Once upon a time there was a woman named Alice. Alice was smart, talented, and hard-working, and consequently she had a lot of nice things. Living next door to Alice was a man named Bob. Bob was smart too, but he didn’t have the sort of talents that were appreciated in the market, so he didn’t have a lot of nice things.
Bob looked over at Alice’s house with envy. But Bob knew that the market didn’t appreciate his talents the way it did Alice’s. If he wanted the things Alice had, he would have to work really, really hard, and would probably still come up short.
But Bob had an idea. He thought to himself, “It’s not fair that Alice has so many nice things and I don’t. I should go over there and take some of her things.” So that’s what he did.
Stealing worked so well that Bob decided to steal from Alice’s friends as well. Pretty soon, he had just as many nice things as Alice, but Alice kept working and getting more nice things, so Bob had to keep stealing from Alice and her friends to keep up. Besides, Bob was starting to think he was smarter than Alice (just look at how hard she worked for her nice things!), so why should he have only as much as she did?
Now stealing was dangerous work, so in time Bob decided to hire some of his friends to steal for him. That worked well, but there was still the ever-present danger that he could be arrested. Besides, Bob was getting older and wanted respectability. If only there were a legitimate way that Bob could steal.
One day Bob had his first brainstorm. Instead of hiring his friends to steal for him, he should hire the government to do it. Bob knew a woman named Nancy who was a magistrate in the government. So Bob went to Nancy and paid her to steal for him. Then Nancy used her revenue agents and other bureaucrats to take things from Alice and her friends and give them to Bob.
“Hey!” Alice complained, “This is no different than before. Bob is still taking my things, he’s just using government agents instead of thugs to do it. Bob shouldn’t be allowed to hire the government to steal for him!” A lot of people agreed with Alice, so the government changed the rules to make it much harder to bribe magistrates.
At first Bob was disappointed by this development, but then he had his second brainstorm. He didn’t need to bribe Nancy; just being a magistrate was better than any bribe. She got a nice salary, even better benefits, and when she left the government, she would have good retirement benefits and could get a great job as a lobbyist. The longer she was in the government, the better her retirement benefits and her lobbying job would be. Like many of her colleagues, Nancy didn’t have Alice’s talents, or even Bob’s talents, but she was making a killing as a magistrate.
Bob realized that merely helping Nancy to win elections was better than any bribe, and it was completely legal. So that’s what Bob did; he helped Nancy and her friends to win elections, and they kept stealing Alice’s things for him.
Bob had a lot of ways to help Nancy win elections. He could rig the elections, but that was illegal and slightly risky, so he only did a little of that. He could also contribute money to Nancy’s campaign, and he could run his own advertisements attacking Nancy’s opponent.
But the most effective thing that Bob did was organize a bunch of his friends. They would all vote for Nancy, and in return, the government would give them all some nice things that it took from Alice. Bob’s friends never got nearly as much as Bob did, of course, but it only took a little to buy their votes.
Alice noticed that despite all the government’s ethics reforms, it still kept taking her things and giving them to Bob. Alice complained that it didn’t matter how the government was elected, it shouldn’t have the power to steal from her. But Alice’s cries fell on deaf ears. A lot of Nancy’s friends were magistrates too now, and none of them were going to risk their livelihoods by cutting back their work for Bob.
So Alice went to the public instead, and argued that it was wrong for the government to steal. They should kick Nancy out of office. More importantly, they should limit the government’s power so it couldn’t steal for Bob any more.
But Alice was too late. Bob had already anticipated her argument. “Alice is greedy!” he proclaimed. “She has so many nice things, and my friends have so few. It’s not fair that she should have so much and they should have so little.” Bob didn’t mention that Alice had earned all of her nice things. Neither did he mention that, by now, he had much more than either Alice or any of his friends.
Bob’s ploy worked. Many people were taken in by his argument, and thought that Alice, rather than Bob, was the greedy one. Some people even thought that Alice was trying to steal from Bob and his friends. Nancy was re-elected, and kept giving Alice’s things to Bob.
Every year, Nancy took a little bit more from Alice than the previous year. Alice and her friends grew angrier every year, but at the same time, Bob and his friends grew increasingly shrill.
How does the story end?
Some say that one day Alice won the debate. People noticed that Nancy’s government was organized for theft, and wasn’t any good at anything else. Eventually, even many of Bob’s friends came to understand that the government’s large-scale robbery was running their society into the ground.
But others say that society was indeed run into the ground. Eventually Alice gave up fighting Bob, but she knew that Bob would take whatever she earned, so she gave up working hard too. Alice’s friends followed suit. In the end, there was nothing left for Bob to steal.
Bob blamed Alice.