Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Stealing as Charity: The Distributional Analysis is Interesting but Incorrect

From CNN:
Tim Jones, parish priest of St Lawrence and St Hilda, told his congregation in York, northern England: "My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift."

He continued: "I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing, or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither.

"I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses, but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices."

If you read the entire argument in context, the shoplifting aspect is not very interesting or even relevant. People who have exhausted all other means might have to resort to stealing if it means survival, and they don't need a priest to tell them that. What is interesting is his distinction between large and small businesses and how "we" pay the social costs.

In essence, his argument is that an individual in a democratic society which has not elected for "enough" benefits should, when at the point of deciding to steal, impose those costs in dispersed form back onto that society rather than concentrating them on any particular individual. That is a really creative argument, but it leaves something to be desired. (It's also an "eye-for-an-eye" argument, which is a bit strange coming from a priest.)

That which is to be desired is the misplaced view that it is a free lunch for society when a small family business fails due to shoplifting. Competition is competition, no matter how large. There is no reason, ex-ante, to think that smaller businesses failing due to shoplifting would have a smaller impact on market prices than large businesses incurring higher costs that are passed on to consumers. Both cases disperse costs far and wide, and perhaps a few individuals will incur a disproportionate share.


Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it.

Pavel Yakovlev said...

Very interesting post, Justin. This shop-lifting argument parallels the income redistribution via progressive tax.