Freeman

ARTICLE

Thou Shalt Not Steal

Only the Right Can Lead Society to Prosperity

SEPTEMBER 01, 1994 by JAN MICHAL MALEK

Mr. Malek, born in Poland, has lived in the United States since 1967, working as an engineer, inventor, and real estate investor and developer. He still maintains close ties with friends and relatives in Poland. Mr. Malek has translated into Polish and published Ludwig von Mises’ The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, and sponsors the translation and publication of other books explaining and promoting the free market.

Poland and the other post-Communist countries of central and eastern Europe are struggling to establish a market society with freedom for all citizens. Advisers from the West who recommend U.S.-type government regulations, banking, and welfare state programs, on the theory that to institute free markets the former Communist nations should follow the U.S. example, are doing the people of those countries no favors. The essential ingredient for turning back Communism and establishing a free market society, as Mr. Malek makes clear in this article, is the protection of private property. The original and longer first version of this article was published in Polish in the Warsaw weekly “Najwyzszy Czas!” on December 11, 1993. That text directed to “common men” was intended to show the main difference between the political Right and Left on the plane of economy.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels stated that the Communist theory could be expressed in one single phrase: “abolition of private property.” Various names have been coined to describe Marxian programs—collectivism, nationalization, socialization of the means of production. When put into practice, however, these programs all have one common denominator—reliance on the forceful expropriation by the State of the property of its citizens. If called by its proper name, it would be known simply as theft.

The true Marxists, “Reds,” Communists, and the “extreme Leftists” are the most antagonistic toward private property, especially private ownership of the means of production, and are the most radical in their programs to take control over people’s property. Others in the Leftist camp—the socialists—are more moderate, proposing a gradual* or partial expropriation or limitation, through state intervention, of the rights of individuals to freely dispose of their property. The more Leftist is the attitude of some parties, groups, or particular people, the less respect they have for individual rights and economic freedom.


*A known official statement in the Communist countries was that “Socialism is the road to Communism.”


Opposing the Leftists are the “Rightists.” One main feature of all the Right is its anti-Communism, and subsequently its defense of the right of people to own and freely dispose of all kinds of property, including factors of production. A person deprived of property rights is no longer a free human being. So, by respecting property rights, the “Rightists” are defending freedom.

Whoever claims to belong to the Right, but who advocates giving the State the authority to dispose of the citizens’ honestly acquired property (that is, not acquired by way of violence, deceit, or theft in any form), misleads himself and other people; he acts on behalf of the Left. On occasion it may be necessary—because of a real threat to human life, human freedom, or other people’s property. Even then, it must be in exchange for just compensation.

In view of the above, the “extreme Right” label should be applied to those who defend most vigorously the sanctity of legally acquired private property and of the principle “Thou shalt not steal!”

A Natural Right

The notion of property rights has existed in all cultures and in all regions of the world since the beginning of mankind. The right to property, indeed, is seen as a “natural right.” People realized very early that violating this right, by engaging in theft of any kind, was harmful and dangerous to the community. For that reason theft was punishable under the unwritten common law or in accordance with written regulations such as those in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi nearly 4,000 years ago. The penalties imposed aimed at insuring the security of people’s property and the maintenance of order in the community. The greatest religions of the world condemn theft, that is, the violation of property rights. The Seventh Commandment explicitly forbids theft.

For millennia throughout history, there have existed castes and social classes of people—slaves or serfs—who were essentially the property of others. Those persons had almost no right to own property and possessed virtually nothing. As slaves or serfs generally constituted the great majority of the population, the opportunity to exercise property rights was very limited. The denial of property rights to such a large segment of the population accounted for the slow material progress for thousands of years. Only as new laws permitted the previously underprivileged to enjoy full property rights did individuals begin to gain freedom: first mainly in the Netherlands, then in England, and finally in other Western countries. This freedom brought with it rapid material progress. Later, the capitalist system that evolved—based on respect for property rights, private ownership, and the freedom to own and dispose of the means of production—led to a real outburst of material progress, bringing to the capitalist countries economic welfare such as had never been known before.

