The current previews for Ridley Scott’s new upcoming movie: Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe (which look excellent by the way), has me thinking about the venerable medieval legend and his lingering influence in our modern society. Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor at first glance seems to many to be a “good,” populist notion. But one that on second glance should give us, as a nation not of men, but of laws, pause. However, it is also a notion that needs a third, and more thoughtful, glance.
I think most of us who feel pleasure at the phrase, take from rich, give to poor, do so with the assumption that rich equals bad, while poor equals good. There are of course as many good rich people as there are bad poor people, and vice versa. This is the problem with idealistic assumptions. Of course, Marxists would prefer the phrase be left alone, with no thought given it what so ever. After all, what else is Marxism if not: stealing from the “rich” and giving to the “poor?” And if that’s what Robin Hood was really all about, I don’t think it would have enjoyed such enduring universal legacy.
A second glance tells us that it’s just as immoral, unethical—wrong to steal from the rich as it is to steal from anyone. Should we have to put the specific theft through some sort of technical analysis before determining if it is right or wrong? Now, I’m not saying there aren’t degrees that can make one theft worse than another. For example, stealing food from a poor person compared with stealing it from a rich person. One is obviously worse than the other, can have more critical consequences for the one than the other, but the issue is not the degree, but whether or not both acts are wrong? Yes, of course they are both unequivocally wrong.
When we watch or read about Robin Hood, even we libertarians and conservatives feel a visceral kinship with the Squire of Sherwood Forest as he takes up the cause of his legitimately oppressed people. The reason Robin has such universal support comes from the third more thoughtful look at the issue. In the most popular telling we know, Robin doesn’t indiscriminately steal from some anonymous “rich” class, and the wealthy “victims” in the story need to be taken in the era’s context. Robin Hood’s world was a feudal one, with a strong monarchy, temporarily run by an unscrupulous Prince John, while the benevolent King Richard I (the Lion-Hearted) was away fighting in the Crusades. This backdrop is critical to Robin’s (who is loyal to Richard) motivation.
The local government of the time consisted of wealthy land owners and government officials representing the crown (Prince John) and deriving their “authority,” from it. In contravention of justice, the land owners and government officials imposed abusive taxes on those who could least afford it, and the methods of tax confiscation were often brutal.
In the end the Robin Hood story is more a tax revolt, than some social wealth redistribution scheme, and this is what I believe most Americans cheer. Nowhere in the most popular telling of the legend do I recall Robin Hood espousing stealing money from honest earners to give to anyone else. On the contrary, Robin “steals” (or expropriates) money (property) from the “rich” (government) and then returns it to its rightful owners, the “poor” (the people), from whom it was originally confiscated (stolen).
To be consistent, stealing is stealing regardless of the target or any good intentions. However, it provides necessary tension in fiction, and I believe the “theft” portion only serves as a metaphor for returning to the people taxes unfairly collected by government. In that vein, we could use more “stealing from the ‘rich’” (government) and “giving to the ‘poor’” (tax cuts) today.