Shoplifting: crime, vice, or ethical act?

In our capitalist societies, shoplifting is clearly labeled and treated as a crime. We assume that the products are being “stolen” from “the store,” and that thus shoplifting is merely a different kind of theft. Here is one definition:

The act of taking or stealing something, or otherwise attempting to deprive a retail store of the full value of their merchandise.

The part I put in bold that’s most interesting. Who is the victim in a shoplifting act? “The retail store.” What does that mean? Who is that? A store is not a person, and therefore is not a victim. Is there a person or group of people who own1 this merchandise, and whom we can therefore say are the victims?

Let us now differentiate three different scenarios: 1. a store operated by one person or group, 2. a store owned by one person or group who hires employees, and 3. a corporate store.

Scenario 1 is the easiest. Whoever operates the store (the putative “business owner”) clearly has right of possession over the merchandise he puts on the shelves: he buys it with his own money, he can use the merchandise if he wishes, and so on. Therefore it is clear that here shoplifting is an actual act of theft, since there is a person whom we can identify as rights-bearer, and thus victim.

This scenario is the same as for a mutualist business or communist organization, where the workers or the community can be said to own the merchandise in the same general way.

Scenario 2 introduces a new variable, the presence of employees. As I’ve said before, the capitalist work contract requires a delegation of responsibility from one person to another, which is logically invalid. Therefore, the “business owner” cannot argue against use/occupancy arguments by saying that he has a valid contract by which he preserves responsibility for the production. The responsibility, and therefore the ownership, goes squarely to the workers.

Since this ownership is not recognized by our legal system, and thus shoplifting is not depriving the actual owners of any recognized rights, shoplifting is not theft in this scenario.

It will do us no good to say that the “business owner” has the right to sell, and that therefore he has possession of the merchandise. Placing products on a shelf is not at all like, say, having products in someone’s pantry. A grocery store does not primarily serve the role of stocking things for a person to use; the grocery store exists to sell merchandise, and the stocking is at best a side-effect.

Scenario 3 adds to this the concept of the corporation, which effectively nullifies any pretense of ownership that could have existed. In that context, there is no more store owner, there is not even a corporate owner. Within the capitalist logic, the CEO or the shareholders have no more right of possession over the merchandise than the lowliest worker. Rather, ownership is given to the corporation as a “legal person,” that is to say, a fictional character. This means that there is no actual, living, breathing, person who owns any of these products.

Since most shoplifting takes place under this scenario, we must conclude that it is an action where the victim is made of legal make-believe. How can it be a crime to attack a fictional character? How can it be a crime to steal from a fictional character? And how can we call it actual theft? It is, in essence, no different than taking any other object which belongs to no one.

Of course, actually doing so may result in criminal charges: but the law is no standard of ethics. The law, as we have known it for a long time, exists to protect the “business owner” and his assets, not to protect our rights. Laws are written by the powerful.

The question of whether shoplifting is a crime is, of course, a separate issue than the question of whether anyone is hurt by the action. There are plenty of actions that hurt the self or other people without being invasive in nature. These, we call vices. So the question arises, is shoplifting a vice?

One may argue that shoplifting is a vice because it raises prices for the customers and lowers wages for the workers. Here there is a supposed relation of cause and effect. Certainly it cannot be denied that the shoplifting is a distal cause of the price-raising and wage-lowering. The proximal cause is, equally undeniably, a decision by this or that high-ranking bureaucrat in charge of price-fixing or wage-fixing at that corporation. The final responsibility lies in those bureaucrats, and the workers who obey their orders.

The more relevant question is whether it is a necessary cause and effect relationship. Within the corporate system, where profit is the only important factor, the answer is obviously yes. There is a necessary relation between shoplifting and price-fixing/wage-fixing, since shoplifting reduces profits, and thus profits must be raised from elsewhere.

So my answer, prima facie, would be that yes, shoplifting is a vice. That being said, we have to consider the multitude of reasons people put forward for shoplifting. Some people have put forward the position that shoplifting is a tool to be used against the capitalist system as a whole. If this is a valid point, then we must judge shoplifting in and of itself, not as inscribed within the capitalist system, for that would be a self-defeating kind of reasoning. If we judge all actions within the framework of capitalism, then we will obviously never correctly evaluate any actions taken against it.

The issue of whether shoplifting is an effective way to fight against capitalism is a whole other issue, which I don’t want to get into. I would hardly even know where to start. Setting that aside, I’m going to finish the reasoning on the issue of whether shoplifting is a vice.

