Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham

Robin Hood stole from the rich because they had money – it was a lot more efficient than stealing from the poor. You can only steal effectively from the poor if you have the infrastructure to gather all those pennies and use them, i.e. if you own the tax collection agency and the bank. He gave some small portion of it back to the people because it gained him goodwill, and thereby their protection from the government. Since he was already an outlaw, the government wasn’t going to protect him; what legitimate protection the government at the time offered was protection from outlaws like Robin Hood, who would steal from anyone; if the rich weren’t available, they’d steal from the richest poor people they could find.

The Sheriff of Nottingham collected taxes. Some of those taxes went to maintaining the roads, both clearing the actual pathways and keeping them relatively clear of robbing hoods. If it had stopped at that – if there hadn’t been additional taxes to pay for foreign wars and to buy off political allies of the king and keep the ruling classes living in splendour – then the story of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham would have a very different complexion, most of all a different hero. The Sheriff would be the Man Who Kept The Trade Routes Open, allowing commerce with other villages, enrichening the inhabitants of Nottingham. Robin Hood would be a dangerous subversive and criminal, whose actions threatened not only the people on the roads but the prosperity of all those who depended on the trade the roads carried.

Without governnment, all we have is outlaws. That’s neither desirable nor stable, because in a dog eat dog world someone eventually ends up as the big dog, and you have a king – a government by default, and you’re unlikely to enjoy the result. The alternative is to have a government by the people, of the people, for the people – a democracy. That’s not inherently stable either, because rich people by the nature of things have more influence than poor people – they can buy more votes. (I don’t mean directly, necessarily, but at minimum they can get their message across, where a poor person can’t.) Nevertheless, the rich buying power through hustling more votes is a hell of a sight better than the rich buying power through hiring more guns.

Government is not inherently an enemy, nor is it inherently a friend. Government is fire, a dangerous tool and a terrible master. Everyone wants to live without masters, but no one wants to live without tools. I like government when it stops companies dumping toxins in my drinking water because it’s cheaper for them, and when it builds and maintains the kind of infrastructure that can’t be left in private hands, like public roads; I don’t like government when it tells me who I can marry or have sex with, what I can read or say, when I can decide my life isn’t worth living, where I can travel, or how I can get my jollies as long as they don’t impact others. (I admit I couldn’t think of a ‘why’ off the top of my head.)

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~ by B.T. Murtagh on June 14, 2009.

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