New Worlds: Sticky Fingers

To launch us into Year Six (!) of the New Worlds Patreon, my scofflaw patrons have asked me to talk about crime!

Theft has probably been with us for as long as we’ve had some notion of individual property. Heck, maybe even longer than that, though when it’s one group stealing from another, we tend to call it “raiding” instead. The frequency of violent crime has gone down enormously over the ages, and it’s possible the same is true of theft, but the latter still remains a widespread problem.

Although we tend to use various words as synonyms for “theft,” there are actually some terminological differences here that it’s worth paying attention to. Robbery is specifically theft accomplished by physical harm or the threat of harm, i.e. theft plus assault (though not all legal systems include threat in their definition of assault). Meanwhile, burglary technically refers to breaking and entering; one can burglarize a house for other purposes, like spying or murder. The law tends to treat those types of theft as more serious because they involve additional offenses. Larceny, on the other hand, is a generalized term that has ceased to be a legal category in most jurisdictions, though it survives as part of English’s rich vocabulary. And of course we also have more metaphorical sorts of larceny, like identity theft; much of that falls under the header of fraud, i.e. deceit to gain some kind of advantage.

In all these varied forms of pilfering, what gets stolen? That’s changed significantly over time. I’ve talked before about how valuable material things were in pre-industrial days, when making anything was hugely labor-intensive; the corollary to this is that pretty much anything that wasn’t nailed down was, at least in theory, worth stealing. Rewind the clock two hundred years or so, and something like a handkerchief was a prime target for pick-pockets. Nowadays, who would bother? In my backyard I have chairs, a table, and a plastic shed full of gardening tools. Nothing prevents a person from stealing any of those, but I have absolutely no fear that anybody will. A thief would be lucky to get two dollars for my rake — assuming they could find anybody to take it in the first place.

The lowered value of goods is only one factor that’s probably fed into the decline of small-scale theft. We also have less poverty: not to say none, but the percentage of the population that lives on the edge of starvation has shrunk significantly. Therefore, the number of people willing to risk criminal consequences for two dollars of payoff has gone down. Also, where would this hypothetical thief take my rake? We no longer have whole streets full of secondhand shops and stalls, where used goods can be unloaded for a little cash. The shape of our cities has changed; from my house it’s a fifteen-minute walk to the nearest commercial area, and I doubt you’d find anyplace there to sell such things. A thief with access to a car probably goes after more valuable targets.

For all of these reasons, theft now tends to focus on either those valuable targets — things like jewelry, electronics, vehicles, and cash — or on items for the thief’s own use, be those petty (a pack of gum) or not (an expensive blouse). But what exactly is valuable changes based on circumstances: in our electronics-driven world, the demand for copper has skyrocketed, so that it’s worth the effort to break into abandoned buildings to strip them of wiring. In an agricultural society that depends on irrigation, you get constant disputes where one neighbor accuses another of stealing water, i.e. letting more than his fair share into his own fields.

Mind you, the actual stealing is only one half of the equation. Leaving aside cash and those instances where the thief intends to use what they stole (or, in the grand tradition of Robin Hood, give it to someone else who needs it), pilfered objects only become profitable once they’re sold.

Enter the fences — aka the movers or the receivers. The term “fence” is a shortening of “defence,” because involving a middleman protects the thief against discovery. An object is stolen; the thief sells it to the fence, who knows perfectly well they’re receiving a “hot” item; the fence possibly takes some steps (like removing identifying marks) to conceal the illegal origins of the object, and then sells it onward, possibly to a place like a flea market. It’s a form of laundering, in the criminal sense, hiding bad things among good. The thief loses a cut of the money, of course, because the fence also wants to make a profit, and sometimes the pay cut can be large. But in exchange for greater safety, that can be a good bargain.

Some fences even get creative. Jonathan Wild is one of those historical figures who’s almost too colorful to put in fiction, an eighteenth-century Londoner who built a massive criminal empire while passing himself off as a figure of law. One of his best tricks was to arrange for thieves under his control to steal something, then wait for the victim to offer a reward for the recovery of their property. Then Wild would announce that he was dispatching his thief-takers (those being a sort of proto-detective) to “find” the missing items, and subsequently collect the reward. If there was no reward, he could simply sell what the thieves had taken. He simultaneously ratted out rival thieves to the authorities, clearing the way for his own people to operate more freely. Vertical integration at work!

Dealing with theft requires multiple levels of intervention, from decreasing poverty to investing in security to prosecuting not only the thieves but the receivers of stolen goods, who by their efforts help shield thieves from the law. The occasional case of kleptomania notwithstanding, larceny is mostly driven by a profit motive, so if there are easier and safer ways to make a profit, many people will take them. But the closer to desperation a population lives, the more people will accept the risk.

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1 thought on “New Worlds: Sticky Fingers”

  1. Not all places have breaking and entry as burglary. Sometimes it also has to be at night — defined as after civil twilight, namely those hours when things can not be clearly seen and identified by natural light. Doing it when there is enough light is house-breaking.

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