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Thou Shall Not Steal

This column originally appeared as part of the Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

As a follow-up to last week’s column on the Ten Commandments, Christian Coalition v. Founders & Framers, my focus this week will be on the political and economic implications of one of those Commandments: Thou Shall Not Steal. Assuming that one accepts it as being applicable to a 21st Century world, what would adherence to this moral imperative require of us?

A Conservative Perspective
Let’s begin our exploration with a formal definition of the word “steal”. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary lists a number of possible definitions, but only one that properly fits the context in which it is used in the Commandment:

– To take the property of another wrongfully and especially as a habitual or regular practice.

If we extrapolate the meaning of the Commandment based on this definition, to steal is to wrongfully take someone else’s property: their money, their Rolex, or their Hummer. This definition might be expanded to include areas like intellectual property (as in plagiarism, or copyright infringement) or identity theft. Seen in this light, the moral imperative communicated by the Commandment appears fixed and precise. Do not wrongfully take other people’s property.

I’m going to describe this definition as a conservative interpretation for two reasons – one, because it represents a very traditional understanding of what it means to steal; two, because it presupposes a paradigm where legal possession or control of something is seen as the ultimate determinant of ethical standing in any dispute about its ownership or use. Inasmuch as I’ve described this definition as conservative, is there also a “liberal” interpretation that we might want to consider? In fact, there is.

A Liberal Perspective
If you remember my column on the Declaration Towards a Global Ethic, you’ll recall that the theologians who participated in the creation of that document arrived at a much broader formulation of this same moral imperative.

– Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order.

This modern reformulation asks us to be aware of two additional things: a) the notion of solidarity among human beings; b) the need for a “just” economic order. How might these requirements come into play? Consider the following scenario.

A company based in a small town in Middle America produces consumer products. This company’s products enjoy an excellent reputation, as least partly due to the quality workmanship of its employees, and sell at a slight premium to others available in the marketplace. The company is profitable. The owner’s original investment was recouped long ago. Investment in the company’s shares offers a stable, safe return. Management and workers are paid a fair salary. These workers, in turn, pay taxes that support the maintenance of the local infrastructure and schools. This is America at its best. Everybody is a winner in this scenario.

In time, however, ownership or new management see an opportunity to dramatically lower labor costs by producing their products overseas, in a developing nation. Because there is little industry in that third world country, and no labor unions to deal with, management can hire workers at wages that do little more than allow these new employees to live from check to check, often amidst an appalling quality of life. Management further asks them to work under deplorable environmental and safety conditions that would never pass muster in the United States or Europe.

Despite this influx of new jobs, many of their countrymen still aspire to become economic refugees, with America itself being their favored destination. But because of this new strategic approach, corporate profits soar, stock analysts and investors are thrilled, and ownership and top executives enjoy a financial windfall.

Meanwhile, the workers here in America who were an integral component of the company’s original reputation are now either unemployed or underemployed. Many are deeply in debt, unable to make ends meet, and now dependent on local and State government for healthcare and food stamps. And because there are fewer jobs, tax revenues decline at the very moment when the town’s expenses are increasing. The remaining taxpayers must pay more to make up the difference, or see the quality of life in the community completely deteriorate. And as unemployment grows, social problems increase exponentially – including various forms of stealing.

The scenario that I just described could have been ripped from today’s newspaper. Conservative economists or Wall Street analysts might applaud ownership or management’s decision to maximize profitability. But would Jesus? And should a truly ethical society promote or reward these kinds of strategic decisions? And more pointedly, seen through the lens of the Global Ethic, and the theologians’ reformulation of this Commandment, might this approach be viewed as roughly equivalent to stealing?

For instance, in acting to maximize their own personal financial interest at the expense of the community, ownership and management are specifically denying the notion of human solidarity – either with workers in their local community or the workers they hire in the developing country. And consider that the American workers in my scenario lost their jobs not on the basis of either inadequate individual or group performance, or even the company’s inability to compete within the global marketplace, but simply because they were being paid more than someone in ownership or management arbitrarily decided that they should be worth (as is happening today with technology jobs via the outsourcing phenomenon).

Clearly, notions of economic and social justice are not much of a factor in these kinds of ruthless financial calculations. Yet, extend this approach to its logical endpoint, and you void the idea of a social contract, and unleash the whirlwind – as society returns to what the 17th Century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as the “State of Nature”, and the “war of all against all”. As Hobbes warns us, life in the “State of Nature” is "poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

The above scenario was meant to illustrate a few of the ethical considerations that arise out of a liberal conception of "Thou Shall Not Steal" – without which many today believe that the accompanying conservative interpretation is undermined.

Truly, which is the greater sin for a man: stealing from the table of someone much better off than you, or allowing your family to go hungry, homeless, and without proper medical care? Which choice better supports the ideal of family values in a society that increasingly does not value families?

This scenario also affords me an opportunity to make some very preliminary points in an essential debate that needs to take place – a debate about the profound difference between the ideals of free trade and fair trade, between outright human exploitation and an enlightened 21st Century capitalism.

For instance, I’d argue that workers in developing nations are entitled to a better future, and we Americans have an ethical obligation to take their interests into account – and not simply the interests of entrepreneurs who control capital – when negotiating trade deals. Justice demands that governments negotiate deals that specifically advocate a non-exploitative approach – an approach that pays fair wages for the work performed (based on some reasonable comparison to what a First World worker might be paid to do the same task), and mandates a work environment that is supportive of health and human dignity.

As history has demonstrated, governments cannot effectively legislate morality – but it can make the bad actors pay. Individuals or corporations would still be free to produce goods under exploitative conditions for their local market; but their products would be subject to hefty tariffs when exported to the United States, the EU, or any other participating trading partner, and thus be stripped of any advantage that this unsavory and reprehensible tactic might entail.

By adopting this kind of approach, we not only promote genuine human solidarity and economic justice (thus fulfilling the requirements of the liberal formulation of the Commandment), but also protect our own legitimate economic interests. As Henry Ford discovered nearly one hundred years ago, paying a worker fair wages creates both a better employee and a future customer.

If workers in developing nations are paid fair wages, and given the ability to accumulate real wealth, they are much more likely to buy products made by American workers – and fulfill the promise of global trade. That will help reverse this nation's crippling trade deficit.

But that’s not our policy today. If Washington refuses to implement this crucial adjustment, American workers will remain captive participants in a "nasty, brutish, and short" race to the bottom. And make no mistake: a race to the bottom is a race towards Hell.

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on March 13, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.