The Nature of Theft

I recently had a pretty interesting exchange with a fellow Twitter member, Oren Kaufman (@HorhayAtAMD), that started with this tweet:

Oren had some thought-provoking responses to the above but, before I address them, let me explain the thinking behind that tweet:

Let’s start with a simple definition of theft: taking something from someone without compensating them for it.

Now, let’s examine this dynamic: if someone takes an item of value from someone else without giving them something of at least commensurate value as determined by the party from whom the item was procured, what then is the value of that item? In other words, if I take an item of value and give back no value for it in return, then what is the value of the item once it has been stolen? Since I gave no value for the item and the party from whom the item was taken can no longer derive value from it, then the logical answer is that the item no longer has any value.

What makes this a confusing proposition is that an item may still retain its worth even when its value has been reduced to nothing. For instance, stolen items are often “fenced” because someone else is willing to pay for the worth of the item. However, in this situation, does the item still have value? How much value can an item have to someone who is willing to procure it after it was stolen from someone else?

I think it is conundrums of this nature that our moral traditions were meant to address. At least on a philosophical level, I believe that the ultimate benefit to the thief of something stolen is zero. In other words, I think a person who steals a thing will, in the end, derive no true benefit from it. I don’t think of it as “karma” so much as I think of it as a universal truth; I believe value produces value and that value cannot be produced in circumstances in which none is given. Granted, this is a “belief” and not a fact. There are certainly enough circumstances in the real world that at least suggest that my belief may not hold true. But, I think the Universe is the result of a conscious effort; in the end, I think these types of things do balance out.

This belief presumes that value can be exchanged for the stolen item but is not. But what if value cannot be exchanged and an item is stolen by necessity? What got me thinking from this perspective was the following tweets from Oren Kaufman:

I agree with these tweets 100%. But they also got me thinking about theft in general and the conditions normally associated to the act. What I’d like to posit is that moral traditions regarding theft were meant to apply strictly under conditions in which an exchange of value is possible but doesn’t occur. This includes situations in which a person may not be able to exchange commensurate value for an item as a matter of circumstance but would suffer no severe consequences for not procuring the thing which s/he may have decided instead to steal.

However, what if someone who is unable to earn the money to buy food, due to circumstances beyond his/her control, then steals it? Isn’t such an action perfectly rational under the circumstances?

When a person is willing to exchange value but, due to extenuating circumstances, cannot (or when a person is forced by circumstance to make a value exchange to their own detriment), a credible argument can be made that a crime has been committed against that person to begin with … the crime of “structural violence.”

Structural violence is the condition of harm resulting from a system’s very existence. For instance, slavery as a system is, by nature, structurally violent. Colonialism is also structurally violent as history unequivocally shows. Indeed, Capitalism in general, of which slavery and colonialism are/were a part, has produced an incredible amount of structural violence.

This violence is not limited to the “hard” types, such as physical suffering, torture and death; “soft” violence, such as shame, hopelessness, and humiliation, also plays a significant part. Consider the issue of unemployment:

Let’s say a person is employed with a company for 15 years; they have a house and mortgage and have generally managed their finances responsibly. Now let’s say that person is laid off by their employer. Capitalism assumes that this person will be hired elsewhere. However, what happens if they aren’t? How many people have found themselves in a situation like this in which the resulting outcomes have been a total depletion of their savings, exploding personal debt, foreclosure, or worse? What about those who desire to work but are fundamentally unable to find a job? What about those who can only find low-paying work which keeps them locked in a cycle of debt, struggling every day to make ends meet?

This is the structural violence of Capitalism. Stress, anxiety, depression, shame, humiliation. Under more extreme circumstances, physical suffering and even death. Capitalists tout the beneficence of Capitalism but it is a system that facilitates the death of millions every year and harms hundreds of millions of others in more subtle yet just as profound ways. While the “hard” violence of Capitalism has declined dramatically over the last 100 years, can the same be said about the “soft” violence which eats away at the spirit and destroys self-esteem?

In our society, we have long accepted that unjustly taking the life of a person is a reprehensible act that damages the foundation of the social contract which allows our civilization to flourish. However, there seems to be far less value placed on dignity, even though it can easily be argued that the destruction of personal dignity has far greater lasting implications for society than murder. What harms have been produced by the systematic disregard of personal dignity in our Capitalist system? How much violence has Capitalism both inflicted and produced, which has permeated through our society like an unchecked virus? How much physical and emotional violence and abuse can be directly attributed to the simple loss of personal dignity? Just as importantly, how much crime can be directly attributed to it? How many murderers, thieves, and other criminals has Capitalism produced by creating the conditions in which their potential to create value as productive members of society could not be fulfilled as a matter of circumstance?

These are the questions which Capitalists refuse to confront. They would have you believe that Capitalism is, at the very least, benign and even benevolent. Does our world reflect the truth of that position? Capitalists will point to the decline in “hard” violence over the last 100 years as proof of their position. I maintain that it’s also the “soft” violence of Capitalism, which persists and, in many ways, is getting worse, that is the real truth of our current economic system.

Theft is the act of taking something of value without giving something of commensurate value in return. What are the outcomes for a system that steals personal dignity? I think, in the long run, the consequences will indeed be dire.


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