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Is Shoplifting from Grocery Stores Morally Permissible?

woman with backpack and cart standing in front of produce

No. Right?

Loblaw – one of few major Canadian grocery retailers – recently released its third-quarter earnings report, which boasted a profit of $621 million, up from $556 million compared to the same quarter from last year. This is during a time when grocery prices are increasing faster than the rate of inflation, and when people are switching more than ever to discount and dollar stores to try to cut down on their bills. In my home town of Toronto, grocery prices have gotten so out of hand that 1 in 10 Torontonians now make use of food banks. While there have been many arguments about why, exactly, food prices continue to increase, the majority of Canadians find fault with the grocery stores themselves, accusing them of profiteering (major food retailers in Canada are prone to blame suppliers, instead).

Should the record profits that grocery stores are making and the immense pressure that increased prices are putting on consumers cause us to rethink our answer?

That depends. After all, there are circumstances where it seems clear that theft from a grocery store is impermissible. For example, if you comfortably have the means to purchase groceries and the store in question is a small family-operated establishment, then you shouldn’t steal from them. There are also circumstances where it seems clear that theft from a grocery store is, indeed, permissible. For example, if you risk starvation and have no other means of acquiring food, few would think you worthy of moral criticism if you stole a loaf of bread.

Although these edge cases seem intuitive, there are challenges even to them. The deontologist – the person who believes morality is about following a certain set of rules – may very well find theft of any kind outright impermissible, starving or not. On the other hand, a moral consequentialist – the person who believes the moral permissibility of an action depends on the consequences of that action – may find theft even from the “ma and pa” establishment to be permissible under certain circumstances (or, at the very least, they not rule it as outright impermissible without digging deeper into a calculus of harms and benefits).

But let’s put the edge cases aside and instead focus on your average (in whatever sense you take that to mean) grocery shopper, and your standard (in whatever sense you take that to mean) corporation-owned grocery store. Is it morally permissible for this person to shoplift from that kind of grocery store?

It is easy to come up with some arguments that say it is. For example, one might think that given that the cost to the store is almost certainly barely noticeable given how much money these stores tend to make, the benefit to the shoplifter far outweighs the cost to the store – call this the “it won’t make any difference” argument. Or, one might argue that corporate greed (and potentially profiteering) justifies small acts of redistributive theft – call this the “Robin Hood” argument.

Indeed, it may seem as though many people have decided that, in fact, shoplifting is largely acceptable these days. Much has been made about an apparent recent increase in the amount of shoplifting in countries all over the world, especially from grocery stores. One would be forgiven for thinking that the consequentialists have run amok, roaming in gangs, and stealing anything that’s not tied down.

However, while many companies and commentators in the media have claimed that there is a “shoplifting crisis,” the extent to which such a crisis actually exists has been disputed. Furthermore, looking at the data shows very different results. For example, a recent study from the U.S. has found little reason to think that shoplifting has increased in any significant way at a national level, at least when considering the country as a whole.

So even if it’s easy to come up with such arguments in theory, using them to justify actual acts of shoplifting does not seem to be terribly common, or at least no more common than it used to be. This is perhaps surprising: if the “it won’t make any difference” or “Robin Hood” arguments ever had any force then they surely have even more force now.

Instead, one might even provide a new argument for the permissibility of shoplifting, namely one of retributive theft. The argument might go like this: employers are stealing from their employees and face little to no punishment for their actions. As such, shoplifting from those employers is justified.

Is this a good argument? There is ample reason to think that employers are, in fact, stealing from employees: numerous reports over the past few years have found many major companies culpable for committing wage theft, a category of employer behavior that includes paying below minimum wage, failure to pay overtime, denying employees’ legal rights to breaks and meals, the diversion of worker tips, and unpaid labor before or after shifts. A 2017 report found that more than $203 million had been stolen from workers in New York, while Home Depot recently settled a class-action lawsuit over wage theft for $72.5 million. And, of course, major grocery retailers have also been accused of wage theft.

Whether these factors justify an act of shoplifting is up for debate, and will no doubt depend on the circumstances. Despite what might appear to be a gluttony of reasons in its favor, it’s also simply difficult to defend shoplifting by appeal to theory, and it seems unlikely that many would be convinced in any practical sense. However, given the increasing financial pressures on consumers, that may very well change.

Does the Public Get a Say on Interest Rates?

close-up photograph of Canadian bank notes covering politician's face

Canada is in the midst of a housing crisis – the average cost of a house has risen to over $700,000 while the cost of renting has also skyrocketed. The country is also facing inflation with a high of eight percent at one point and food prices that keep increasing. After years of very low interest rates, and in response to rising inflation, the Bank of Canada has raised interest rates eight times since April of 2022. While inflation has fallen, it still persists, and the Bank has not reached its target of two percent. With the cost-of-living problem and the worry that Canada might enter (or is already in) a recession, some politicians have called on the Bank not to raise interest rates further. Nevertheless, economists have expressed worry about the political influence on the central bank. Is it appropriate for politicians to attempt to influence monetary policy in this way?

