Atanu Dey On India's Development

Stealing is a Bad Thing — Part 1

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Why are some countries poor while others rich? That’s a more complex question than the question why is some particular person rich as opposed to another person who is poor. It is fairly easy to recognize that the difficulty arises because an individual is at the mercy of factors out of its control, while in the case of a collective, the collective determines its destiny through the choices it collectively makes. There’s the problem of endogeneity when one considers the collective: society determines the environment, which in turn determines how the society functions. In this series, I will explore one simple idea, and it is this. Societies that steal are less able to produce the good society in contrast with societies that are in some sense honest. The good society, I believe, is one which is, minimally speaking, not materially impoverished. If indeed it is so that stealing is at least one of the more important factors implicated in the poverty of nations, then it is possible for us to figure a way out of the problem. That we will see in the end. A word of warning: I will explore this idea at length and it is not likely to make much sense (if any at all) until it reaches its logical end. It appears that it will be a long journey in — hold your breath — 17 parts. This is part 1.

Part 1

Stealing is a bad thing. Trade is a good thing. Taking something without it being voluntarily offered is a bad thing. Giving voluntarily is a good thing. Taking something away from someone either by stealth or through coercion is a bad thing. All this we must ponder at length and fully comprehend in all its ramifications if we have to have any claim to being reasonably civilized adult humans beings. This is not difficult to do but is usually not examined closely enough.

Generally, while growing up we are admonished that stealing is bad, and we internalize it as children. And as children, we know it is a bad thing even though none of us is entirely innocent of that act. It’s a common enough human failing and no great sanctions attach to it. Mercifully, idiosyncratic stealing as adults is uncommon enough that society appears to function in a fashion and most of us don’t consciously steal at an individual level. Note especially the words “consciously” and “individual.” What should strike terror in our hearts is systematic stealing on a societal scale.

We know stealing is a bad thing but don’t quite fully understand why it is a really bad thing. And not fully comprehending why it is a really bad thing, we are unable to take our defences against it – when we ourselves steal or allow others to steal from us. In this piece, I will explore why stealing is perhaps one of the worst things that you can do or have done to you.

It is my belief that systematic or organized – as opposed to idiosyncratic – stealing is quite pervasive and at one level of analysis is the basis of all maladies that afflict human society. Stealing is the most common form of dishonesty and its central role in human misery is not fully appreciated. Practically all problems of human society can be traced back to acts of theft, and dishonesty, which as its source, is the greatest sin (if sin is defined as anything that reduces welfare), much greater than greed or lust.

We know what stealing is. It is easy for us to identify an act of theft: the taking of something that is not rightfully yours, either by stealth (theft) or by force (robbery.) But not all theft and robbery is as easy to identify as when someone picks your pocket or someone mugs you and grabs your wallet. Pick pocketing, robbery and other related petty crimes are obvious enough and thankfully rare in even minimally organized societies but we are not conscious of organized theft that is largely invisible and tremendously corrosive to social wellbeing.

To get a sense of what stealing and theft are in the context of this piece, let’s consider what is not theft. Trade is not theft. Remember this. Those who are against free and voluntary trade are indirectly supporting theft, as I argue later. As I mentioned before, trade is a good thing. Trade involves exchange – the giving and receiving of something of value – and all voluntary trade increases the well-being of both parties involved, and therefore is socially beneficial. Except in what is called a “Robinson Crusoe” economy (the simplest economy with total population of one), every economy depends on, and is involved in, trade.

Why so? Because people are the only life form on earth that extensively trades (with the possible exception of other primates), and people are what an economy is all about. But why do we trade? Because we as individuals have different skills, different tastes, and a variety of needs which can be met only through different material goods and services. None of us is capable of producing everything that we need and use.

The farmer knows how to grow food, the doctor how to maintain health, the technologist how to build gadgets, but no one knows it all. So we do what we can do best and then trade our production with that of others. This way we expand the set of consumption choices. Among the core characteristics that make us human is our preference for variety and our instinctive ability to trade.

There are two important points we must mention here briefly, and to which we will return in due course. First, each one of us knows something better than anyone else in the world, living or dead. It is this: we know who we are, what makes us tick, and what we can produce and what we like to consume. So you are the best judge of what you should do, not someone else. And having produced, you know better than anyone else what you would like in exchange for your production.

Which brings us to the second point: freedom. Specifically the freedom to produce and consume what you wish. If your production and/or consumption activities are constrained by others, you are necessarily worse off than if they were not. Freedom is a necessary condition for individuals to achieve their potential, and a society of free people is better than a society where at least some people are not free.

Moving on, the things we need we acquire either by being given them or by producing something that we trade with others and get in exchange. There’s one more avenue other than trade for what we have – charity. Charity is what is given in exchange for nothing material. As I mentioned earlier, giving voluntarily is a good thing. The role of charity in human affairs is not generally fully appreciated but has a very critical role in the functioning of a good society.

We should pause briefly to consider what is a good society. I would define it as one where there’s absence of conflict, and where people are free of coercion and are not materially or non-materially deprived within the limits of the existing state of the art of technology. If, for instance, the society is capable of producing enough food given the technology and the resource endowments, and yet if there are some people who are malnourished and hungry, then that is not a good society. By this criterion, very few societies in the world are good, and considering the world as a whole, the current global society is not a good society. The world produces – or has the capacity to produce – food sufficient for the eradication of hunger but it does not do so.

