April 25, 2011
Last week hundreds of thousands of people watched the President of the Czech Republic pocket a pen before a live and televised audience. More than 2,345,000 viewed his action on YouTube. Back home in Czechoslovakia, a Facebook page campaign was launched to mail pens and pencils to the president. More than 5,000 Czechs have signed up.
Theft can be defined as the willing and conscience appropriation of what is not yours.
Theft has a major impact on the economy. In the U.S alone:
- A motor vehicle is stolen every 26.4 seconds. According to the FBI, the estimated property loss due to car theft was $5.2 billion in 2009.
- Shoplifting is the number one property crime in America. More than 10% of the public shoplifts and retailers lose more that $20 billion a year due to shoplifting.
- Approximately 15 million U.S. residents had their identity stolen at a cost of $50 billion a year.
- Cheating on taxes is another form of theft. The IRS estimates 17 % of taxpayers do not comply with tax laws and according to the IRS Oversight Board more than 10% of taxpayers (admittedly) think it is “OK” to cheat on their tax return. The amount loss per year to the Treasury is close to $500 billion. Over the past decade tax evasion has cost the U.S. government $3 trillion. The current U.S. deficit would be significantly improved if more people were honest in their reporting of income.
Why do people cheat and/or steal?
There are many explanations. Benedict Carey in his article “The Psychology of Cheating” thinks that people cheat when they feel that they have been treated unfairly. He quotes Dr. Anhan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvanian who says: “Cheating is especially easy to justify when you frame the situations to cast yourself as a victim of some kind of unfairness. Then it becomes a matter of evening the score; you are not cheating, you are restoring fairness.”
I am not sure I totally agree with that explanation. It seems to me a self-justification after the fact. At one level or another we all know that cheating and stealing is wrong, period.
Max H. Bazerman, a professor of business administration at Harvard, and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, a professor of management at the University of Notre Dame, the authors of “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It” make an interesting point in their NYT article dated April 20, 2011 entitled “Stumbling Into Bad Behavior. They believe that people behave unethically when they fail to recognize that the decision they are about to make has an ethical component. The authors also believe that we have a “tendency to overlook information that works against one’s best interest.”
Few people wake up in the morning thinking: “Today, I will lie, cheat and steal.” Only the criminal mind thinks that way. However we may all think of ourselves as more ethical that we actually are.
I do not know the monetary value of the pen the President of the Czech Republican stole but I know that we are all at risk of sliding down the slippery slope that starts with a minor infraction but that can lead to major disaster. It can begin by an apparent small compromise of integrity, something we should avoid at all cost.
As Chinua Achebe once said:
“One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.”