If respect for private property yields such beneficial results, could the lack of such respect also have positive economic and social consequences? Suppose some individuals, even the state, disregarded the ancient ban against violating property rights and taking property from others? Could this possibly be beneficial? How about the effect of the loss of respect for private property in countries where it was traditionally, or still is, nominally protected, or at least tolerated?

In truth, the fact that some people and their governments assume the right to take private property from some and distribute it to others wastefully is the main source of most contemporary economic and social ills. Those deprived of their property are victims; and frequently the supposed beneficiaries are victims, too, as their moral standards, freedom, and initiative degenerate. Other innocent people and society as a whole also suffer because of such actions.

“Social Justice”

From its beginning Christianity promulgated the sanctity of the Commandment to love your neighbor. The Left substituted for this Commandment the notion of “social justice,” which is supposed to be something better than what is understood as “justice.” The concept of “social justice” however, takes no account of the Tenth Commandment—“Thou shalt not covet anything that is thy neighbor’s.” Moreover, it also ignores the Seventh Commandment—“Thou shalt not steal.”

Often, people are misled to believe that the Left’s ideas on “social justice” are similar to the teachings of the Church in regard to helping the sick and the poor. This is wrong. The Church teaches that the people have to help the needy with their own funds and means (as well as with acts of a non-material type, such as providing moral support). On the other hand, the Left, when in power, confiscates income from productive people to distribute among other groups of people. A small part of this largesse goes to the needy, who in exchange are expected to support the Left’s efforts to stay in power. The state bureaucracy then consumes or wastes the major part of those funds acquired by coercion and theft of various forms.

In its plan for “social justice,” Leftist governments devise social welfare programs to provide free health care, education, transportation, and recreational facilities. Obviously these services are free to the direct beneficiaries only; the taxpayers must foot the bill. The services offered under these programs are allocated by politicians, administrators, and bureaucrats. As these officials usually look out for their own interests, the programs soon become very expensive. Overhead costs increase. Indirect costs mount also as the implementation of these social programs calls for anti-free-market state interferences that upset the natural market processes. Negative economic and special phenomena follow, such as the inflation, recession, depression, and unemployment experienced by the social democracies of the West. All these negative phenomena arise as the state interferes in economic life and violates the property rights of its citizens. Countries of the Far East with capitalist or similar systems have adopted only very few, if any, of these social programs and are now flourishing economically and beginning to catch up with the West.

In the task of spreading the truth about the evils of violating property rights, which conflicts with the Commandment “Thou shalt not steal,” the political Right in essentially Christian countries such as Poland, has, or should have, strong support in the institutions of the influential Catholic Church. Unfortunately however, there are a few clergymen who prefer to avoid discussing in depth the Seventh and Tenth Commandments and who like to criticize, sometimes even from Leftist positions, free-market capitalism. They are critical of capitalism even though that economic system is based on respect of property rights and, therefore, respects the Decalogue’s Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”

The criticism by these clergymen Usually relates to capitalism’s alleged lack of sensitivity toward the poor, exploitation of workers by the rich, and the drive for profit and material things to the detriment of the spiritual life. Yet the capitalist system has improved the conditions of mankind more than any other economic system.

It has raised standards of living to an almost unbelievable extent and substantially lengthened the average lifespan. The dictate of the capitalist system is service to other people—customers, clients, patrons, collectively called consumers. The capitalist who does not serve consumers well by producing goods or delivering services to meet the material needs of the largest number of people will not be profitable. He may lose his business and his capital, and so cease to be a capitalist.

I believe that one need not go far to perceive here an analogy and an affinity to Christ’s Commandment of serving your neighbor. The Christian who does not do good and is not useful to others becomes an empty vessel. So, it is worth pointing out that the dictate or command of serving other people, though in various ways and for completely different reasons, is common to Christianity, other major religions, and free market capitalism. They also have in common with the political Right respect for the property rights of individuals. Without such respect one cannot serve others well. This is one important reason why the Left, which disrespects and violates those rights, always fails in its economic programs.

