YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN
Thou shalt not steal. Exod. 20. 15.
YOU ARE an estate agent in a small city; a prominent citizen, known as a church member, contributor to worthy causes, and esteemed depositor in the local bank. You have just knocked yourself out on a big deal, selling an otherwise unsaleable property to an out-of-town man who was green. You feel entitled to a bit of rest and gaiety in B----- away from the wife and kiddies....
On the train you meet a dignified elderly man reading a church magazine, and get into conversation. He comes from a little town in your county; he tells you about his Sundayschool work, his endeavours against sin.... By the time you reach B------ you and this Mr. Roper are friends and decide to share a hotel room.
One evening, while the two of you are dining, you kick something under the table. It turns out to be a wallet stuffed with currency and stamped with the name of a Mr. O. K. Innside. Roper, fanatic that he is about honesty, finds Inside's name in the hotel register and insists on rushing you up to the fellow's room to return the wallet; rather to your annoyance, Roper will not hear of accepting a reward. But Mr. Innside is grateful, he feels that he must do something. He lets you in on a big deal, and you find yourself moving in an undreamed-of world.
Mr. Innside, it appears, works for a syndicate that fixes races. He is here in B----- to lift large quantities of cash from the local bookmakers, and just out of gratitude he will cut you and Roper in on the deal. Roper is horrified. Racing and gambling are against all his principles. But Mr. Innside points out that since bookies are all crooks, it's a righteous act and a fine moral lesson to separate them from their ill-gotten gains. Pretty soon you find yourself joining with Mr. Innside to talk Roper into spoiling the Egyptians. Eventually, reluctantly, he yields.
In the next few days you visit a bookie's office, you see bets being placed, enormous sums changing hands casually, customers drifting in and out. On tips from Mr. Innside, you win a few hundred yourself. Your head whirls with excitement; when Roper's religious scruples bother him, you cut him short with increasing curtness. Then Innside comes to you with big news; there's a fixed race coming up in which a long shot will pay off at twenty to one.
You rush home. You cash in your Government bonds, you borrow against your stocks, you withdraw your deposits and perhaps even mortgage your house. In a trice you are back in B------- with fifty thousand smackers.
Roper is still uneasy in his conscience, but you and Innside bully him into submission. It's agreed that Roper will place the crucial bet, since you and Innside are now too familiar to the bookies. Skip the details. Roper, whose Sunday-school background has unfitted him for distinguishing between win, place, and show, places the bet wrong. You are cleaned out. Innside is cleaned out. Both of you want to kill Roper. Roper tries to kill himself. Alarmed, you forget your own losses, get a doctor to pump the sleeping pills out of him, and talk him back to sanity. Eventually you find yourself home again, a sadder, poorer, but probably not a wiser man.
In the meantime, "Roper," "Inside," the supposed bookie and his clerks, and the supposed customers you saw betting all around you have come together in a tavern and divided your fifty grand.
"I knew the man had larceny in his soul the minute I set eyes on him," says the deacon, alias Mr. Roper. "He won't squawk-too scared the church crowd'll find him out."
"Yea, verily," says Mr. Innside with pious unction. "You can't cheat an honest man."
The Eighth Commandment ought hardly to need reinterpretation. "Thou shalt not steal" means for us exactly what it meant to the ancient Jews--don't take what belongs to the other fellow! Yet some curious confusions have muddled our national attitude to theft. For one thing, the regulations and limits forced upon us by our complex world have muddled our definition of ownership; few of us would agree with Proudhon's famous dictum, "Property is theft," yet few of us are quite sure just what property is. Certainly we no longer think of it as something a government can't take away whenever it pleases.
And of course the easiest form of theft to recognize is the overt physical act. We can all identify the "strong thief" as a criminal-the housebreaker, the safe-cracker, the car-stealer, the bank bandit. Nor are we in any doubt as to what is going on if we catch a clerk with his hand in the till, or a bank teller skipping with the cash. But swindling, on the other hand! But rigging contracts, bribing officials, finding loopholes in the tax laws, playing tricks with foreign exchange, lying about the goods we sell and selling trash! How cleverly all these forms' of dishonesty can masquerade as legitimate business methods!' And how hard it is to detect them--except, perhaps, belatedly' and ineffectually, by an occasional investigating committee.
