I have seen this phrase come up lately, and decided that it is a belief that is common enough to be relevant to a number of people, simple enough to debunk without getting into too long of an essay about it, and the consequences dire enough that it warrants attention.

In short, theft is defined by how something is acquired from you, not by what the other person does with it.

If I value something you have, and you value something I have, we can trade. We both agree to give up something we want less in exchange for something we want more. We both profit, yet we have not stolen from each other. Further, if you then utilize the traded item better than I did or could, I don’t have any claim to the proceeds, but nor have I lost anything that we didn’t already agree to trade.

  • Example 1: If you trade your money to Walmart in exchange for some business equipment, and you use that equipment to generate a profit, you do not owe Walmart any share of that profit, and you are not stealing from them by not giving them any.
  • Example 2: If you trade your time in exchange for money, and your employer utilizes that time to generate a profit, you are not entitled to any more money than what you agreed upon. If you wanted to participate in a profit-sharing enterprise, there’s nothing wrong with that, but then that condition needed to be part of the trade agreement in the first place.

Again, theft is defined by how something is acquired from you, not by what the other person does with it. If you consent to the trade, it is not theft. Even if you later have trader’s remorse.

Conversely, something that is theft does not magically become not-theft just because the item that was taken is, or is presumed to be, used for your benefit.

  • Example 3: If a mugger in the street takes your wallet, but then uses some or all of the money to buy groceries for you, he has still stolen from you.
  • Example 4: A protection racket will sometimes provide services – perhaps keeping rival gangs away, or suppressing your competition. In a normal ethical trading scenario, if you do not pay, then the other party may rightfully deny you the service. However, in the case of a protection racket, the gang will go out of their way to visit harm upon you if you refuse to hire their “protection.” Thus, it is extortion, a form of theft.

One last time, theft is defined by how something is acquired from you, not by what the other person does with it. Even if there’s some benefit to you.

It seems as if there are many people who use hyperbole to win the attention of others, or perhaps to describe their feelings about a topic, without real concern about whether their words accurately describe reality. In any case, they, or the ones who listen to them, may actually come to believe that the hyperbole is the literal truth.

If one builds a worldview on a faulty understanding of basic concepts, it will be a false and distorted worldview which is likely to feed into itself. Indeed, we have many examples in our current political climate of people who have become increasingly hysterical, polarized, hateful, and even violent towards others over the beliefs that they have compounded in their own minds. All this, over what could otherwise have been respectful disagreement or discussions of nuance.

Because of the potential harm that can be caused by people acting on such distortions, it is important to make sure that our rhetoric, both that which we believe and that which we espouse, is grounded in reality.