Even though Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and many other religions stand firmly for the sanctity of the Commandment “Thou shalt not steal,” relatively few people realize the vast meaning and implications of that imperative.

The Politics of Good Intentions

How many people are aware that trying to benefit some at the expense of others, even when done with the best of intentions, leads to detrimental consequences, often directly contrary to what had been intended? Here are several examples:

1. Government allowances for poor girls and single women with children. The idea seems noble enough. Yet, when put into practice in the United States and other countries, such programs have led to drastic increases in the number of illegitimate children, fatherless families, and mothers with children dependent upon the state, which becomes a sort of “head” of the family. Every poor woman with a child may qualify if the father fails to provide; the allowance comes to her automatically as a kind of reward for having children out of wedlock. Generally, the more children, the higher the welfare benefits. Often each child has a different father(!)* As a result of such policies, during the last quarter of the century the number of illegitimate children has increased several times and is still growing in the United States. These children very often become non-achievers, school dropouts, and drug addicts. Once physically mature, they reproduce themselves and the cycle continues. As the number of women and children on welfare increases, the scope of poverty widens, the institution of the family disintegrates, criminality soars, and the society gradually degenerates.

Opposing the Leftists are the “Rightists.” One main feature of all the Right is its anti-Communism, and subsequently its defense of the right of people to own and freely dispose of all kinds of property, including factors of production. A person deprived of property rights is no longer a free human being. So, by respecting property rights, the “Rightists” are defending freedom. Whoever claims to belong to the Right, but who advocates giving the State the authority to dispose of the citizens’ honestly acquired property (that is, not acquired by way of violence, deceit, or theft in any form), misleads himself and other people; he acts on behalf of the Left. On occasion it may be necessary—because of a real threat to human life, human freedom, or other people’s property. Even then, it must be in exchange for just compensation. In view of the above, the “extreme Right” label should be applied to those who defend most vigorously the sanctity of legally acquired private property and of the principle “Thou shalt not steal!” The notion of property rights has existed in all cultures and in all regions of the world since the beginning of mankind. The right to property, indeed, is seen as a “natural right.” People realized very early that violating this right, by engaging in theft of any kind was harmful and dangerous to the community. For that reason theft was punishable under the unwritten common law or in accordance with written regulations such as those in the Babylonian Code of Ham-murabi nearly 4,000 years ago. The penalties imposed aimed at insuring the security of people’s property and the maintenance of order in the community. The greatest religions of the world condemn theft, that is, the violation of property rights. The Seventh Commandment explicitly forbids theft. For millennia throughout history, there have existed castes and social classes of people—slaves or serfs—who were essentially the property of others. Those persons had almost no right to own property and possessed virtually nothing. As slaves or serfs generally constituted the great majority of the population, the opportunity to exercise property rights was very limited. The denial of property rights to such a large segment of the population accounted for the slow material progress for thousands of years. Only as new laws permitted the previously underprivileged to enjoy full property rights did individuals begin to gain freedom: first mainly in the Netherlands, then in England, and finally in other Western countries. This freedom brought with it rapid material progress. Later, the capitalist system that evolved—based on respect for property rights, private ownership, and the freedom to own and dispose of the means of production—led to a real outburst of material progress, bringing to the capitalist countries economic welfare such as had never been known before. If respect for private property yields such beneficial results, could the lack of such respect also have positive economic and social consequences? Suppose some individuals, even the state, disregarded the ancient ban against violating property rights and taking property from others? Could this possibly be beneficial? How about the effect of the loss of respect for private property in countries where it was traditionally, or still is, nominally protected, or at least tolerated? In truth, the fact that some people and their governments assume the right to take private property from some and distribute it to others wastefully is the main source of most contemporary economic and social ills. Those deprived of their property are victims; and frequently the supposed beneficiaries are victims, too, as their moral standards, freedom, and initiative degenerate. Other innocent people and society as a whole also suffer because of such actions. From its beginning Christianity promulgated the sanctity of the Commandment to love your neighbor. The Left substituted for this Commandment the notion of “social justice,” which is supposed to be something better than what is understood as “justice.” The concept of “social justice” however, takes no account of the Tenth