“Robin Hood Revisionism” by Karl Hess

When I was a wee conservative, counting bond revenues at my mother’s knee, it was the dear lady’s practice to frighten me to death with tales of that arch-bandit, Robin Hood. The conservative wisdom was and is that no more dastardly crime lurks in the heart of man than the infamy of taking from the rich to give to the poor. Entire sweeps of political philosophy, in fact, seem to have been motivated by little else than antagonism to poor Robin and his hoods. On the other hand, an entire sweep of political reality, in this nation, was and is motivated by the reverse proposition, that it is okay to rob from the poor to give to the rich.

The Democrats have done it through a welfare system in which the poor are “client” victims who get the crumbs from the bureaucratic table which is the system’s principal purpose. They also characteristically steal the poor blind through construction projects, licenses and franchises, and such other thefts as are most appropriate to men who have risen from precinct politics.

The Republicans have done it through, most lately, the warfare state of corporate liberalism, in which the lives of the poor are daily robbed of meaning or hope so that they may be used solely as cogs in the industrial machine which is the system’s principal purpose. They also steal through the total use of the state and it’s power, its credit, its regulations, to the end of special advantage for the corporate elite, a form of theft most appropriate to men who have gone to the best schools.

So much for the reverse. What about Robinhoodism, straight and unalloyed? Should we frighten tots with his image? Was his the worst of crimes?

Robin, after sober reflection, wasn’t a half-bad sort. He had one wretched notion that we shall discuss later, but his work, by and large, was healthy, useful, and quite impeccable politically–so far as it went.

Who did he rob? He robbed a bunch of rich churchmen, for one thing. Now what in the world is wrong with that? To hear the conservative diatribes against Robin Hood you would think that the mere fact of having riches is the only standard against which to judge the theft of those riches. In short, the conservative notion is that to steal anything from anybody is a crime–regardless of the source of the thing being ripped off or the nature of the owner’s position in regard to society in general.

The churchmen, whom Robin robbed, represented one of the great ruling classes of all time and, like every ruling class, their power and their pelf was the result of the sort of theft that becomes legitimized by longevity. Although much of the income being derived by churches today is from voluntary contributions, much of the capital upon which churches base their economics was extracted in times when the churches had real clout and could force contributions. The Roman Catholic church, of course, is the main user of such capital and is coming under increasing pressure from its priests to divest itself of what even a  rudimentary ethical sense should be able to identify as ill-gotten gains. Robin didn’t wait for divestiture. He helped out. So, on the count of robbing rich churchmen, Robin seems quite acceptable to a libertarian.

Robin was most noted, as a matter of fact, for stealing from government officials. Rich government officials. Now how do government officials become rich? How did the Sheriff of Nottingham make his? Or Lyndon Johnson? Or you name him. Politicians make their money by using their office; by, in an ethical sense, stealing advantages which lead to gains. I would say that such gains also are stolen. So, apparently, did Robin Hood.

It seems to me, as a matter of fact, that Robin Hood’s attacks against the militant arm of the state have been purposefully overlooked by conservatives in their attacks against Robin Hood. There has been a preoccupation, instead, with the technicalities of whose forest it was, whether the Sheriff represented a mere aberration in the divinely inspired order of Western civilization, and whether Robin wouldn’t have been better advised to press his case in a duly constituted court (presided over by the Sheriff of Nottingham!).

The reason for this oversight on the part of conservatives may not be innocent or merely myopic. Robin Hood’s main crime, you see, was against an established order, one duly established in accord with the laws, customs, etc., of the time. Robin, on the other hand, thought it was illegitimate. He was, it should be recalled, a very political cat. His gripe was–ah hah–against THE STATE. Those upon whom he preyed were lackeys or running dogs of THE STATE. It is possible that the specter of Robin Hood today haunts so many conservative dreams not because of their pure thoughts on property rights so much as because of the possibly impure origins of the property dearest to their own hearts. Otherwise, why get so excited about Robin Hood?

There is one reason. It is the only thing that I hold against the old boy and his gassy greenclad gang. They were hung up on King Richard. Now, being hung up on any king is a mistake, I feel. But, until Dick showed up, big as life and raring to get back in the king business, Robin was a beautiful guy. As often happens in life, he was the sort you could go along with wholeheartedly so long as he didn’t have the power he eventually wanted. When the king came back, of course, libertarians in the gang should have just gone back to the woods and started all over again and, by then, they should have had enough local support to stand a better chance than ever of success.

In short, while Robin was robbing, he was doing nothing that should offend libertarian sensibilities and the fact that  so much of what he was doing was aimed specifically against state authority should actually draw libertarian cheers. The subsequent fact that he took some of the loot from his anti-state forays and returned it to the people most sorely victimized by the state should draw not only libertarian cheers but humanist ones as well.

There is one other thing about Robin Hood. He apparently is alive and well in Latin America today. The inter-urban guerrillas in Uruguay seem to operate in his spirit but without that hang-up about kings. Good.

I bet you a monk’s bag of silver that conservatives line up with the Sheriff of Nottingham. But don’t worry, Robin, libertarians are on your side.

Originally published in The Libertarian Forum, Vol. I, No. XV, November 1, 1969.