Is it morally objectionable to steal food to feed yourself, and only from chain businesses?
—Hungry but Principled
There’s no moral reason to refrain from stealing food from chain stores, especially if you live in one of the 14 percent of American households struggling to afford food. Food is a necessity. Stop & Shop can afford to help.
In 1970s Italy, shoplifting was rampant as part of a strategy called “autoreduction.” Consumers and workers sought to attack the capitalist system and improve their own living conditions in one go—consumers through theft, and workers through slowdowns or sabotage. In the context of a larger social movement called “autonomism,” autoreduction offered immediate redistribution, and forced governments and capitalists into reforms that improved people’s lives (reducing electricity prices, for example). Italians would storm through department stores in huge, rowdy mobs and just help themselves to stuff. Besides yielding political results, this was, obviously, crazy fun.
Initially, Hungry, I worried that shoplifting from a chain store might exacerbate the surveillance endured by its employees. Since we are not in the midst of an autonomist revolution, it stands to reason that retail workers might be singled out and blamed for losses. I called my colleague Spencer Woodman, who has investigated “shrinkage”—corporate-speak for profits lost to stealing—at Wal-Mart, the largest chain store in the United States. He told me that much of the shoplifting at Wal-Mart is committed by its own workers, who often make so little that they need food stamps. Further, shoplifting is so common, and companies’ data so inexact, that the impact of your purloined chicken dinner is negligible. “I’d be skeptical of any argument that stealing directly hurts the workers,” Woodman said.
Still, shoplifting from large chain stores is most likely not a good choice for you, Hungry. These companies invest significantly in security. A conviction is not only humiliating, it’s also a misdemeanor, which can saddle you with a criminal record for the rest of your life and keep you from getting a job. In some places, if you’re convicted of more than one misdemeanor, the second or third one becomes a felony, entailing serious prison time. Maybe we should revive autonomism—we have, after all, found ourselves in another worsening crisis of inequality—but meanwhile, please be careful out there.