Shoplifting food and price inflation: Who’s to blame?

Shoplifting food and price inflation: Who’s to blame?

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Every trip to the grocery store these days and the surprisingly high bill at end of it reminds us of persistently high food price inflation. As grocers well know, during high inflation food theft goes up. According Statistics Canada, about 0.025% of Canadians (that’s 250 for every 100,000 of population) stole food from grocery stores last year, a 3 percent annual increase.

Although only a fraction of people steal, the losses to grocers are significant. Based on some industry data, food theft in Canada is now estimated to be $2,000 to $5,000 a week per store. Even the low end of that amounts to over $500 million annually in losses across the industry due to theft. These losses put further upward pressure on prices when grocers – whose margins are razor thin – shift the cost of theft to their customers.

News articles report (a feat of investigative journalism) that unnamed shoplifters defend their theft by claiming they are not able to make ends meet or that they want to provide healthy food for their children. In the shoplifters’ view, food theft is justified in the name of equity: they blame grocers for profiteering or price gouging while they themselves find food increasingly unaffordable. Therefore, they feel entitled to steal and have no regrets.

The online comments on those news reports suggest that most of us don’t think that way. The commenters condemn shoplifting as immoral, mostly because they, as most of us, have been taught since childhood that stealing is wrong. They also recognize that theft is not a solution to price inflation but only makes it worse.

But to discourage food theft and to end price inflation, we must know not only that theft is immoral but why it is immoral. It is immoral because it undermines our ability to survive.

Shoplifters likely think that stealing food helps themselves and their families survive, and it may indeed do that in the short term. But the belief that stealing food helps one survive is mistaken.  As Ayn Rand has eloquently explained, theft (or any crime) cannot sustain one’s life in the long run because it initiates physical force or fraud against another. Theft always has a victim whom it deprives of their property, no matter what the thief’s motives or how they use the stolen goods.

A violation of a victim’s property rights by depriving them of their property reduces their productivity. Theft prevents the victim from putting their property into productive use, such as establishing and operating grocery stores that make food conveniently available to us.

Theft if immoral regardless how much wealth the victim has or how much the thief lacks it.

Justifying theft based on the argument from equity or “fairness” is faulty because property rights apply to everyone equally. Stealing from profitable corporations such as grocery chains is as immoral as stealing from small “mom and pop” stores. We all depend on corporations for producing the goods and services our lives depend on (small stores could not do it on the scale required, nor could they achieve competitive costs that make low prices possible).

Instead of focusing only on shoplifting of food, we should recognize that all theft is wrong (and only justifiable on specific conditions in exceedingly rare emergencies, for which price inflation does not qualify).

Theft includes the government taking our property by force through various taxes (such carbon taxes and other climate-related levies) that is uses for its ever-increasing programs and for the interest on its ballooning debt, both of which are significant contributors to persistent inflation (including inflation in fuel and electricity prices that contribute significantly to the increasing cost of food).

Understanding the moral case against shoplifting food helps us fortify ourselves against arguments for all theft. Those moral arguments also help us combat food price inflation. If we want lower food prices, our efforts are best focused on protesting (through our elected representatives or letters-to-the-editor, or other available channels) government’s inflation-causing actions.

Grocery stores are not the cause of price inflation, nor can they abate it through price cuts. Their very low profits margins have not increased during price inflation; they earn profits from the volume of sales. Cutting margins would make their operations unsustainable and eventually bankrupt them, which would significantly curtail availability of food – and increase prices.

Instead of being stolen from, or being accused of profiteering, profit-making grocers deserve to be recognized for the value they create and how it benefits us.  They, particularly those that find innovative ways to keep their prices competitive despite inflation, deserve our patronage.

Photo credit: Kenny Eliasen at Unsplash.

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2 Responses

  1. You nicely integrate the current shoplifting issue with the principle that stealing is wrong; that it’s not in anyone’s rational interest and that it undermines the work of grocers forcing them to further raise their prices. And, while grocers are not to blame for the rising prices, it’s a good idea to zoom out and look for the actual cause, such as the ever-increasing government spending and energy policies making everything more expensive, among others.

    In that way we can connect with the grocers, when realizing that just like the grocer, who did not want his products to be stolen by $2000 to $5000 per week, we too are forced to pay for many government programs, debts and high interest-rates, which we did not choose. In both cases it is a loss that hurts us by undermining our productive abilities and leads to a lower standard of living.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.

She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.

Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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