At the tail end of arguably the most vexing economic year of the past decade, Seattle’s City Council is considering easing pecuniary woes by effectively legalizing acts of theft committed by the poor.
Individuals considered to be “impoverished” may have the benefit of a poverty defense in the city code that municipal court judges shall be required to consider. This legislation would absolve the economically unfortunate of misdemeanor offenses that can be linked to poverty. One journalist has cited up to 100 misdemeanors that this measure could excuse.
King County’s Director of Public Defense Anita Khandelwal clarified the proposal as such
In a situation where you took that sandwich because 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. That conduct is excused.
Angélica Cházaro, a law professor at University of Washington, gave the following analogy concerning the policy
Was a person in Goodwill stealing a coat because they don’t have a winter coat because they’re poor? Well, that seems very relevant, they probably shouldn’t face prosecution for that.
In the short time the proposal has been made public, there has been vocal opposition on the grounds of moral hazard, favoritism, and the financial toll it would take on businesses. Yet, Real Change lead organizer Tiffany McCoy dismisses these objections as “fear mongering” and “rooted in anti-poverty bias.”
Unfortunately, the primary focus being on the immediate effects of the plan has shielded attention away from the more comprehensive question of rightfulness.
A Brief Explanation of Rights
A clear conception of rights provides a logically consistent framework to determine the ethicalness of human behavior. Considering the pivotal role rights play in the judgement of human affairs, it is imperative to establish some qualifying conditions.
According to the late Walter E. Williams
In the standard historical usage of the term, a “right” is something that exists simultaneously among people. As such, a right imposes no obligation on another. For example, the right to free speech is something we all possess. My right to free speech imposes no obligation upon another except that of noninterference. Similarly, I have a right to travel freely. Again, that right imposes no obligation upon another except that of noninterference.
As I mentioned in a previous article, the concept of rightfulness may be encapsulated as,
privileges inherent to individual existence. That is, rights are the benefits we receive from being able to control our own bodies. For example, humans have a right to opinions since an opinion is comprised of thoughts and feelings generated by one’s own mind. Expression and speech are also rights because they originate within the individual’s personal vessel (i.e., the body). Since these abilities are intrinsic to human existence and controlled solely by the individual, it is impossible for them to be directed in a telekinetic manner. What humans can do is control the circumstances surrounding an individual, forcing said individual to make a choice they wouldn’t have otherwise, but this does not qualify as controlling another’s bodily functions. Therefore, the use of one’s personal vessel is strictly one’s own privilege and no one else’s.
When extended into the realm of human contact, rights must be expressed through voluntary exchange. Any exchange that is not the product of consent necessarily entails an entity seizing use of facilities outside the entity’s personal vessel, which they have no right to do (theft). If two individuals exchange goods that each has obtained in the absence of theft, then they are participating in an action that is purely the result of each participant using their personal vessel in a way that generates a mutually fit outcome.
A person who uses their body to steal would not be engaging in a rightful act. Although the thief would be controlling his own body, thus using the bodily functions he is privileged to control, he does not have a right to anyone else’s belongings since they are not a function of the thief’s own body. The thief perhaps could be able to spy, wander, and sneak since those actions involve the use of his own body, but when it comes to taking possession of entities outside himself, he has entered a realm where his rights are only extended by others using their rights.JOhn A. Lancaster (Emphasis Added)
The Irrevocability of Rights
Furthermore, rights are inalienable. Since they are an intrinsic feature to human nature, so long as humans exist, their rights will simultaneously be present. As Murray Rothbard stated in The Ethics of Liberty,
there are certain vital things which, in natural fact and in the nature of man, are inalienable, i.e., they cannot in fact be alienated, even voluntarily. Specifically, a person cannot alienate his will , more particularly his control over his own mind and body. Each man has control over his own mind and body. Each man has control over his own will and person, and he is, if you wish, “stuck” with that inherent and inalienable ownership. Since his will and control over his own person are inalienable, then so also are his rights to control that person and will.Murray Rothbard
Rothbard also cites Williamson Evers for further clarification. According to Evers, rights are philosophically defended on the basis of
the natural fact that each human is the proprietor of his own will. To take rights like those of property and contractual freedom that are based on a foundation of the absolute self-ownership of the will and then to use those derived rights to destroy their own foundation is philosophically invalid.Williamson Evers
What This Means for Property Rights and The “Poverty Defense”
Given that humans have a right to private property, since one can use their own personal faculties to claim previously unowned materials and/or voluntarily establish contractual terms of exchange regarding owned materials, the right to private property is inseparable from the human experience.
Since individuals do in fact posses an inalienable right to private property, then any act of theft upon a person’s property is an infringement upon a person’s rights regardless of the rationale provided to justify the theft.
Seattle’s poverty defense is nothing more than a political ruse to afford handouts to the purportedly disenfranchised at the expense of the law abiding citizen’s justly owned belongings.
Though the supporters of the proposal put on airs of compassion, one cannot claim altruism by sanctioning the violation of one person’s due to benefit another. That is attempted robbery of private property rights via legislation.