We are engaged in a worldwide struggle against multinational corporations, governments, organized religions, and most importantly dogmas which have co-existed with these hierarchies and thus have passed the test of time. One of these dogmas is the belief in property rights. As long as we do not convince people of the incoherency and unethical nature of this dogma, they will continue to support the law in that regard, no matter what we do. Therefore we cannot, at the moment, hope to convince others that shoplifting is a valid action.

Looking at how this struggle is conducted, we see that any anarchist action necessarily hurts someone’s legitimacy, and ultimately livelihood, even if it’s only some faceless bureaucrat. Certainly we should lament if our overseers decide to burden their losses on innocent people instead of shouldering them themselves. But this is no different than the argument that tax resistance is a vice because it raises taxes for everyone else. Whatever else we may say about it, tax resistance is a profoundly moral act. Shoplifting, in my opinion, should be put in this same category.

Further reading: Why I Love Shoplifting From Big Corporations

1 Please keep in mind that, when I say “own,” I am denoting possession, not property; it does not change the basis of the reasoning, and the fact that capitalist agents operate under an unjust conception of rights only makes the case for shoplifting even stronger.

17 thoughts on “Shoplifting: crime, vice, or ethical act?

  1. Kent McManigal August 19, 2009 at 21:44

    I have owned two stores in my life. Shoplifting hurt me personally each time it was done. If I were to engage in it, even against a giant corporation, it would hurt my own sense of ethics more than it would hurt that corporation. If you are opposed to giant corporations (which most of us are) it would be better in my opinion to simply avoid entering those businesses.

  2. Francois Tremblay August 19, 2009 at 22:46

    Ah, yeah. That’s not relevant to my point, though.

  3. David Gendron August 20, 2009 at 13:00

    This debate become more and more interesting again. In real life, I think we should not recommend that because the shoplifter goes in jail and loses his own liberty. Tax resistence is more efficient to smash the State.

    But in a philosophical viewpoint, I agree with you in general and I recognize that my post on this issue has a lot of inaccuracies.

    And to these statists capitalists mother-fuckers who think that François is a criminal, I said to them that their statist-capitalist system itself opens the door for that kind of shoplifting!

  4. Francois Tremblay August 20, 2009 at 14:45

    As an aside, tax resistance is not that great insofar as crippling the State goes, since it can always use inflation to replenish its coffers at our expense.

  5. Kent McManigal August 20, 2009 at 14:49

    The best thing about “tax resistance” (which is simply theft avoidance) is that it keeps the money in the hands of the rightful owner. You’re right, though. It doesn’t hurt the state. Taxation isn’t about getting money for the state anyway; it is about controlling you and taking your money.

  6. Anon73 August 20, 2009 at 18:18

    It seems a bit too convenient that you say shoplifting from mutualist or communist stores would not be ok but shoplifting from a store that merely pays wages is ok. If Kevin Carson decides to pay a kid to man the front-desk while he travels does that really make his merchandise fair game?

  7. FSK August 20, 2009 at 18:34

    By that reasoning, you’re justified stealing from *ANY* on-the-books business. Any on-the-books business, whether a small business owner or Wal-Mart, is a branch of the State.

    If it’s a small business sole-proprietorship, you’re stealing directly from the owner. You’re also stealing from the State, which gets a share of the profits.

    I prefer to fight the State by avoiding the taxes and rules, rather than outright stealing.

  8. FSK August 20, 2009 at 18:36

    How about this scenario. The business owner sells goods off-the-books to agorists, and then claims a shoplifting loss.

    If you don’t know that the owner has such an arrangement, is it moral to steal from him?

  9. Francois Tremblay August 21, 2009 at 01:50

    “If Kevin Carson decides to pay a kid to man the front-desk while he travels does that really make his merchandise fair game?”

    If the kid is an employee, instead of being an associate, then yes.

  10. Francois Tremblay August 21, 2009 at 01:52

    “By that reasoning, you’re justified stealing from *ANY* on-the-books business. Any on-the-books business, whether a small business owner or Wal-Mart, is a branch of the State.”

    The two propositions are separate. I would say yes to the first and no to the second.

    “How about this scenario. The business owner sells goods off-the-books to agorists, and then claims a shoplifting loss.

    If you don’t know that the owner has such an arrangement, is it moral to steal from him?”

    Since I don’t know about the arrangement, how could it have any moral relevance to me?

  11. Shawn P. Wilbur August 21, 2009 at 03:13

    A theoretical question: As a small-business owner, without employees, I maintained a stock of over 100,000 books, mostly used. These certainly could not have been considered as “stock for use.” All of this stock would seem to fall outside of your definition of possessory property. Why wouldn’t those books be fair game?

