When wealth makes it legal to steal: “Crime” is a social construct in dire need of reimagining.

“Law and order” is a central theme of US politics. Part of the reason that a simple reformist approach to the problems of police brutality and abuse, and of racial injustice, is that after generations of Cold War and Drug War propaganda, centuries of white supremacist propaganda, there are a lot of people who feel a fierce loyalty to the police. This support of the US system of law enforcement seems to take the place of an actual consideration of the laws whose enforcement they so love.

Even as politicians and pundits work overtime to convince the people that their problems are caused by the most powerless, the largest single form of theft isn’t even a crime:

The thread contains useful resources and discussion further down, so I recommend that you go check it out if you have time.

This same pattern of things being legal for those with more wealth or power can be seen many other places. It’s been mentioned many times that while murder is supposedly illegal, it’s unlikely that anyone involved in the Flint water crisis will see the kind of prison time that they would if they had been involve in killing and inflicting brain damage on so many people in a more direct manner. Governor Snyder was charged in January of this year, but even if he is convicted, there will be little punishment, and no real justice for the victims.

That’s another thing that McKenna gets at – The solution to this problem is not necessarily to inflict harsher punishments on perpetrators of wage theft, or even on the perpetrators of an atrocity like the Flint water crisis. We want to prevent the crime from being repeated, if possible, but I think it’s fair to say that in a lot of cases our resources are better spent ensuring the victim of the crime gets back what was stolen, gets treatment for injuries or trauma, and so on. Restitution matters more than retribution.

Like I said, it’s a good thread and you should go read the whole thing if you can. A big part of the reason this blog ended up spreading out to cover so many topics beyond climate change is that all of our problems are intertwined – they’re part of the same system. I don’t think there’s a way we can solve any of these problems if we’re not solving all of them at once. We need everyone working together, and that’s not going to happen unless we are, at minimum, addressing the root causes and the symptoms of things like racial oppression. None of us is personally responsible for solving everything, but we are responsible for aiding those who specialize on issues outside our own areas of focus.

The current social construction of crime is, and always has been, a source of endless injustice and misery, and we need to put an end to that as part of our effort to pull together to deal with climate change.


  1. says


    And even when something is defined in statute as a crime, when crime is committed during the course of one’s duty as an employer/manager of a corporation, often the corporation is blamed for the criminal actions of humans and, again, no one goes to jail. Typically there’s no prosecution of the corporation, either. The case is settled with a fine and no admission of wrongdoing, the shareholders lose money, and the corporate bigwigs go entirely unpunished.

    So I see the same things that McKenna does, but I disagree on solutions. The ONLY radical idea ever is accountability for people with power. You throw a few corporate bigwigs in jail, and you refuse to settle criminal cases against corporations without an admission of wrongdoing (which then allows the people harmed by corporate action to sue them much more quickly and easily, with much less risk, which means that rather than a fine paid to the government, people the corporation hurt will get actual justice, and much more quickly than if they pursued it absent an admission of corporate wrongdoing), then you use the SEC to ban the relevant people from serving as officers in a publicly traded company, costing them their livelihoods, and then when people see that they can actually be held accountable in various ways, that’s when they start changing their behavior.

    They’ve had impunity for too long. It doesn’t have to be jail for all of them, but we can’t write a crime into statute and not enforce it. Repeal some crimes if you want to, but the criminalization statutes that remain on the books should be enforced **as crimes**. Anything else is just window dressing which won’t change at all the landscape that corporate actors actually see.

  2. says

    I would say that so long as we’re in our current system, or something very close to it, you are correct.

    The goal is, insofar as it’s possible, to make it increasingly hard for a few rich assholes to do that kind of harm. I suppose capitalists would consider it a “punishment” to have their wealth and power taken away, while being guaranteed food, shelter, and so on, but I don’t really view that as punishment.

    It seems to me that this disparity can be used to argue for harsher punishments for the powerful, or for a move away from harsh punishments for the powerless. It seems like advocating for both simultaneously would undermine both. I’m also not sure the deterrence argument works. Did the fate of Bernie Madoff result in more responsible behavior on Wall Street?

    I also think there’s a degree to which we all need to continue re-educating ourselves about how a society can and should operate. I think the world we want to build is one that’s different enough from what we know, that we’ll need to change how we think about things like this.

  3. Art says

    Yes, such employee/employer wage theft happens, a lot. A little less in service industries given that a disgruntled employees can seriously effect the bottom line by ruining the reputation for service and the product.

    I have seen a boss raid the waitresses tip jar when He thought nobody was looking.

    I’ve worked in construction trades and heard contractors joke about not paying illegals for their labor. Sometimes it isn’t a joke. “What are they going to do?” … Har, har, har… Not funny.

    Then again I’ve also worked for good contractors who pay and give benefits to their employees and run up against wealthy people who simply won’t pay. One contractor showed me the file cabinet full of court settlements, more than a million dollars worth, that were unenforceable. The comment was it is always the wealthy who play those games. I think it has to do their sense of entitlement.

    With poorer people almost always pay. You may have to set up monthly payments to fit their budget but they come through.

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