Of all the communications which it is ever the duty of one citizen to make to another, the most unpleasant is probably the suggestion that he has broken the eighth commandment. To tell a man that he is a thief is the last and most unpardonable insult; and before making such a charge, it is certainly advisable to be clear in one’s own mind as to the general definition of what is meant by “stealing,” and the value of the evidence in any particular case. Those charged with theft have a way of showing such active indignation in repudiating the insult, that we cannot but admire the strength of mind of those professional guardians of the public peace who do not shrink from bringing home to suspected persons their alleged transgression of the eighth commandment. For the same reason it is to be observed that amateurs generally adopt a more circuitous method of conveying the same impression; hence such polite paraphrases as the expressions to “embezzle,” to “appropriate,” etc., which are often used as substitutes for the ugly word to steal.
Stealing, like other vices, has its degrees and it is curious to notice that more condemnation has attached to some kinds than others. Open stealing, especially when a touch of violence has lent lustre to the process, has always enjoyed a certain prestige of its own; as we see in the case of the famous highwaymen of the Dick Turpin class, and in the exploits of invading armies. Secret stealing, on the other hand, has always been held to be disgraceful; the pickpocket, with all his skill, can never attain to the notoriety of the highwayman. But the votaries of stealing, whether open or secret, never attempt to justify their profession seriously and on principle; they feel, no doubt, that the unanimity of moral reprobation is too strong for them. There is no cry more popular than that of “stop thief!” There is no vice the people more strongly detest than stealing. The cause of this is doubtless to be found in the fact that the essential feature of the thief’s crime consists in its injustice; to steal is to take by force or fraud that which belongs rightfully to another; and justice is one of the strongest instincts of the popular mind.
Considerable animation has been imparted to recent discussion by the readiness of capitalist writers and speakers to charge social reformers with breaking the eighth commandment. The Duke of Argyll more than once made this charge against Mr. George and others, and the cry was taken up and repeated in many capitalist papers. It seems to be forgotten in these quarters that the crime of stealing consists in taking not what is one’s own but another’s, and that to assert that Socialists break the eight commandment is merely to beg the whole question at issue, since the main contention of Socialists is that the land and the means of production belong rightfully to the people, and not to the present occupiers. If two parties claim one and the same property, it can hardly be called a theft to institute an enquiry as to which is the rightful owner, with a view to a possible restoration of the stolen goods.
The fact is, “stealing” cannot in justice be limited to the narrow conventional sense in which it is at present used. If to steal is to take what is rightfully the property of another, there is many a rich man whose possessions are fully secured by law, who is as much a thief as many a Dartmoor convict. Nay more, there may be such a thing as an unintentional and unpremeditated stealing; indeed the whole system of modern society, with its “profits” and “interests,” and similar genteel phrases, is nothing else than a gigantic contravention of the eighth commandment, by which non-workers steal the produce of the labouring classes. The fact that individuals cannot remedy this systematic wrong does not in the least disprove the existence of the evil; at any rate they ought to have the grace to acknowledge the source from which their comforts are derived, and to join in the attempt to bring about as speedy a reform as possible. Unfortunately this is a course to which the capitalist classes seems specially disinclined. They insist that they are the rightful possessors of wealth which comes in to them without any labour on their part, and attempt to raise the cry of “Stop thief” against those who venture even to investigate the origin of their wealth. Our capitalists persist to the bitter end in the fatuous assertion that to live idly on the labour of others is not the same thing as to steal.
When social reformers are sarcastically reminded of the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” they may well resort on their capitalist advisers with the clever answer given by Alphonse Karr to those who demanded the abolition of capital punishment, “Que messieurs les assassins y commencement.” By all means let there be no more stealing; and let the greatest thieves be the first to reform.
Justice, No. 61, March 14, 1885, p. 2