When is Theft Not Theft?

The  blog BrandX links to a Times (UK) story on an Anglican vicar who says that thou shalt not steal, unless the victims are big companies:

“My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift. I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither.

“I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices. I would ask them not to take any more than they need. I offer the advice with a heavy heart. Let my words not be misrepresented as a simplistic call for people to shoplift.

“The life of the poor in modern Britain is a constant struggle, a minefield of competing opportunities, competing responsibilities, obligations and requirements, a constant effort to achieve the impossible. For many at the bottom of our social ladder, lawful, honest life can sometimes seem to be an apparent impossibility.”

Leave aside the theological difficulties — is it the Eighth Commandment, or the Eighth Suggestion? Leave aside also the question of what it means to be “poor” in a country in which per capita GDP is well north of $20,000. The striking thing to note is the differentiation between small companies run by real flesh-and-blood people and big companies — evil, deserving of whatever happens to them, and run by and serving, I suppose, something other than real flesh-and-blood people. Its customers, workers, shareholders, etc., because of their mass, cease to be human.

On BrandX, Richard Metzger writes that “It’s not like Rev. Tim is saying ‘Go forth and mug people’ or that the poor should burgle their neighbor’s homes. He’s basically saying ‘feed yourself, illegally if you must, just do it in a way that doesn’t harm society.'” But of course “society” is ultimately a collection of individuals, and a big food retailer is simply a legal device for uniting commercially individual buyers and sellers of food. The effect of some people shoplifting from the big company is that some other people find it harder to get food — they will have to pay more, they will face more inconvenience at the store, and so on. Like all victims of nonconsensual redistribution of wealth, their costs are real but hard to see, hence easy to ignore.

These, and not the poor, are the true invisibles of society. They — the law-abiding customers, the people who make investments, take specific jobs, and otherwise take risks by committing to a particular course of action on the assumption that their property rights will be respected — are the ones damaged by this belief that big companies are simply a bottomless pit of money begging to be ransacked for the good of “society.” (To his credit, at least the vicar acknowledges the harm. It is the blogger who fails to see this.)

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One Response to “When is Theft Not Theft?”

  1. Richard Telofski Says:

    Good point. The differentiation between the “family” business and the large corporation is entirely consistent with an essential element in Marxian philosophy, as you pointed out in your book, The Rise of the Anti-Corporate Movement. There you made the observation that to socialists a prime objective is to “get back to the garden,” the return to a simpler state of society.

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