Here my contention is that theft is pervasive. We just don’t see it to be such because much of it is disguised and indirect, and therefore invisible. I claim that we don’t have a good society because of pervasive theft. We have to make visible the invisible theft by outlining instances of it, at least in general terms.

Let’s create a taxonomy of theft. One simple categorization of theft could be along the lines of economic efficiency. There’s efficient theft and then there’s inefficient theft. In the former case, one party’s loss is the other party’s gain. You lost a jacket but the thief gained a jacket. It’s just a redistribution of stuff.

But even when economically efficient, theft can lead to social welfare losses. If you lost your only jacket but the thief already had a closet full of jackets, then your loss of utility is greater than the gain in utility of the thief. Efficient theft that leads to decrease in social utility I will term as “anti-Robin Hood” theft.

On the other hand, if you had a closet full of jackets and the thief had none, then of course social utility increases since the decrease in your utility is lower than the increase in the utility of the thief. Theft which efficient and also leads to an increase of social utility can be termed “Robin Hood” theft.

Economically inefficient theft is the worst kind because it necessarily leads to social welfare losses. Your welfare decreases because of the loss of your jacket but the thief gains nothing because he just puts it in the dumpster. This is “Stupid” theft because it involves a loss to someone but there is no compensating gain to anyone else.

Another categorization of theft can be based on whether it is organized theft or unorganized theft. The lone shoplifter or the mugger in the park or the pickpocket are all involved in unorganized theft. In contrast, the mafia are involved in organized theft. Organized theft requires an institutional framework to operate. There are rules and a code of conduct, and office bearers and hierarchies. There’s institutional memory and well-understood methods of operations. There’s history and tradition associated with organized theft.

So now we can categorize theft in a variety of types. For instance, one type is the “economically efficient, social utility decreasing, organized theft.” Another type is “economically inefficient, unorganized theft.” Note that economically inefficient theft can never be “social utility increasing.” So that gives us six types of theft. There are specific known ways of dealing with each type of theft. For example, organized theft cannot be prevented the same way that unorganized theft can be.

Regardless of which type, all theft involves a loss to the original owner, or a “first order” loss. There is another loss which is a second order loss, and it is a social welfare loss which arises from the incentive distorting effect of the loss. Suppose it requires effort to produce something, but if you realize that your production could be stolen or taken away through some other means, it reduces your incentive to put in the effort to produce. An example of incentive distortion is income taxes. Knowing that a certain part your earnings will be taken away changes how much you would have worked otherwise. If you know that what you worked for could be stolen, you will avoid putting in the effort. This means that society as a whole loses some production as a consequence of the theft.

We should distinguish between legal, illegal, wrong and right. Something being legal does not make it right (morally or economically), and conversely something being illegal does not necessarily mean that it is wrong. Taxes imposed by governments are usually legal but sometimes they are economically inefficient or morally wrong.

Both theft and trade involve two parties. But theft is an aggressive act which negatively impacts the involuntary party while trade between consenting parties is beneficial to both. Trade as opposed to theft has to be one of the central organizing principles of a good society. In any society, trade and theft are opposing activities. To the extent that the one is promoted, the other is inhibited. Where theft flourishes, trade languishes, and vice versa. In general you may find that people who benefit from theft are not in favour of trade.

[Next: Part 2.]

  • http://oshantomon.blogspot.com Sambaran Mitra

    Way to go, professor! My faith in the old adage (The best stuff on internet is FREE) stands strengthened.
    Looking forward to next 16 ‘episodes’. I hope, your pen does not lose steam mid-way.

  • Ashok Thakwani

    Was really missing your articles – good to see you back in action – pl continue the good work !

  • sandeep

    Dear Atanu,

    Welcome back :)
    great article , looking forward to reading the next.
    Keep up the good work.

    Thanks
    SD

  • Vijay Parikh

    It made me forget about my head cold! Look forward to the next 16 columns

  • SV

    I realized something today,there is so much stealing going on by the unethical.

  • Pranav

    Brilliant.we have something exciting to look forward everyday till your all parts are completed.

  • http://themmindset.wordpress.com/ The Mindset

    Welcome Back
    Brilliant article…waiting for the next 16 parts.

  • Yoga

    I like you “neti neti” logic in defining concepts.

    That said, when it comes to collective stealing, I am wondering group-think can impact behavior of people – and the idea of stealing collectively becomes the norm. You probably will explore in your upcoming series. I believe an individual faces this conflict very consciously and the less courageous ones perhaps succumb. May be there is a critical mass of courageous folks that can form that could also turn things the other way – the result being a good society. Like every other phenomenon, perhaps people behavior also has an equilibrium – a critical point where things could tip either way?

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  • DesiGuru

    Stealing is most definitely not a bad thing by itself. The Americans stole their land from the Red Indians and will basically live happily ever after. The Australians stole theirs from the Aboriginals and will most definitely become someday as powerful as the Americans. So maybe you need to reconsider your thinking process here. If you think as simplistically as calling stealing a bad thing then your entire chain of thought will have glaring errors.

    The thing about stealing is manyfold. Are you strong and smart enough to steal and get away. If you are stealing from someone who “deserves” to be stolen from anyways for being any of meek, stupid, weak, etc etc. What is the risk/reward ratio for stealing ?

    Take your repeated bashing of Nehru, Congress etc. Its fair enough and most people get it. But its not the whole truth. If you think India is socialistic because of a Nehru you have just not seen enough of India or maybe you have a job outside of India. Yes Socialism is a disaster and you give a great analysis of it. But unfortunately it is what Indians want. The truth is out there and interesting and is most definitely much harsher than we want to believe.