Column on Stealing a Penny

Stealing a Penny

Tibor R. Machan

Over the centuries it had been pretty much routine for some (powerful) folks to raid the wealth of those not fit or well armed enough to resist this. Widespread trade entered the picture late in the game, as did generosity, charity, and other voluntary transfers of resources useful to people. In time, however, it dawned on most people that involuntary transfers are wrong and even to be prohibited. Yet this development has not always been fully embraced, not, especially, by certain formidable advocates of political economic systems that rest on wealth redistribution.

In a recent book highly critical of the free society as understood by libertarians, The Libertarian Illusion (CQ Press, 2008), the author, William Hudson, makes a snide comment by which I can only imagine he means to indicate how ridiculous the right to private property really is. He says, and I am paraphrasing, that taking even a penny from a millionaire is regarded by libertarians as theft. Now how silly can they be!?

Well, I am not willing to accept this "reductio ad absurdum" argument. Consider another area libertarians consider important, namely, personal liberty such that, say, rape or assault is regarded by them to be impermissible and should be illegal. Of course, there are relatively minor instance of date rape or quasi-sexual engagements with minors, as well as cases of minimal assault, such as bumping someone while walking past him or stepping on someone’s toes and libertarians would not give these a pass either. Even some really minor sexual intrusiveness, such as ogling some very young person, may qualify for moral and even legal rebuke. Few may have suffered major injuries from such conduct, perpetrated by others against them, although some kind of untowardness could well have come from them, such as causing fright or anxiety. But it is clear that these would be minor, compared to out and out rape or mugging. 

Well, we are in a similar situation with stealing even a penny from someone who is very rich and might not notice it. But stealing isn’t merely removing something from another. It is a kind of invasion. Even the removal of a penny could be seen as such because for some folks it could be very important to hang on to whatever belongs to them and anyone who breaches this could produce serious malaise for them.

But even aside from any specific harm that could well come from stealing even a penny from a rich person–or just well to do one–what about the slippery slope effect? It is like telling white lies which in an of themselves could receive a pass but in forming someone’s character is likely to lead to serious damage. If stealing of even little things is going to be approved of, especially by moralists, ethics teachers, and so on, at what point will a theft reach a level that may be condemned as morally wrong? 

It is one thing to overlook, forgive, various minor moral transgressions, another entirely to approve of them, including as public policies. When governments perpetrate the transfer or redistribution of wealth from completely innocent citizens to others, they are not only injuring the former but establishing a precedent. So now it is fine to do a bit–or maybe even a good bit–of stealing because, well, Barack Obama made it clear that he approves of it (in his chat with Joe the Plumber during the election campaign). Indeed, reportedly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told several wealthy people in a talk she gave in San Francisco that "You have money and we are going to take it from you." 

Ethical transgressions, even legal ones, are not like violations of the principles of Euclidean geometry of formal logic but neither are they inconsequential matters to indulge in, not among civilized people at least. The entire point of being civilized, of being civil, is to deal with one’s fellow human beings peacefully, respectful of their rights, even in small matters. And while small transgressions can be forgiven, they should never be praised. 

Instead, though, in our current public policy climate we have out and out official flaunting of the fine points of human morality, especially those pertaining to respecting other people’s property rights. From the U. S. Supreme Court to the Congress and the President, officials are practically proud of not caring about adhering to such principles of right conduct. The president of the United States of America and many of his supporters in the academy proclaim themselves to be pragmatists, which is to say indifferent to principled conduct and willing to bend ethics and principles of social life whenever these stand in the way of their grand plans.

But this is the way to building a corrupt society, not just an impoverished one. 

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