, in that, if the bank allows the defaulted homeowner to stay in the house for free after foreclosure, it's no harm, no foul.

    But this post wasn't just about mortgages :). I was really speaking of debt, in general, and the notion that, if it gets too much for us, we can just stop paying, which, to me, is stealing. Someone will, eventually, have to pay for the defaulted debt, in higher principals, in higher interest rates, in higher costs for goods and services. As Ilene pointed out, the debt doesn't just evaporate into thin air.

  6. hmmm...
    I really liked the part about civil disobedience and your suggestions for participating.

    I've wanted laying hens for about 2 years, now. My city bylaws require me to live on one acre before I'm allowed ANY. Once the property hits that size, the bylaws state I could have 12. There's no middle ground.

    The nearby big city (Vancouver, BC, Canada) has recently agreed to change this bylaw to allow backyard chickens, but it's taken a year so far, and they haven't re-written the bylaw.

    I've been contemplating getting 2 or 3 laying hens, anyway, and locating them as far away from my neighbours as possible - bylaw enforcement is complaint driven. My concern is that I won't then be able to let the chickens 'free range' because that would put them in sight of my neighbours. It feels a little sneaky...
    Still, food for thought, as usual :)

  7. I guess to me there's a big difference between knowingly running up debts with the intention of defaulting, and foolishly running up debts beyond your means. One is fraud (criminal) and one is just stupidity (civil).

    Secured debt (i.e. house & car loans) are easy because they can just repo the items in question.

    Unsecured debt (i.e. credit cards) are, well, unsecured. So they already come with a higher cost that's meant to account for the fact that a certain percentage of people are going to default.

    If too many people default (in either case), the banks made a bad bet. As did the defaulters.

    There are lots of gray areas. Where do debt payments fall in the priority list of things that need to be paid for? Is the mortgage company entitled to your retirement money? Your kid's college fund? Should they be able to affect your ability to get a job? (Hint, they already can.) What if you know for sure you'll default eventually, do you keep paying now?

    We all make decisions every day based on what we perceive to be the risks vs. rewards. Sometimes our perceptions are wrong. Sometimes we are fooled by artificially inflated/deflated markets. Sometimes we deceive ourselves because it all sounds so good. Sometimes we do stupid things or don't understand what's really going on.

    Does it make you a bad person to default on your debt? I dunno. Does it make you a bad person to get a divorce? File for bankruptcy? Lose your job? Great leaders as well as worthless bums have done all of these things.

    I'm not advocating anything. I guess I just see it as a legal rather than a moral issue.

  8. I guess I never did address your point about it costing others. It only costs those who voluntarily participate in the system. It doesn't change the terms of anybody's existing contracts.

  9. a friend of mine ran up her credit cards, never intending to pay them, planning, instead, to file for bankruptcy. This always made me mad. My husband and i got caught in the credit card trap and then when we couldn't keep up with the payments, our interest rates sky-rocketed to 37%! When we sold our house and made a nice profit, we took a chunk of that money and paid off a large percentage of our credit card debt. Then we spent the next 2 years doing nothing but paying down the rest of the debt until it was gone. We were responsible and not once did we talk about filing for bankrptcy. Never again will we use credit cards like that. My friend? She has credit cards again, and shops like there's no tomorrow. Someday, it'll come back and bite her in the a$$.

  10. Oh wow, I LOVE your soapboxes!! I agree that too many people opt out of their debt instead of sticking it out and paying it off. In Jewish thought there's the concept of built in years of release from debt (though I dont know if they actually do this in Israel presently)...I've thought that that probably discourages the lenders from lending too dangerously to begin with.

    I'm with you on the civil disobedience...which I personally define as obeying a higher law if a civil law is morally reprehensible. I know that's subject to much interpretation, but when it comes to the PERSONAL decision of my own health and privacy, I believe in choosing the right to determine my own choices rather than the supposed proposed OBLIGATION to have health care or be fined. And thee are so many other freedoms going by the wayside just now, if we DONT choose to take action, which is what civil disobedience is really (non violent protest at its most basic) we'll lost them forever.

    I'm waiting for the day our present leader takes off his shoe and bangs it on the table chiding the American public for continuing to insist on having its own voice like a wayward child being strident to Daddy. It's time the president remembers he's there to serve us, we the people, and not vice versa.

    Of course, I'm a woman of few opinions (mmmph! lol) ;-)

  11. oops typos galore in the above comments I just wrote...sorry :)