    Similarly: The actual work of maintaining the bookstore involved a good deal of labor, cleaning, arranging, researching, and pricing used books, which might certainly because of that be considered “product” in their partially-transformed state. (This might answer the first question, but not if the very fact that they were accumulated for other than personal use nullifies my property in them.) But another important part of the job was knowing when books were simply no longer a viable part of the inventory, and in some cases taking measures to destroy that inventory, if it really appeared to be unsaleable. Is the full right of use and abuse not appropriate in this case?

    It looks to me like the distinctions between the various scenarios have more to do with who seems most worthy of attack or punishment in the war against capitalism, than they do with property rights.

    You may deny that people have a right to contract, or to follow property laws or conventions which differ from your interpretations, but certainly you have knowledge that they do indeed act, invest, buy and sell according to those laws and conventions. You may convince yourself that nobody owns the goods in a retail store, but it seems hard to pretend that individuals acting in good faith are not injured. And that seems to be something that should have moral relevance, no matter the philosophical issues.

  12. Francois Tremblay August 21, 2009 at 03:20

    “A theoretical question: As a small-business owner, without employees, I maintained a stock of over 100,000 books, mostly used. These certainly could not have been considered as “stock for use.” All of this stock would seem to fall outside of your definition of possessory property. Why wouldn’t those books be fair game?”

    Actually, I already said in my entry that I think that in that scenario shoplifting is a crime. We’re in agreement there.

    “But another important part of the job was knowing when books were simply no longer a viable part of the inventory, and in some cases taking measures to destroy that inventory, if it really appeared to be unsaleable. Is the full right of use and abuse not appropriate in this case?”

    In our society, we don’t really have any other choice, though.

    “You may deny that people have a right to contract”

    No, I haven’t denied that.

    “You may convince yourself that nobody owns the goods in a retail store, but it seems hard to pretend that individuals acting in good faith are not injured.”

    Whose rights are injured?

  13. Shawn P. Wilbur August 23, 2009 at 03:28

    I’m not actually certain *why* shoplifting would be a crime in the first case, since possession does not seem to stretch to accumulation for resale.

    As for the last question, does the moral significance of the losses (likely to be absorbed by some mix of owners, investors, workers and customers) end at some abstract consideration of their “rights”? This would seem to be an approach rather distinct from mutualism, which treats property as conventional, and emphasizes the need to improve the conventions, not some right to simply write them off. Have you laid out some positive theory of property that I’ve missed, beyond applying the 1840 Proudhon critiques?

    In the “three questions” thread, I argued that the “recognized rights” were vested in the legal fiction, which seems to be the case. Again, I’m a little concerned that the argument against that sort of corporate right may work against the sort of rights that might be collectively invested in a workshop or a local common in a mutualist society.

    Anyway, it seems to me that if you engage in any act of shoplifting, then you will impose costs which someone will have to pay. It seems to me that the question of the revolutionary efficacy of the act then really has to come into play, if you’re going to try to justify imposing costs that are likely to be passed onto workers or consumers. If, on the other hand, that stuff ultimately doesn’t matter because your system of rights doesn’t go there, then the “ethical act” argument seems underwhelming.

    Just trying to make sense of the distinctions you’re making…

  14. Francois Tremblay August 23, 2009 at 03:31

    Shawn, I don’t know why you persist in trying to hitting me over the head with these long diatribes that I barely understand. What do you want from me?! I’m just a guy with a blog giving his opinions on various rambly topics. I don’t have a positive theory of property, I just read Proudhon and so I don’t believe in property any more. There’s nothing more to it.

  15. Shawn P. Wilbur August 24, 2009 at 03:08

    Ah, yes. Those “diatribes.” In some circles we call them “questions” or “objections” to an argument. Don’t mind me. I thought you actually had something to say.

  16. Francois Tremblay August 24, 2009 at 04:09

    Please consider me as having absolutely nothing to say. This blog is a tragi-comedy.

  17. You August 31, 2009 at 01:11

    I agree with you – if the ownership of the store in question isn’t legit (as is the case generally in today’s context), then shoplifting is, since the labor-time embedded in the products is already dead and stolen. Another issue to consider is need – even if a worker-owned co-op tried to privatize and sell all the water in town, for instance, people would be justified in shoplifting from it, at the very least. The boundary between need and non-need would be fuzzy, and probably different in different areas. Shoplifting is probably not going to achieve much in isolated instances, though – it would be better if part of a general insurrection.

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