Commandment—“Thou shalt not covet anything that is thy neighbor’s.” Moreover, it also ignores the Seventh Commandment—“Thou shalt not steal.” Often, people are misled to believe that the Left’s ideas on “social justice” are similar to the teachings of the Church in regard to helping the sick and the poor. This is wrong. The Church teaches that the people have to help the needy with their own funds and means (as well as with acts of a non-material type, such as providing moral support). On the other hand, the Left, when in power, confiscates income from productive people to distribute among other groups of people. A small part of this largesse goes to the needy, who in exchange are expected to support the Left’s efforts to stay in power. The state bureaucracy then consumes or wastes the major part of those funds acquired by coercion and theft of various forms. In its plan for “social justice,” Leftist governments devise social welfare programs to provide free health care, education, transportation, and recreational facilities. Obviously these services are free to the direct beneficiaries only; the taxpayers must foot the bill. The services offered under these programs are allocated by politicians, administrators, and bureaucrats. As these officials usually look out for their own interests, the programs soon become very expensive. Overhead costs increase. Indirect costs mount also as the implementation of these social programs calls for anti-free-market state interferences that upset the natural market processes. Negative economic and special phenomena follow, such as the inflation, recession, depression, unemployment, experienced by the social democracies of the West. All these negative phenomena arise as the state interferes in economic life and violates the property rights of its citizens. Countries of the Far East with capitalist or similar systems have adopted only very few, if any, of these social programs and are now flourishing economically and beginning to catch up with the West. In the task of spreading the truth about the evils of violating property rights, which conflicts with the Commandment “Thou shalt not steal,” the political Right in essentially Christian countries such as Poland, has, or should have, strong support in the institutions of the influential Catholic Church. Unfortunately however, there are a few clergymen who prefer to avoid discussing in depth the Seventh and Tenth Commandments and who like to criticize, sometimes even from Leftist positions, free-market capitalism. They are critical of capitalism even though that economic syste
m is based on respect of property fights and, therefore, respects the Decalogue’s Commandment “Thou shalt not steal.” The criticism by these clergymen Usually relates to capitalism’s alleged lack of sensitivity toward the poor, exploitation of workers by the rich, and the drive for profit and material things to the detriment of the spiritual life. Yet the capitalist system has improved the conditions of mankind more than any other economic system. It has raised standards of living to an almost unbelievable extent and substantially lengthened the average lifespan. The dictate of the capitalist system is service to other people—customers, clients, patrons, collectively called consumers. The capitalist who does not serve consumers well by producing goods or delivering services to meet the material needs of the largest number of people, will not be profitable. He may lose his business and his capital, and so cease to be a capitalist. I believe that one need not go far to perceive here an analogy and an affinity to Christ’s Commandment of serving your neighbor. The Christian who does not do good and is not useful to others becomes an empty vessel. So, it is worth pointing out that the dictate or command of serving other people, though in various ways and for completely different reasons, is common to Christianity, other major religions, and free market capitalism. They also have in common with the political Right respect for the property rights of individuals. Without such respect one cannot serve others well. This is one important reason why the Left, which disrespects and violates those rights, always fails in its economic programs. Even though Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and many other religions stand firmly for the sanctity of the Commandment “Thou shalt not steal,” relatively few people realize the vast meaning and implications of that imperative. How many people are aware that trying to benefit some at the expense of others, even when done with the best of intentions, leads to detrimental consequences, often directly contrary to what had been intended? Here are several examples: 1. The idea seems noble enough. Yet, when put into practice in the United States and other countries, such programs have led to drastic increases in the number of illegitimate children, fatherless families, and mothers with children dependent upon the state, which becomes a sort of the “head” of the family. Every poor woman with a child may qualify if the father fails to provide; the allowance comes to her automatically as a kind of reward for having children out of wedlock. Generally, the more children, the higher the welfare benefits. Often each child has a different father(!) As a result of such policies, during the last quarter of the century the number of illegitimate children has increased several times and is still growing in the United States. These children very often become non-achievers, school dropouts, and drug addicts. Once physically mature, they reproduce themselves and the cycle continues. As the number of women and children on welfare increases, the scope of poverty widens, the institution of the family disintegrates, criminality soars, and the society gradually degenerates.


