JP Floru is a Westminster Councillor, Senior Research Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and writer of Heavens on Earth – How to Create Mass Prosperity
When this morning the BBC’s Today Programme gave abundant publicity to a professor who believes that property thieves should not be sent to prison, I had some difficulty classifying it in either the “Silly Season Stories” or the “BBC Left Wing Bias” drawer. The Independent apparently ran with the story first, quelle surprise. Is belittling property crime innocuous?
Professor Andrew Ashworth, Labour’s ex crime advisor, believes that thieves should be let off with a community sentence and the payment of damages. Never mind that most thieves have no money; and that for most of us a community sentence equals a slap on the wrist. Stealing £250 worth of clothes is not serious harm, the professor claims.
His utterances in a pamphlet for the Howard League for Penal Reform were true to form: while he was chairman of the Sentencing Advisory Panel for three years under the Labour government criticisms of going soft on crime were rife. Many courts have been busy implementing views like Professor Ashworth’s for a long time. As Peter Cuthbertson of the Centre for Crime Prevention puts it: “‘Already the courts bend over backwards to give criminals community sentences and fines which fail to protect the public”. Last year, around 91,000 serious and repeat offenders, including thousands of thieves and other property criminals, escaped prison.
Far from being unimportant, few legal rights are more important than private property. The philosopher John Locke did not distinguish between the right to life and the right to property. The right to (or property over) one’s own life includes the property over the fruits of one’s labour. If somebody else is entitled to the fruits of your labour you are, effectively, a slave. Protection of property (one’s life and the fruits of one’s labour) is the first and foremost function of the state. If your property is taken away, you are not a free man.
Property is not only a matter of human liberty; it is also the source of all prosperity. People get on their bikes because at the end of the day they will be entitled to the proceeds of their labour. Take the incentive away, and the total wealth in society will stagnate or wilt, as we saw in the Soviet Union. When Mao abolished all private property and made peasants work in the fields with numbers on their backs, hunger and even cannibalism ensued.
The more freely and abundantly property is allowed to be amassed, the higher economic growth will be, as the incentive will be so much greater. It is the fundamental difference between the socialists and us: they want to redistribute the existing pie; we make the pie grow so there is more for all.
So no, letting thieves off with a slap on the wrist is not innocuous; it is and attack on life and civilisation itself. Especially in rural areas, most small crimes are already ignored by the policy. A few years ago I suffered four thefts from my property in mid-Kent, and only on one occasion did the police bother to turn up to have a look. Half the village had their lawn mowers stolen, yet the police somehow never managed to find the culprits (we all had a fairly good idea who the thieves were, but it wasn’t a political correct one). What the police never failed to ask when they questioned me over the phone was what my race was – as if it makes one iota of a difference whether the victim is white, black, or purple. So people in the countryside often don’t bother reporting crime anymore. Falling crime figures always seem suspect to me.
Unenforced property rights may also partly explain the dire economic straits some parts of the country are in. There is a parallel between economic deprivation and crime – this is surely odd, as in poor areas there would be less worthwhile stealing. Perhaps the economy suffers if people are uncertain that they will be able to keep the property which incentivises them to get out of bed. Why bother working if somebody may take it away with impunity?
If you cuddle poor thieves, you create poverty for all.