February 21, 2009

Is Shoplifting Wrong?

Part One: What I Say:

The other day, I mentioned to my buddy XXX XXXXX that I wanted to write a post about shoplifting, which is so prevalent in our society that just about everyone’s done it, as a punk kid or even as a collegiate or, in (hopefully) rarer cases, as full-fledged adults. My bud’s an upstanding, upper middle class member of society. And he shrugged.

Sure, we all did it—stealing from our university gift shop, whatever. It was fun, in a way. And we felt like we were getting ripped-off, tuition-wise.


And there lies the rub—it’s bad to steal from those less fortunate, or from good people or institutions. Everyone agrees on that. But what about the Robin Hood notion of stealing from those who (legally) steal from you? What about stealing from The Man? What if times are tough, and you’re poor?

I’ve been busted for shoplifting twice. The first time, I was a punk kid and me and my buddy, Jesse, went to Tarzhay and ‘borrowed’ some Muscle Men by sticking ’em in our underwear. We didn’t make it 50 feet before being escorted to some room where we were interrogated, our moms called. While I cried like a baby, when we finally got home my buddy just smirked—and pulled out a couple last Muscle Men from his tighty whiteys. Apparently, he didn’t feel any shame (I remember sitting on my couch, back home with my mom, and feeling the heaviest darkest baddest weight of shame forever). 

The second time was in college. I was in a rush to meet my girlfriend—and a place I liked and respected—had some awfully loooong lines. “!@#$%^&*(*(!^%!“, I said to myself, and tore the $3.99 tag (the price is seared in my brain) off the key chain (a key chain that split in two, so my girlfriend and I could both have our own keys to my Saab) and walked out. Heck, I shopped here all the time, what’s a $3.99 keychain? I got busted again, thus ending my brief, startlingly inneffectual career on the wrong side of the tracks.

This time, I didn’t feel shame…so much as I felt stupid. And grateful.

Why? Because stealing feels wrong, and the fact that I couldn’t seem to do it as well as my tougher harder better faster stronger pals meant I didn’t have to get into the not-black, not-white, all-gray moral implications of casual, everyday, All-American theft. 

So that’s why I say shoplifting is wrong, kids: it just feels wrong. It doesn’t benefit anyone, and it leads to a lot of self-rationalization if you’re good at it, and shame and hassle if, like me, you don’t have a talent for it.

Whether or no uber-rich folks and big corporations and governments are just as (or far more complicit) that us is their problem. We’re responsible for ourselves, and don’t have to play along.

Part Two: What Religion Says.

The Buddha:

“Do not think a small sin will not return in your future lives. 
Just as falling drops of water will fill a large container, 
The little sins that steadfast accumulate will completely overwhelm you.

Do not think a small virtue will not return in your future lives.
Just as falling drops of water will fill a large container, 
The little virtues that steadfast accumulate will completely overwhelm you.”

Every one of the world’s great religions agree: Stealing = Bad. 

That said, it’s tolerated—encouraged, in fact—when businesspeople make a ‘killing‘ on Wall Street. When big corps plunder and profit. Sure, we don’t think it’s right…we watch little movies and make mean eyes at the “Greed is Good” types…but when it comes down to it, business is war, and war is won by those who die with the most toys—in other words, those who are left standing with the most dough stuffed into their pockets. 

Some say shoplifting from big non-independent corporations ain’t so bad. Excerpt:

Years ago, when we lived in Boston, we were broke and (by and large) unemployed. It was a very cold winter, and our heat had been cut off. We had a fireplace – but we didn’t have wood to burn. I therefore became fairly expert at shoplifting those faux-log things from the nearby Caldor’s. I didn’t feel bad about it then, and thinking back on it I still don’t feel guilty. It’s okay to shoplift from large corporations to get things you actually need. The harm to Caldors of losing the faux-logs is considerably less, realistically, than the harm to us of having nothing to burn in our fireplace.

Other kinds of shoplifting – if done from Wal-Mart or the equivalent – don’t particularly bother me, although I don’t shoplift anymore myself. (It would be nice if I was too moral to shoplift, but truthfully I suspect I’ve just got too vivid an ability to imagine consequences.)

To tell you the truth, other than a very poor relationship of risk to
reward, I don’t see what’s so immoral about stealing small amounts from
Wal-Mart. The harm caused by shoplifting from mega-corps seems extremely diffuse and theoretical; no one will miss a meal or shiver in the cold because someone lifted a walkman from a Fred Meyer.

Now, I do understand that overall, the efforts of thousands of shoplifters combined DO make things worse – they reduce profit for the chain, and (arguably) they therefore cause Wal-Mart to raise prices. (Or perhaps to pay Wal-employees less). But on the other hand, the shoplifters also create jobs for all those Wal-Mart security people who wander around trying to spot shoplifters.

In any case, the aggregate harm of thousands of shoplifters is rather like the aggregate harm of millions of Americans driving more than they need to, or eating meat, or any of hundreds of other minor harms to the zeitgeist. Yes, it’s bad, but it’s bad on such a minor level that I can’t feel any real anger at the individuals involved.

But again, God disagrees. Or does he. According to many scholars, ‘Thou Shalt not Steal” is more properly translated as “Thou Shalt not Kidnap.” In any case, it’s safe to say that the stealing of property is frowned upon, Biblically-speaking, even if it doesn’t make God’s Top Ten No-No’s. 

Buddhism agrees: abstention from stealing is the second among five basic precepts. But it’s wrong for other, more personal reasons—it’s seen as a manifestation of greed, and jealousy, two emotions that, when followed, prevent one from being present with things as they are. Furthermore, theft creates more negative emotion (klesha)…the karmic ripples anger and harm others.

Just just as with murder—immoral and illegal for individuals, heroic and legal for soldiers and nations—stealing is not only not bad, but encouraged, when it comes to finding cheap labor or skirting environmental guidelines.

Via Wikipedia:

A famous legal case involving shoplifting occurred in 2001 when actress Winona Ryder was arrested for shoplifting at Saks Fifth Avenue department store in Beverly Hills, California. Ryder was eventually convicted of misdemeanor theft and vandalism and will be eligible for expungement of the conviction after finishing probation. Ryder was originally convicted by a jury of felony larceny/vandalism and was sentenced in a nationally televised California Superior Court proceeding in December 2002.[7] In 2003, Will & Grace actress Shelley Morrison (who played Rosario Salazar) was arrested for shoplifting at a Robinsons-Maystore in California; the charges were later dropped. In early 2006, former White House aide Claude Allen was arrested for an alleged return scam at a Target store in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Jean Eaton, while mayor of Albert Lea, Minnesota, was accused of stealing hundreds of dollars worth of clothing from Marshall Field’s stores in Rochester, Edina and St. Cloud in an alleged clothing swap scam. Eaton had claimed that police acted illegally when they executed a search warrant that gathered evidence used to support a felony theft charge against her. Eaton later reached a plea agreement with Olmsted County prosecutors to have the felony charges dropped, by entering into an adult diversion program, which includes restitution, and possible community service. 

On December 24, 2008, an unaccompanied dog wandered into a shop in Murray, Utah and took a bone from a shelf in the pet-products aisle, thus making the dog a “shoplifting dog”.[8]

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