The Italian Supreme Court has ruled that stealing small amounts of food out of desperation “does not constitute a crime.” The adverse moral and political effects of this ruling will be large and downright criminal.
The case concerned an impoverished Ukrainian immigrant who stole a few pieces of cheese and some sausages from a Genoese market. He was sentenced to six months in jail and a fine that he could not pay. One has visions of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables suffering as a state slave for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a hungry child. Who wouldn’t oppose such a miscarriage of justice?
Indeed, in the appeal, Italy’s high court decided that “The condition of the accused and the circumstances in which he obtained the merchandise show that he had taken the little amount of food he needed to overcome his immediate and essential requirement for nourishment." The court further added that “People should not be punished if, forced by need, they steal small quantities of food in order to meet the basic requirement of feeding themselves.”
This ruling leaves open many legal questions. Does it imply that the punishment didn’t fit the crime or does it imply that no crime was committed? Does it imply that anyone who steals and can make the case that they did so for some essential, immediate need must be found “not guilty?”
Ayn Rand sheds light on this case in her essay “The Ethics of Emergencies.” She explains that one must “differentiate between the rules of conduct in an emergency situation and the rules of conduct in the normal conditions of human existence. This does not mean a double standard of morality: the standard and the basic principles remain the same, but their application to either case requires precise definitions.”
Specifically, she observed that “An emergency is an unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that creates conditions under which human survival is impossible—such as a flood, an earthquake, a fire, a shipwreck.” In such situations, it’s morally permissible to do things to preserve one’s life that would not be moral under normal circumstances.
But there are crucial caveats. Rand explained that if you’re washed ashore after a shipwreck and “you're starving and you might die the next moment, and there is food in this house, what is your moral behavior?” Rand says breaking in to take the food is moral, but once the emergency has passed you should “admit what you have done, and undertake to repay [the owner of the house and food].”
The Italian court legally absolved the thief of making restitution. But what about harm done to the merchant from whom the poor man stole? One might argue that he would hardly miss a few pieces of cheese. One could counter that in Italian cities as well as American ones, shoplifting adds up, and more than a few merchants find themselves impoverished and their businesses closed because of such thefts.
One might also ask how the thief in Italy found himself in a situation where he needed to steal. We each are responsible for providing for our survival and well being through our own productive efforts. Why wasn’t he working? Let’s assume that circumstances—e.g., an illness causing job loss—put the thief in his dire circumstances. Why not go to a church or private charity for help?
Perhaps he could not get work because of the notorious government regulations and taxes in Italy that stifle economic activity. The state no doubt deserves a good deal of blame for economic hardship.
But the most serious problem in this case is moral. The court essentially ruled that “need” justifies violating the rights of others. But in a sense, the court is simply endorsing explicitly the kind of immorality that governments practice today. All welfare states and socialist and communist systems are based on the collectivist notion that no one has rights to their own lives so no one deserves the liberty to pursue their survival and happiness by trading goods and services on a voluntary basis with their fellows. In the Italian case, an individual directly robs another individual. In the statist case, the government does the stealing.
Just as legalizing shoplifting will no doubt lead to more merchants in Italy going out of business, statist systems from Greece to Venezuela, based on legalized theft, are declining into a constant state of economic emergency. The morality that can justify the theft of a piece of cheese has led to the collapse of entire nations.
And this is why the restoration of liberty will require a defense based on the principle of individual rights.
David Kelley, “Generosity and Self-Interest.” December 1, 2002.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.