Our society tends to denounce force, particularly when used by the poor, and extenuate fraud, particularly when employed by the rich. Traditional Christians like Dante, who placed the:: swindlers deeper in hell than the strong-arm men, would disagree with us. Nevertheless we have historical precedent; enough; all human societies have done much as we do, and before Christianity they saw nothing amiss in it. The objection to stealing is older than the Ten Commandments, as old as property-but the big question is whether it originated mainly in man's sense of justice or in man's selfishness. At any rate, the "haves" often take it for granted that the laws against theft are directed chiefly at the "have-nots." Consider the Roman law, which crucified a poor thief-and assigned a successful politician a province to be looted for his personal advantage ! Consider the Buddhist scripture Anguttara-nikaya, which seeks to show how a man of much virtue may be saved in spite of a misdeed which would send a man of lesser merit to hell, and does so by this bland comparison of the laws of God with those of men:
"Who, O priests, is cast into prison for a halfpenny, for a penny, or for a hundred pence?
"Whenever, O priests, anyone is poor, needy, and indigent he, O priests, is cast into prison for a halfpenny, for a penny, or for a hundred pence... .
"Whenever, O priests, anyone is rich, wealthy, and affluent: he, O priests, is not cast into prison for a halfpenny, for a penny, or for a hundred pence."
And so on and on, with no suggestion that maybe there's something wrong about this state of affairs, O priests !
But the people, of the Book knew it was wrong. They interpreted "Thou shalt not steal" in the light of divine justice and not of worldly expediency; the Old Testament, in the Psalms and the Proverbs and the Prophets, condemns the dishonest rich far more strongly than the desperate poor. And no crime in the Bible is held up to more execration than that "due process of law" by which Queen Jezebel murdered Naboth and confiscated his vineyard. The Hebrew teaching on theft reached its culmination when Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers and labelled these respectable financiers a den of thieves. And this was also he who welcomed the repentant thief into paradise!
The Christian definition of theft depends partly on Christ's view of property; and people have been fighting over that ever since Ananias held out a little cash from the common treasury. Socialists of all sorts, even the atheist sort, have seized upon Jesus' contempt for earthly treasure and mammon worship, his treatment of wealth as a curse and sometimes almost a sin " How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God !" While in the camp of mammon we find such enthusiasts for capitalism as the current publication Christian Economics, which proclaims, "We stand for free competitive enterprise," "Profit is essential and Christian," and even, "The only sure way to make money that I know of is to follow the teachings of Jesus." And these too find texts to support them. Perhaps the ultimate depth in this view of Jesus as chief execu- ; tive assistant to mammon was reached by the author who justified his portrayal of our Lord as an American big business leader by quoting on the title page, "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?"
The extremists of both camps can hardly be interested in Jesus himself at all; they merely find him useful to grind an axe on. They would quote from the devil as readily, had the devil in his own person ever written a book. Meanwhile, most churches have always agreed on a Christian and common-sense view of property, so familiar that we are in danger of forgetting it-property is neither sin nor inalienable right, but a loan, a trust from God. Like the talents in the parable, it is a test of our faithfulness, and we may keep it only so long as we use it well. The size of our bank account, like the size of our biceps, is neither good nor bad in itself, but only in what we do with it; should we use either money or muscle wickedly, our fellow men have the duty of stopping us somehow.
Theft, then, implies depriving a man of property he is not misusing, without making him an adequate return for it. And a most of us would add that theft implies taking property for an unworthy or selfish motive; thus Robin Hood, though a thief' by legal definition, has never been one to the popular imagination. We might simplify it by saying that theft is getting some thing for nothing.
