Efforts are underway in Venezuela to decriminalize theft of basic necessities in some circumstances, according to a Reuters report. No less than a justice of the Venezuelan Supreme Court is behind the campaign. Judge Alejandro Angulo Fontiveros is promoting a proposal, called the “famine theft” clause, that eliminates punishment for those “who take food, medicine or inexpensive goods without using violence to ease hunger caused by prolonged, extreme poverty.”
Fontiveros claims that his proposal is “a guide for judges to avoid injustice. They lock up for years a poor person who lives in atrocious misery and what they need is medicine.” The temptation for those in poverty in Venezuela to steal food and medicine must certainly be widespread, as estimates place at over one million the number of Venezuelans who cannot afford such basic necessities.
One is reminded of the plight of Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables. He serves 19 years of hard manual labor for stealing a loaf of bread (and successive failed escape attempts). Valjean certainly could claim extenuating circumstances: He was the sole provider for his sister and her seven children.
It is, of course, true that the severity of judicial punishments needs to be in accord with the seriousness of the crime. Assuming that Fontiveros’ depiction of Venezuelans imprisoned for years for nonviolent offenses is accurate, the judicial system is undoubtedly unjust. A basic tenet of jurisprudence is that extenuating and mitigating circumstances need to be considered in sentencing criminals. This practice was outlined long ago in the biblical system of justice where, for example, such factors as intent and foreseeability were considered.
So, while Fontiveros’ intentions seem to come from an admirable and right sense of justice, his proposal contains numerous flaws that would seriously undermine the fabric of both civil society and judicial authority. Such a “famine theft” clause would codify a “steal from the rich and give to the poor” system after the manner of Robin Hood. And while Robin Hood makes for a compelling literary figure, his example doesn’t make for sound judicial and social policy.
One of the major problems with the proposed solution is that it does nothing to address the real problem at hand, the economic injustice and social dysfunction at the root of poverty. Fontiveros ought to be militating against the corrupt policies and administration of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, whose recent antics include a threat to take over control of the nation’s central bank.
Fontiveros’ purposes would be better served by seeking to amend and limit the sentencing practices of the courts, or supporting measures for long-term and appropriately aimed measures to alleviate the misery of the poor. These include empowering the institutions of civil society to care for the poor and promoting the virtuous and wise principles of social justice demonstrated in the Scriptures, a particularization of which is leaving for the poor the grain fallen to the ground during harvest (Leviticus 19:9-10; cf. Ruth 2:2-3).
Institution of Fontiveros’ proposal would lead to chaos, as millions of hungry Venezuelans would be given license to steal. There’s a very thin line between theft and robbery, and it is unrealistic to think that theft attempts will not spill over into violence. Imagine the repercussions as comparatively rich shopkeepers, merchants, and homeowners attempt to protect their property by means of force, and an overmatched police force tries to maintain order.
Legalizing theft is essentially a complete reversal of the legitimate role of government to enforce and protect property rights. The commandment, “You shall not steal,” recognizes an individual’s basic rights and responsibilities with regard to property. Fontiveros’ proposal can be viewed as an act of hubris, as he attempts to flout both the natural and the revealed law.
An person violates a tenet of the Decalogue at his or her peril. This is a serious enough matter in itself. But when a nation institutionalizes violation of one of the Ten Commandments, it does so to the eventual ruin of its people. As the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight” (Isaiah 5:20-21 NIV).