Often it’s not hunger that forces people to steal, but structural injustice. Hunger is only a symptom of what goes very wrong in a country that is not truly democratic.
Systemic failures make human life miserable. People starve, notes economist Amartya Sen, because they do not have food to eat, not because there is not enough to eat. We have enough food for everyone. The problem, therefore, is a question of equal opportunity and access to work that provides a decent way of life. Economists would refer to it as the standard of living. Philosophers, however, would inquire into the quality of human life.
But let’s dig a little deeper. Food is a commodity. What we need to understand here is the relation of people to this commodity. The relation that people need to examine is not one of ownership, but of entitlement. Sen explains that during the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, traders chose to export their crop because it commanded a higher price if sold outside of the state. This led to an artificial food shortage that left millions dying in the streets of starvation. In such cases, government intervention and immediate state action are crucial in order to restore the normalcy of food supply.
People might point to greed, but capitalism will be a primary suspect in any calamity of the likes suffered by Bengal. It has been said that the capitalist owns everything, including labour, having bought it from the worker. The store clerk, in this regard, has sold his labour-power to the capitalist. This includes, in its Marxist interpretation, the right to one’s existence. Whatever he does while under the control of the capitalist is something that is not up to him to decide, including what to eat and, sometimes, when to eat.
Our laws will dictate that the store clerk does not own the can of corned beef and it will be argued that the law may be harsh but it is the law. It is not something that people can argue against, but it might help if we look at some things to determine who the actual culprit is. In Norway, for instance, I was told that living standards are so high that there is no way a Norwegian would steal. The fact of the matter is that Norway’s state pension fund now amounts to $1 trillion – equivalent to $185,000 for every Norwegian.
Democracy, simply put, means development. So then a country in which people go hungry is not a democracy. Indeed, if you steal a goat here in the Philippines you can get yourself killed. You steal a million, then they make you a king. The reason for this is that our system favours the rich and advantaged. It is not even a question as to whether you are guilty or not. The question is whether you can afford the best and brightest lawyers.
Of course, our government will be spending more for the hearings and possible incarceration of a supermarket clerk who recently stole a can of corned beef. If Paul Matthew Tanglao hadn’t been caught, the incident would be a trivial matter to be discussed with his friends. Stealing is wrong, but what if you are really, really hungry? Granting that he had 20 pesos (Bt13), he could just have borrowed P11.50 from the same security guard who caught him. But he did not. The repercussions have been immense.
Poverty is the greatest scandal in any country that calls itself a democracy. It is a sad day for Filipinos. It is a sad day for everyone. Perhaps the establishment can forgive the poor young man. But on the other hand, the storeowners might say that they are only doing what is right to protect the interest of their business. The fact of the matter is that such an explanation will actually support rather than counter our argument. It is not really about a person stealing something. You just have to examine what goes into the pocket of the poor man, and what is actually reflected in the bank account of the elites in our society every single day of our lives.
Christopher Ryan Maboloc is assistant professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University in the Philippines and the author of “Ethics and Human Dignity”.