Something of a controversy emerged at the end of August when British Columbia Premier David Eby issued a plea to the Bank of Canada to pause any potential rate hikes. With the rate now at five percent and inflation still present, there was concern that further hikes were on the horizon. In a letter to Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem, Eby pleads to consider the “human impact” of increasing rates again and claims that unnecessary increases would pose a danger to both homeowners and renters. The Government of Canada and the Bank of Canada have had an agreement since 1991 that the Bank would commit itself to an inflation target of two percent, and Macklem has been firm in insisting on hitting that target: no more and no less.

In response to this unusual public plea from a politician to the central bank, some economists are expressing frustration. UBC Okanagan associate professor Ross Hickey has called Eby’s move a “reckless act.” The appeal jeopardizes the impartiality, independence, and non-partisanship of the bank.

We don’t want our central bank to respond to politicians at all, it’s independent. It’s akin to the Supreme Court of Canada, we don’t want the Supreme Court of Canada to be responding to what politicians say in letters … we want the Bank of Canada to follow its mandate to pursue keeping inflation at a target of two percent per year.

Hickey is adamant that asking a justice to change their decisions to suit an appeal on various people’s behalf would be wrong. As Hickey describes the move, “I understand you’re independent, but I still want you to do something for me, that’s gobbledygook.”

The situation became more nuanced when the Conservative Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, issued a letter of his own five days later similarly calling on the bank to halt hikes making it difficult for people to make ends meet. Having entered into a black-out period prior to rate change announcements, the Bank did not respond to either letter. Nevertheless, when the announcement did finally come, the Bank held interest rates steady. There is no evidence to suggest that these appeals had any effect on the Bank’s decisions, and the federal government has placed almost the entire onus for dealing with inflation on the bank, not wanting to get involved in the issue. But is Hickey right that it’s wrong for politicians like Ford and Eby to make such an appeal?

Typically, a lot of importance is assigned to central bank independence and on maintaining inflation targets. These targets reassure people and businesses that they can make long-term financial plans. Central bank independence from political leadership aims to ensure stability by preventing political interference favoring short-term considerations. If the independence of the central bank is undermined, it could erode confidence, creating financial instability. Given this, Hickey may be right that public pleas from politicians are a bad idea.

On the other hand, so much of this argument hinges on how we understand the concepts “independence” and “risk.” First, let’s respond to Hickey’s analogy about the justice system. There are, in fact, ways in which you might indicate to an independent judge what you would like them to do and still have the court retain its independence. They are called courtrooms. Nothing about appealing to a person or making one’s preferences known inherently subverts independence. In fact, governments are often granted “intervener” status in court. If I ask a judge to not convict someone of a crime before they make their judgment, it doesn’t stop the judge from coming to their own decision. So long as I cannot override the judge or imply that I will fire them if they do not decide what I want, their independence need not be threatened. Independence does not imply that you cannot appeal to people as they make their choice, it just implies that at the end of the day, the choice is theirs to make. The same is true of the central bank and the case of these Premiers. There is no way for either Premier to exert any direct influence.

Second, Hickey’s point that we don’t want central banks to respond to politicians at all is inherently self-defeating. The two-percent target only started as part of an agreement in 1991, having shifted from an initial five-percent aim. The two-percent target as a long-term goal was only standardized after 1998. That target has been renewed several times, as recently as 2021 where the government gave additional leeway to consider employment as they consider how to meet their goal. Central banks, then, should have to respond to concerns of the public; they are not above reproach, and to suggest that a central bank should not have to respond to public concerns is undemocratic.

But while the bank can set a target, we can still have public discussions about how best to achieve that aim. Central banks are not above reproach, and it’s undemocratic to suggest that economic policy is not a public issue. Some economists, for example, have criticized the federal government for leaning so heavily on the central bank and interest rates to solve the problem. Indeed, this is the point that Eby’s letter was attempting to make. The bank’s actual mandate, for example, requires a target of 1-3% inflation over “the medium term.” There is no hard-and-fast rule for how fast the target must be met. Given this, it’s not even obvious that Eby and Ford were asking the Bank to act against its mandate. As there are different ways to measure inflation and different assumptions involved in making inflation projections, political debate seems necessary. It should not be the case that the central bank’s methodology or approach for fulfilling their mandate are beyond the public’s purview.

There are, for example, reasons to question the assumptions that underpinned inflation targets in the 1990s and whether this strategy should be used to fight inflation today. Unlike the 1990s, inflation is not the result of decades of rising wages. Instead, it is the product of global politics – such as the war in Ukraine – and, more significantly, supply chain issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These new factors may mean we need to approach the present situation differently. Surely there is some way to adopt temporary changes to monetary policy without the sky falling. Some, for instance, have floated the idea of temporarily adopting a three-percent target. Economists, meanwhile, balk and continue to decry “political interference.”

Still, there are reasons for thinking that economic policy requires political oversight. Ultimately, comments like Hickey’s and others’ exemplify a technocratic mindset that undercuts democratic discussion by relying on the assumptions of experts that remain closed off from public scrutiny.