How We’re Groomed to Glorify Theft

How We’re Groomed to Glorify Theft

A gate is used to lock items at a pharmacy and convenience store in New York City on Oct. 26, 2021. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Loretta Breuning
Loretta Breuning

6/20/2024

Updated: 6/24/2024

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Commentary
I was recently shocked to hear a podcaster openly encourage stealing from Whole Foods. He described his own theft from the store, and he sounded quite proud of his ethical rationale. That episode of the top-ranking podcast was recorded in 2009, and there has never been a public outcry against it. On the contrary, some publications applauded the podcast, and celebrities flocked to be on it.
But I cried. My father was a small shopkeeper who was constantly plagued by theft, so my spine stiffens when theft is celebrated.
You may not notice all the pro-theft messages in our culture because they always come in ethical packaging. Thieves are always portrayed as parents just trying to feed hungry children. Victims of theft are always portrayed as greedy fat cats. The Broadway musical “Les Miserables” is a perfect example.
Celebrating petty theft is only a small step away from celebrating looting and squatting.
Once thieves are cloaked in virtue, those wanting to punish them can be portrayed as immoral. You are the bad guy if you expect theft to be punished.
What about when your laptop is the one that’s stolen?
You say the thief must have been hungry and you forgive them, because you’re so afraid of seeming immoral.
The pro-theft message is so pervasive that a young person growing up today may never learn to respect private property. Even worse, they may learn to see theft as a virtue.
The harm done by theft is widely overlooked. We’re trained to see the consequence as mere crusts of bread and ignore the big picture. For example, when a street light is stolen, harm is done to everyone on the street and everyone who can’t use the street because it’s not lit. When a car is stolen, the harm includes all the resources wasted on protecting cars. When theft is more incentivized than building job skills, the whole economy is harmed.
No one mentions the harm because you’re accused of siding with the fat cats if you do. So let’s look more closely at some huge thefts that have had huge consequences.
In 1951, Iran’s government “nationalized” its oil industry, which meant stealing all the drilling and refining infrastructure from the company that built them. Mexico did the same in 1938, as did Venezuela in 1975. Many other countries “nationalized” industries around that time, including steel plants, banks, mines, and farms. A virtuous-sounding rationale was always provided.
Once governments took over these assets, productivity plummeted. The golden goose was effectively killed, but politicians were too busy enjoying the plundered golden eggs to notice. Private citizens noticed, and they drew the obvious conclusion: It’s not worth investing in productive assets when they can be stolen with impunity. So the only way to make a living in a theft-friendly culture is to find your own golden eggs to plunder.
Few people even know about the nationalizations of the mid-20th century. They’re not mentioned in the fashionable view of history, which sticks to the storyline of hungry good guys struggling against greedy owners of productive assets.
Karl Marx said all property is theft. His theory offered moral justification for any theft by conveniently presuming that anyone who owns anything got it unjustly. This is the core of today’s culture, although no one openly quotes Marx.
Nor do many people quote the guy who said, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.”
Today’s culture actually encourages you to covet your neighbor’s goods. It trains you to resent anyone who has something that you don’t have and presume that they got it because they’re less ethical than you are. Your superior ethics entitle you to grab whatever when you see an opportunity. This message is subtly woven into our entertainment, so you absorb it without really noticing.
I feel like crying whenever I hear this message. I wonder how we can retrain people to see the benefits of private property. I think of writing a Broadway musical about a baker who can’t feed his children because so much of his bread is stolen. But I don’t, because I’m afraid people would just think the baker is a bad person.
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Loretta G. Breuning, Ph.D., is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. She is the author of many personal development books, including “Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels” and “How I Escaped Political Correctness, And You Can Too.” Dr. Breuning’s work has been translated into eight languages and is cited in major media. Before teaching, she worked for the United Nations in Africa. She is a graduate of Cornell University and Tufts. Her website is InnerMammalInstitute.org.

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