Shoplifting: A Just Crime

Its delightful when an Anglican clergy man finds himself fighting for the same cause as someone called PigDogFucker. But this is the situation in which we find ourselves when the subject turns to shop lifting. Father Tim Jones has said it is entirely justified for those in his congregation to steal if they find themselves in genuine need. He goes on to argue that theft from large national firms is more easily justifiable than theft from small family businesses. In a similar vein, PigDogFucker approvingly quotes the CEO of  Iceland trying to sound sarcastic but failing:

Petty shoplifting has been decriminalised – it’s not really a crime at all, is it? No one suffers, the shop can afford it. It’s victimless.”

While it is clearly controversial to claim that it is moral to shoplift, philosophically speaking it is not particularly difficult to justify. It all comes down to property, who has a right to control what, and whether or not that right is absolute.

The archetypal (or should that be archaic?) justification for private property comes from Locke.

Labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to. As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property.

However a number of problems flow from this argument for property rights. First of all, Locke argues that the world is at first ours in common because God has granted it to all of us. By mixing our labour with part of the world we come to own part of it. This a priori assertion is thoroughly unsatisfying in the search for a rational basis for private property.

As Locke was writing in the 17th Century vast swathes of untouched land were being discovered, and England was still a patchwork of common land, conurbations, crown and private estates, [1] so he added another proviso to his “mixing labour” argument. He argued that the acquisition of property is only legitimate if “enough and as good left in common for others.”

While this would have been a possibility in Locke’s time, in a world of 6 billion souls, and in a medium sized island like out own this proviso is much harder to realise. Therefore, in order to justify private property some mental gymnastics are necessary. Between the 17th century, when Locke was writing, and our own time private property has become firmly entrenched, and it would be somewhat churlish to argue that the explosion in wealth, prosperity and comfort which we have seen since then is just a coincidence.

So, although enough and as good has not been left in common for others, the increase in wealth which has followed means that we are all better off as a result, even though – perhaps exactly because – private property rights have meant that there is not as much or as good left in common.

This then brings us to the subject of shoplifters. There are a lot of reasons to shoplift; hunger can lead the homeless to steal for a hunk of bread to eat, but addiction can lead others to steal because they need something to sell for a rock of crack to smoke, others steal because it is an addiction in itself.

In the case of the homeless you have to weigh the rights of one party to property against the rights of another to freedom from hunger. It is possible to argue, and some have, that the homeless should indeed go hungry and starve if they cannot find someone to give them food, because property rights are sacrosanct. Although the homeless person is worse off – i.e. dead – if property rights are enforced in this way, he is no worse off than if he lived in a state of nature where his life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

That this idea repulses us is a fairly good indicator that we may have some across a formulation of property rights that is untenable in the real world. This example illustrates that we must accept property rights are far from absolute, and that in fact it is a just outcome for you to be separated from your property.

However, our priest said society’s attitude to those in need “leaves some people little option but crime.” His was not just a justification for taking just what is needed to secure a life free from hunger, but as a way to extract what is justly theirs as members of a liberal society. This is why he prompted those in need to steal from national chains and not small businesses.

By taking what is needed from large businesses the costs of those crimes get recycled back to us in the form of higher prices. Rather than the beggars, our priest’s call was to “people are released from prison, or [those] find themselves suddenly without work or family support.” These are people who have been let down by society but who are not in imminent danger of expiring.

This leads us to an altogether more difficult set of moral dilemmas. For example, the support that those who leave prison get is derisory, and certainly counter-productive, but this unilateral socialisation of the costs of this failing is not just on the terms described above.

Society has failed some people, the idea that the costs of these failings should be socialised not by state support or voluntary associations but by theft is not justifiable. Although “need” must be understood as something more complex than mere physical subsistence – for example, nappies, bathing products, warm winter coats – the people this is aimed at can never get the support necessary through theft alone.

Our priest wants to argue that these people must get the support they need by hook or by crook it is not possibly to steal counselling, or to steal a stable home or steal full time employment, and these are things is that those in need probably need most. Although it is possible, and easy, to justify some theft the help this priest wants to provide will never come of it. The answer is more state support for those who leave prison, and not knee jerk “crack downs”, the answer is a proper drugs regime where addicts can access clean needles when they need it, and counselling and support when the need that too.

Unfortunately this stuff does not come cheap and this cost must be socialised, luckily, rather than shoplifting we have a state that can do all that.

[1] That’s how it was seen at the time. The Amerindians, Indians, Aborigines, Bushmen and Inuit did get in Locke’s way somewhat but he skirted around this. In any case, they soon died of flu and syphilis and freed up space, so all’s well that ends well.