Property and Crime

Nearly our whole criminal code is made up of what may be called property crimes. The jails and penitentiaries of the world are filled to overflowing with men and women who have been charged with committing crimes against property. But where is the property that has been the subject of these dire assaults ? No matter where you turn your eyes in the world, the whole property is in the hands of a chosen few, and the so-called owners of all this wealth—created by the labour of man and the bounty of nature—these so-called owners have committed no crime against property. The statement of the fact is sufficient to show the inequality of the whole system under which the fruits of the earth are kept in the possession of the few.

As a consequence of his desire for life and the means that make it certain and pleasant, man has ever turned his attention to the conquest of nature, reducing vegetable and animal life to his control. But his conquest does not end here. Ever has man enslaved his fellow : he has sought to make his own career upon earth pleasanter and more certain by compelling others to toil for him. In its more primitive stages slavery was enforced by the ownership of the man. In its later and more refined stages it is carried on by the ownership of the things from which man must live. The rulers no longer have the right to buy and sell the man, to send him here and there to suit their will. They simply have the power to dictate the terms upon which he can stand upon the earth. With the mines, the forests, the oil, the harbors, the railroads, and the really valuable productive land in the rulers’ hands, the dominance and power of man over his fellows is absolute and complete.

The rulers make penal codes for the regulation and control of the earth and all the property thereon. Not only do they make these rules for their brief, haughty lives, but they provide that it may pass from hand to hand for ever. The generations now living, or rather those that are dead and gone, fixed the status of unborn millions, and decreed that they shall have no place to live except upon such term as may be dictated by those who then controlled the earth. To retain all the means of life in the hands of the few and compel the many to do service to support these few requires the machinery of the state. It is for this that penal laws are made.

The criminal statutes forbid extortion and swindling, and yet the largest part of business is extortion, and much of the balance is swindling. Real extortion is taking for any service more than it is fairly worth by means of agencies created by the extorter to despoil his victim and this is the business of the business world. . . The law forbids swindling, at least in certain ways, and yet a large part of business consists in making the public believe that they are getting more value for what they give than the tradesman can possibly afford. . . . All our merchants and tradesmen frantically call out their lies in every form, that they may sell their wares for a larger price than they are really worth. And yet to all of this the criminal code has no word to say. The man who can buy the space of a great paper to tell the wondrous qualities of the wares he has to sell is not the sort of man to come within the meshes of the penal code.

Remove dire poverty, as could easily be done with a tithe of what is now spent on force : let organised society meet the individual, not with force, but with helpfulness and love, and the inducement to commit crime could not exist. Let society be the friend not the tyrant, the brother not the jailor, and the feeling will be repaid a thousandfold.

CLARENCE C. DARROW in “Resist not Evil”

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