Matthew Humphrey recently lost $4,000 worth of goods in a theft of his Seattle barbershop. Under a new proposal the Seattle City Council is considering this month, what went down to him wouldn't be also a crime – if the thieves claimed these were driven by poverty, that's.
\”I think it's insane,\” the victimized barber told a local news outlet. \”It's one of these well-intended concepts we want to take care of people that can’t look after themselves. But what you are really doing is hurting other people.”
The Poverty Excuse
Up for debate is really a reform proposed by Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold. For up to 100 different misdemeanor crimes, including theft, harassment, shoplifting, trespassing, and much more, an individual could be excused if he or she claims poverty was their motive.
\”In a scenario where you took that sandwich since you were hungry and you were trying to meet your basic need of satisfying your hunger; we as the community will know that we should not punish that,\” King County Director of Public Defense Anita Khandelwal said from the proposal, which she helped craft. \”That conduct is excused.\”
The intent from the proposal is to avoid punishing desperate people just attempting to survive. But the provision exempts not only stealing food or similar necessities, but stealing anything – if you claim the money gained from its sale would be used for essentials.
An Upside-Down World
First and foremost, this insurance policy would obviously incentivize more crime and more theft.
It would basically give a person with a good sob story a green light to violate property rights at will. In doing so, it would condemn Seattle to economic decline.
In a free market with secure property rights, people can engage in mutually-beneficial commerce. In working to earn an income, they will create employment opportunities and provide others with the goods and services they require. Businesses can invest and communities can grow.
Without secure property rights, none of the is possible.
Survival, let alone profitability, is impossible amid such unpredictability and lawlessness.
Think about it using Humphrey, the aforementioned barber, as an example. As a small business owner, he employs people in his Seattle neighborhood. They go out and spend their money elsewhere around town. Meanwhile, locals can get haircuts they want at a price that's worth it to them .
Yet if the Seattle proposal became law, Humphrey and a large number of other small business owners would likely need to shut down.
\”It's a little upside-down world,\” he explained. \”The end result is small companies like mine need to close their doors simply because they can’t afford to be broken in [to] all the time.\”
You certainly can't blame him. There's no way any small business owner might operate when anyone who is poor or homeless – or claims to be – is able to rob their store and get away with it. Survival, not to mention profitability, is impossible amid such unpredictability and lawlessness.
The Takeaway is Clear
And so, while perhaps some homeless or the indegent might benefit from lawless looting in the very short-term, this reform would probably destabilize and erode the city's economy and incentivize crime. If businesses cannot operate, jobs will not exist, wages will not be offered, taxes will not be paid, and, in short order, crime and poverty is only going to increase.
This is why free-market economist Thomas Sowell once said that property rights \”belong legally to the people, but their real function is social, to benefit vast numbers of people who don't themselves exercise these rights.\”
None of this is conjecture. The strength of property rights in a nation closely correlates with its average per-person income.
So, the takeaway here's clear.
Progressive Seattle officials might have the best of intentions behind their proposal to create a hardship exemption to property crimes. But, if successful, their na\”ive efforts would undermine the rule of law and property rights necessary for Seattle's economy to survive.
Brad Polumbo is a libertarian-conservative journalist and Opinion Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.