2015 Update: Stealing Still Wrong

So Lee Siegel, writing in the New York Times, says he defaulted on his student loans. He apparently feels suckered by banks and colleges, and fully justified.

Let's start with the obvious. Stealing is wrong, and Siegel has stolen from everyone who will have to cover his defaulted debt. This basic truth seems to have escaped Siegel; one almost gets the impression he thinks the banks themselves are the victims, or perhaps the loan repayment will come out of some oily executive's cigar-and-yacht money. It's especially disturbing to me when a writer defends stealing because--hold on to your hats--people steal from writers all the time. Siegel has written some books, and I promise you, someone has stolen them, and has a list of rationalizations as long as Siegel's.

Siegel's essential complaint is the same complaint that every criminal makes: if I didn't commit my crime, I wouldn't be able to get everything I want. Nothing else he says in the article is anything more than a redressing of this complaint. E.g., if he didn't go to school at Columbia, he could have incurred a lot less debt, but then he would have to go to a much less prestigious school. Morally this is no different than saying, if I didn't steal the 75-inch television, I would have to watch a much smaller TV.

I might almost forgive Siegel for his self-serving article if he used his moral failings as a springboard to reform the system in some way. But Siegel seems to be a committed statist. The underlying problem is that government underwriting of student loans has allowed loans to greatly increase, which in turn has fueled the explosion in tuition. The solution is simple--get the government out of the student loan business. That's it. Siegel has it backwards, though. He hopes that massive defaults would lead to more government involvement, as though doubling the dose of poison turns it into a cure.

He writes: "Instead of guaranteeing loans, the government would have to guarantee a college education." Does he mean the government would just pay everyone's tuition? Why wouldn't he expect that to raise tuition levels even further?

Ah, but then the students wouldn't be the ones paying, would they? It would be the rest of us, the taxpayers. In other words, instead of him being the sucker, he'd like to make all of us suckers. No thanks.

In one respect, though, Siegel and I are in agreement. If this is what a Columbia education produced, whatever he paid them was too much.

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