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“Will you sleep with me for a million dollars?” the fat, balding pundit asks the pneumatic young woman.

“Sure” she says, allowing greed to conquer revulsion.
“Will you sleep with me for a dollar?” he asks, realigning his lust with his budget.

“What do you think I am?” she says, without realizing she has already told him what she is and is now merely haggling.

I was reminded of that joke by a recent column in a local paper. The writer candidly confessed a few petite but very different crimes that she saw as equally innocent foibles. She confessed to crimes many have committed ― crimes for which punishment beyond mild embarrassment would be cruel and unusual.

I’ll confess too, like the writer, I don’t wait for lights to change at empty intersections late at night. I have also risked begging forgiveness in favor of not seeking permission. I understand her glee at remaining out of jail. Both of us are certainly some flavor of criminal for not doing our time at traffic lights, but we are criminals without victims.

Failure to genuflect fully before a late night signal or kiss the ring of a code inspector is a crime by definition. It’s like smoking pot or skipping school, or building without a permit, or painting toenails without a license or breaking any of a thousand laws designed to enlarge the power of politicians and reward political interest groups. Such laws are always foisted on us for our own good. Some, like traffic laws, may actually offer some protection. But those who spurn bureaucratic prohibitions are making political, not ethical, choices.

Our columnist then amusingly confesses to the pettiest of petty thefts without apparently understanding the difference between political and ethical crime. I mention this, not to condemn the writer or to promote moral priggishness, but to point out an important difference between tweaking the noses of our masters and stealing from our neighbors.

Theft is not the same as ignoring pointless prohibitions. Thieves have victims. Theft has consequences. The size of a theft doesn’t alter its nature, just its severity. If everyone boosted a few berries each time they cruised the produce aisles, it would soon be impossible to sell berries, or the price of berries would become so high they would be even more tempting targets for thieves.

Reasoning that a tiny theft is no theft at all leads to all kinds of mischief. Once you believe that stealing a little bit is not stealing at all, you can convince yourself that stealing a little bit from a great many is not stealing either. The thief who takes ten cents from each of ten million people and the thief who steals a million dollars from one person have both stolen a million dollars. Once you believe the theft of a dime is not a theft and you have the means to whip a lot of dimes out of a lot of pockets, the world is your piggy bank.

If you can get a politician to pilfer for you, well, that’s definitely not stealing. Make the beneficiary of the theft a politically correct group like artists, educators, farmers, the poor, people with special skin colors, people without homes, people with certain diseases, or members of hundreds of different victim groups, and petty theft on a grand scale becomes positively noble. It’s democracy at work ― three coyotes and a chicken voting on what’s for lunch.

Artists start begging politicians to steal for them; not much, mind you, just a few cents from each of the millions of beer swilling philistines who are too ignorant to support the arts voluntarily. Businesses persuade politicians to pinch a few cents from each of us with tariffs. Top-heavy, unproductive operations can thus remain top-heavy and unproductive. Farmers get politicians to swipe a little pocket change from consumers with price supports because farming is a noble way of life, more worthy of subsidy than what other people do for a living.

The list of beneficiaries of public largess is vast and limited only by the imaginations of those who want something for nothing.

By reasoning that small theft is not theft at all, interest groups of all stripes belly up, clear of conscience, to a public trough brimming with loot. Politicians filch and distribute money to buy votes and power.  In modern America a politician’s job is no longer to protect our rights, it is to steal from opponents and distribute the booty to supporters.

When we ask for government help we are really asking politicians to steal for us ― steal just a little tiny bit from each of our many fellow citizens, but steal never the less. They’ll never miss it, we say. We deserve it, we say. We need it more than they, we say. It’s for a good cause, we say.

Treating 4 a.m. traffic lights like stop signs makes us criminals if we get caught. Thievery makes us thieves every time. Haggling over price doesn’t change what we are.