Thus owning capital and employing labour are not theft, unless we fail to treat the labourer as worthy of his hire; thus making a profit is not theft, unless we make it by usury or some other form of defrauding others; thus taxation is not theft, unless the government fails to return to us, in services and benefits and protection, the equivalent of what it takes away. And thus, before extending a blanket condemnation or a blanket approval to any of these three, we had better take the trouble to find out how they are working in practice.
By a careful definition, the thief is not only he who steals my purse, but also he who steals my trade; and he who underpays me, and he who overcharges me; and he who taxes me for his own advantage instead of mine; and he who sells me trash instead of honest goods. The ultimate form of theft, undoubtedly, is slaveholding, which denies a man even the ownership of his own body.
It must be admitted that from the beginning Christendom has gone in for what George Orwell called "doublethink" about stealing. The Christian view added to its analysis of property rights a plea for the poor man driven to theft by want -witness Sir Thomas More in Utopia
"For simple theft is not so great an offence that it ought to be punished with death. Neither there is any punishment so horrible that it can keep them from stealing which have no other craft whereby to get their living. . . . For great and horrible punishments be appointed for thieves, whereas much rather provision should have been made that there were some means whereby they might get their living, so that no one should be driven to this extreme necessity, first to steal, and then to die."
Yes; but meanwhile the government were putting all their ingenuity into devising "great and horrible punishments" for the penniless thief. The secular law, after all, was based as much on the law of the slave-trading Roman Empire as on the teaching of Christ. Crucifixions, cutting off hands, burnings and boilings and flayings alive, the modern tortures by tear gas and fire hose and solitary cell and psychosurgery-such are always the secular arm's methods of protecting property against the desperate poor. No wonder if this history of cruelty maddened Karl Marx into the wild conclusion that government itself is no more than the self-defence of the rich! And little wonder too if men like Voltaire, seeing these things done in the name of Christ with the tacit co-operation of a corrupt clergy, could find no better expression for the organized religion of their time than "Ecrasez l'infame!"
Yet, wherever faith in Christ was real, it somewhat controlled the misuse of property, if not the punishment of theft. The medieval baron's obligation to his serf was as genuine (in theory, and often in practice too) as the serf's obligation to his baron. The medieval Christian was forbidden to practise usury - he could not lend money at interest, and he might have regarded the modern investment system as the devil's masterwork. The prohibition of usury did indeed disintegrate in the "humanism" of Renaissance Italy; it is no accident that the arms of the neo-pagan banking house of Medici have become the crest of the modern pawnbroker. What finished the Christian view of property and profit for a while, however, was the early industrial system. As Friedrich Engels remarked, the first capitalists found that "rationalism" served their turn far better than did Christianity with its inconvenient notions about a rich man's duty to his fellows; and for the first time economists and statesmen began to argue that property was not a trust but a sacred right, something with which governments must not meddle. The terrifying strength of Marxism, indeed,' springs largely from its revival, for propaganda purposes, of just that part of Christ's teaching about our social responsibility which nominal Christians of the early nineteenth century did their best to kill.
For the age of capitalism, a hundred years ago, did maintain' that wealth was both the reward and the proof of virtue, and' that money-making methods were something too holy for a government to regulate. The argument reached its logical and; ugly conclusion in Negro slavery; both the New England ship: captains who traded in slaves and the Southern planters who owned them defended themselves with Old Testament phrases about the sons of Ham being predestined bond servants. So often have ancient Hebrew savageries and crimes been used by certain Protestants to cloak their offences that one might paraphrase Dr. Johnson by saying that the Old Testament is the last refuge of a scoundrel. It was the Puritan and commercial North that stoned abolitionists and smashed their printing presses. We remember and rightly honour the abolitionist ministers who spoke out against this monstrous perversion of Christianity. But, alas, there were other ministers who spoke on behalf of slavery: have all the reasons of all the atheists ever harmed a church one tenth as much as its own occasional readiness to serve as a den of thieves?
