A couple of days ago, my daughter and I had an intriguing discussion about theft — from people and from businesses. Some of her friends (she’s 13) contend stealing from a business is not the same as stealing from a person. The former is permissible and latter is not, her peers reason.
I explained that stealing from a business is an ethical and moral lapse all the same, with deeply personal consequences.
Theft, even that of a candy bar from a store shelf to satiate a gurgling stomach, causes the business to make less money, impacting the revenues that are used to meet payroll, which then leads that business to forgo raises, bonuses and other benefits. The recipient of lower earnings, be it an employee or an owner or both, is stuck with less cash for food and clothing, or for Christmas presents or movie tickets.
Like a marauding teenager, government also rationalizes theft from the masses in order to legitimize what we’d ordinarily condemn. The great French economist Frederic Bastiat would call “legal plunder” — theft that is authorized by government action.
Bastiat wrote in his classic “The Law” that there is a simple test to see if the government is attempting to commit legal plunder. “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”
For example, we’d all agree that if Wayne Hoffman walks down his street and steals $30,000 from his neighbors, that would be a crime. We’d likely all agree that if Wayne Hoffman takes the $30,000 and gives it away to a local business so that business could make renovations and improvements, that would not negate his crime. It is still theft.
But government does what Bastiat warned us about. Caldwell’s urban renewal agency recently worked up a deal to take $30,000 from taxpayers and gave it to Simply Stylin’ Salon so that business would beautify itself and, by extension, the city. The city hails the deal because prettifying the city supposedly creates jobs, and attractive shops supposedly lure people downtown.
Just like a thieving teen out for a candy bar fix, the government’s action ignores real consequences absorbed by the taxpayers from whom the city took money to pay for this project; taxpayers don’t have the money to invest in their own businesses because the city took money from them in order to benefit a neighbor. Nor do they have the money to give employees raises or hire new people, their money having been given to someone else.
The government will argue it is fair because everyone had a chance to apply for similar funding. Yet were Wayne Hoffman to steal $30,000 and then offer it out as a competitive grant, it wouldn’t ameliorate the crime. Prosecutors would probably label it a form of money laundering.
A teenager rationalizing the theft of a candy bar from a store as a victimless crime strikes a nerve with all of us who engage in the honorable pursuit of capitalism. We heartily condemn it. We shake our fists at the parents who would condone such behavior and declare it morally objectionable.
Yet when a local, state or federal government engages in the same pursuit, we applaud it and delight in it as a victory for ourselves, the economy and our neighbors. No wonder our kids are confused.
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