Class and theft

A while ago, J. of Silver Rights quoted and discussed two accounts of theft (Some logs and a bottle of wine). Readers were invited to voice their opinions of those two episodes. In the first, the blogger (Jeff Hauser) witnesses an apparently middle-class lady steal a bottle of wine in a supermarket; in the second, the author admits to having regularly stolen firewood from a supermarket during a winter when he and his wife fell on some really hard times.

I started writing a long post tangential to all this, but I’ve changed my mind since. One can probably distill it all to one word, class. Race is relevant only as much as it is statistically correlated with class – and thus perceived as a predictor of class status. “A black person is a priori more likely to belong to the low classes than a white person” is an ugly restatement of the fact (please correct me if it is not a fact) that, in percentage terms, there are more members of the low class among blacks than among whites. I should have said “low-income”, of course. The leap from “low-income” to “low-class” is but a leap of faith (a lot of extra evidence would be required to justify substituting “class” for “income” in this case), but the talk about 15-year-old single mothers on welfare does the trick for the general public.

So far, it’s all statistics – or at least what most people perceive as “statistics”. (I exclude those who believe that black people are genetically prone to antisocial behavior, hoping they are a negligible exception.)

Causality starts with the next step: “A low-class person is more likely to shoplift.” In this context, class is a behavioral characteristic. Middle-class Americans, it seems to me, associate middle-class-ness and low-class-ness with two different, in some respects even opposite, behavioral patterns. When a “somewhat trendy looking mid-30s-ish married woman” steals a bottle of wine, her action is bewildering; we don’t know what to attribute it to; it doesn’t fit our picture of the world — no wonder we’re lost and paralyzed as we observe it. We feel this must be an exception to her normal behavior; an absurd blunder; surely this lady is not really a thief! (Otherwise, the only surprising detail might be the shoplifter’s choice of beverage: “Who’d think this bum knows something about wine!”)

Similarly, we (most decent people tend to identify with the middle class, right?) feel tempted to forgive the faux-log snatcher because his larcenous escapade is clearly an anomaly from his regular behavior. Sure enough, he will be back on his feet, for he is endowed with Middle Class Values –a strong work ethics, self-reliance, a drive to succeed, a sense of responsibility, and to complement that, a good education and some work experience.

I suspect a similar attitude gave popular support to early welfare programs in Scandinavia. “If I stumble, welfare won’t let me fall; but I’ll be back on my feet soon because I’m a good worker, after all. And if my neighbor has a problem, I’m ready to help him with my tax money; for he is a good working Swede like me, and won’t abuse my trust.” It worked, up to a point.

I am not in a position to judge ampersand, of course. For some reason, though, I am tempted to quote DeQuincey.

…[A]nd just as people talk of “laying down” their carriages, so I suppose my friend, Mr. —-, had “laid down” his conscience for a time; meaning, doubtless, to resume it as soon as he could afford it.

It looks that ampersand not only feels no remorse for his misdeed, but justifies it thus… no, I’m not going to quote it — see the link above. His very attempt instantly shattered my presumption that he shared core middle-class values, too; that kind of nihilism would better suit a bourgeois bohemian or a déclassé. By the way, he does admit that shoplifters “cause Wal-Mart to raise prices”. Thus making other customers pay for his logs. Fine.

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