Nowadays some reactionaries talk as if Christ had invented capitalism, and some progressives talk as if modern science had invented Government regulation, and both are talking nonsense. Government regulation of the use and tenure of property is exactly as old as government; indeed, we may question whether, without it, any government could exist at all. "Traditional" laissez-faire 'capitalism, on the other hand, is a novelty of the last two centuries and a profoundly revolutionary one, somewhat in the spirit of that revolution by which hell hopes to conquer heaven. The problem that most concerns us, however, is not whether a given system is radical or reactionary, but whether it is honest and workable. And perhaps the two adjectives are really one; perhaps a society must be honest in order to be workable. Perhaps a society riddled with theft is inevitably cutting its own throat, for a day must surely come when the victims will have nothing left to steal.
Have we got a society riddled with theft? There are two good places to look for the answer-in the headlines and in our hearts. But do we recognize the thief in the mirror? the dishonesty lurking privately in most of us, without which (if it be true that nations have the governments they deserve) any public dishonesty could hardly exist for long?
A bitter man once said that the great American dream was getting something for nothing.
Grotesque exaggeration this, for they have many better dreams-freedom, equality, the stoic New England tradition of "not being beholden," and the generous idealism which hopes to feed the world. Nevertheless getting something for nothing has insensibly become, for many, the only possible way of making a living. It is not only the unemployed and unemployable who drain a nation's wealth and give nothing in return. All performers of worthless work do that, even if they work themselves to death at it. Think of the armies of Government employees whose function is mainly keeping tabs on the rest of us; the armies of salesmen out plugging junk; the armies of workers madly turning out clothes that disintegrate in the first washing, cars that wear out in the first two years, houses that sag irreparably in the first spring thaw, electric gimmicks to do what a woman would get more fun out of doing herself, electric gadgets that promise a man health without the joy of exercise; amusements that don't amuse, cosmetics that don't beautify, drugs that do not cure, and education that does not teach-all the hopeless and useless tinsel with which a desperate world tries to bargain for its daily bread. These armies are not armies of thieves; they work hard for their keep at the only trades they have been allowed to learn-"rather provision should have been made that there were some means whereby they might get their living."
But a man is subdued to what he works in. The man making or selling trash eventually realizes it is trash, and loses faith in his work, himself, and his ethics. In the end he may be like ' the shopkeeper who explained business ethics to his son: "Suppose a customer buys something in a hurry. I give him change for ten dollars, but the minute he goes out I see he's given me a hundred-dollar bill by mistake. Now here's the question of business ethics : should I tell my partner?"
The ultimate stage of a society run on such ethics is collapse -the famous "end of civilization as we know it." And the penultimate stage is slavery, for when men have nothing else to lose, they still have their bodies. We have seen a dozen ;' inpoverished nations like Russia and China reach that next-to-last stage in which men accept slavery in exchange for a bit of bread. We have seen India driven to live on handouts, and toobtain handouts with the implied threat of what its vast manpower could do on the Russian side. Even here, many people feel that their best hope is to get on the thieves' end of the bargain rather than the victim's end; to get something for nothing.
Our society, in some aspects, is a vast confidence game. Even our money sometimes becomes a swindle; no crueller form of theft was ever devised than an inflation, and since the value of paper money depends on that doubtful commodity, faith in the government, it is hard to see how all present currencies can help inflating. Those who remember the German inflation of the 1920's know what happens, in such cases, to trusting old people living on pensions and savings.
Anyone who promised to cure the ills of our time with easy hopes and facile solutions would be the most heartless of liars. Yet perhaps the world which we all know is nearly bankrupt has just enough time left to stop, and change its mind, and devote the fiery energies it now puts into force and fraud into something new instead-the longed-for just distribution of land and the sane production of food. We haven't really much choice in the matter. For either we shall learn to obey "Thou shalt not steal"-which might be rephrased for us as "Thou shalt not try to get something for nothing"-or else we shall be driven to that extreme necessity of which the martyred Thomas More speaks-"first to steal, and then to die."
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