*Otherwise, the welfare officials of the government would presume that the father stays and supports or will support the family, and that, therefore, the mother does not qualify for the welfare benefits. So it is a financial disincentive for her to run the risk of living permanently with one and the same man, or to marry and have legitimate children.


2. Progressive taxation was specifically recommended in Marx’s Communist Manifesto. By taking the profits of those who are most productive and can best satisfy the material needs of consumers, progressive taxation penalizes those who are most successful in helping others. It also prevents or inhibits the accumulation of capital needed for investment. By hampering new ventures, progressive taxation leads to fewer jobs and more unemployment, lowers productivity, reduces living conditions, and contributes to economic backwardness.

By raising the expenses of employers, progressive taxation may force them to lay off employees or prevent them from hiring new employees or contractors. The funds collected may then go toward unemployment benefits or toward the upkeep of state officials. Thus, the money from progressive taxes is invested in idleness. Productivity declines still further.

3. The offer of government subsidies attracts more and more applications for handouts. When unemployment benefits are raised, the number of “unemployed” increases. When benefits for the homeless are raised, more homeless are found. As the state “invests” more in a program to overcome one social problem, more people apply for “benefits” and the problem generally becomes more serious. Private industry withers under the higher and higher taxes needed to pay the costs. At the same time, the bureaucratic welfare “industry” prospers and expands as the numbers of poor unmarried mothers, fatherless children, unemployed, and homeless increase. The bureaucratic “industry” thus has a vested interest in the increase of human misery.

4. The manipulation of market prices by the state through “price regulation” may be intended to prevent “unjustified” price rises. Their effect, however, is to deprive manufacturers or service providers of some part of the value of their production, and to transfer that portion to those who obtain the goods or services. This discourages the incentive of producers or service providers to continue or expand production or services. Thus, “price controls” always produce shortages and “black markets” where goods or services are offered at prices higher than they would have been in a free market. Instead of lower prices, therefore, higher prices result, the difference being covered by consumers. These consequences of introducing “price controls” in the name of “social justice” are usually blamed by the government and the ignorant public, not on the regulations, but on speculators and “profiteers.”

As the above examples show, government social welfare programs deepen people’s poverty. They are not a war against poverty; they are a war against the poor.

The Proper Role of the State

The main purpose of the state should be to ensure the freedom and physical security of citizens and to protect their property from aggression. When the state collects taxes proportionally to insure the safety of the country and the equal protection of all citizens and their property, it acts in conformity with its duties and in agreement with its legitimate purpose. On the other hand, when the state, instead of protecting the property of its citizens, “takes” property from some in order to favor others, then it abuses its powers. In doing so, it shows disrespect for property rights, and acts in conflict with the Commandment “Thou shalt not steal.” The distinction between what is allowed, and what is not, becomes blurred. Many then cease to distinguish between right and wrong: When the state justifies its immoral behavior by claiming that it is for the “public weal,” that it is in the “public interest,” or for the sake of “social justice,” private citizens and common men can also find some justification for immoral behavior. This, in turn, contributes to rising crime rates.

The above presentation shows that social and economic programs based on, or involving the rejection of, the Commandment “Thou shalt not steal” bring about results contrary to those intended. In fact, such rejection of property rights by state policies brings misery to the people. In this author’s view the injunction and Commandment “Thou shalt not steal,” in its broadest sense, is an economic imperative. If the science of economics is meant to provide instructions on how to use, in a most materially efficient and socially beneficial way, the resources available to a nation or other community, this imperative is, or must be, at work in any economic program of the true political Right.

The goal of the Right is to improve the living conditions of the poor by moral and effective means. The disabled, the sick, underage orphans, widows without pensions, the aged without family protection, and the unemployed, should be helped by voluntary, self-help organizations, private, religious foundations, charitable institutions, or guardians operating in local communities and churches. The Right says yes to every such truly social welfare program; no to government-operated, state welfare programs.

Only the Right can lead the society to prosperity. To achieve the leadership role however, the Right should pay more attention to the economic aspects of its programs, and to undertake an educational offensive of propagation of economic truths among the people. 2. was specifically recommended in Marx’s By taking the profits of those who are most productive and can best satisfy the material needs of consumers, progressive taxation penalizes those who are most successful in helping others. It also prevents or inhibits the accumulation of capital needed for investment. By hampering new ventures, progressive taxation leads to fewer jobs and more unemployment, lowers productivity, reduces living conditions, and contributes to economic backwardness. By raising the expenses of employers, progressive taxation may force them to lay off employees or prevent them from hiring new employees or contractors. The funds collected may then go toward unemployment benefits or toward the upkeep of state officials. Thus, the money from progressive taxes is invested in idleness. Productivity declines still further. 3. When unemployment benefits are raised, the number of “unemployed” increases. When benefits for the homeless are raised, more homeless are found. As the state “invests” more in a program to overcome one social problem, more people apply for “benefits” and the problem generally becomes more serious. Private industry withers under the higher and higher taxes needed to pay the costs. At the same time, the bureaucratic welfare “industry” prospers and expands as the numbers of poor unmarried mothers, fatherless children, unemployed, and homeless increase. The bureaucratic “industry” thus has a vested interest in the increase of human misery. 4. through “price regulation” may be intended to prevent “unjustified” price rises. Their effect, however, is to deprive manufacturers or service providers of some part of the value of their production, and to transfer that portion to those who obtain the goods or services. This discourages the incentive of producers or service providers to continue or expand production or services. Thus, “price controls” always produce shortages and “black markets” where goods or services are offered at prices higher than they would have been in a free market. Instead of lower prices, therefore, higher prices result, the difference being covered by consumers. These consequences of introducing “price controls” in the name of “social justice” are usually blamed by the government and the ignorant public, not on the regulations, but on speculators and “profiteers.” As the above examples show, government social welfare programs deepen people’s poverty. They are not a war against poverty; they are a war against the poor. The main purpose of the state should be to ensure the freedom and physical security of citizens and to protect their property from aggression. When the state collects taxes proportionally to insure the safety of the country and the equal protection of all citizens and their property, it acts in conformity with its duties and in agreement with its legitimate purpose. On the other hand, when the state, instead of protecting the property of its citizens, “takes” property from some in order to favor others, then it abuses its powers. In doing so, it shows disrespect for property rights, and acts in conflict with the Commandment “Thou shalt not steal.” The distinction between what is allowed, and what is not, becomes blurred. Many then cease to distinguish between right and wrong: When the state justifies its immoral behavior by claiming that it is for the “public weal,” that it is in the “public interest,” or for the sake of “social justice,” private citizens and common men can also find some justification for immoral behavior. This, in turn, contributes to rising crime rates. The above presentation shows that social and economic programs based on, or involving the rejection of, the Commandment “Thou shalt not steal” bring about results contrary to those intended. In fact, such rejection of property rights by state policies brings misery to the people. In this author’s view the injunction and Commandment “Thou shalt not steal,” in its broadest sense, is an economic imperative. If the science of economics is meant to provide instructions on how to use, in a most materially efficient and socially beneficial way, the resources available to a nation or other community, this imperative is, or must be, at work in any economic program of the true political Right. The goal of the Right is to improve the living conditions of the poor by moral and effective means. The disabled, the sick, underage orphans, widows without pensions, the aged without family protection, and the unemployed, should be helped by voluntary, self-help organizations, private, religious foundations, charitable institutions, or guardians operating in local communities and churches. The Right says to every such truly social welfare program; to government- operated, state welfare programs. Only the Right can lead the society to prosperity. To achieve the leadership role however, the Right should pay more attention to the economic aspects of its programs, and to undertake an educational offensive of propagation of economic truths among the people.


Filed Under : Capitalism, Property Rights, Private Property, Communism, Morality

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