The Eight Commandment (“You shall not steal”1) represents a profound reality that is essential to human existence, not to mention America’s founding.
Its genesis lies at the feet of that Creator who spoke everything into existence and gave us dominion over His creation.2
Its truth is self-evident, and it assumes an even more basic principle: that of property.
The principle’s self-evidence was noted by C.S. Lewis, as an atheist, when he heard how certain things we say as human beings point to some “natural set of rules” by which we should abide. He pointed to those who say, for example, “That’s my seat; I was there first.”
Now what interests me about [this remark] is that the man who makes [it] is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: “To hell with your standard.” Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it. … It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed.3
But the principle is not only self-evident; it is also true. That is to say, it conforms perfectly to reality, whatever one may think of the principle. American statesman Daniel Webster pointed to this when he said, “We have no experience that teaches us that any other rights are safe where property is not safe.”4
Our real life experiences have shown us this principle is so essential that its violation carries all sorts of practical consequences for our communities. That is usually the case with all of God’s Law – and not only at the personal level where we tend to associate this commandment at first glance, but in public policy perhaps most of all.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in an 1816 letter, “The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management.”5
The violation of this principle was a major factor leading to American independence. The principle was being challenged at that time, and it has continued to be challenged throughout our history. The fight against communism during the Cold War is perhaps the most well-known example.
Even today we hear chants of “redistribution” and “spreading the wealth.” These concepts require the government to steal from one group of people to “do good” to others. And the idea, not matter how well-intentioned, can never be prosperous, as it violates “the Law of Nature and of Nature’s God.”6
Here is Jefferson on the issue:
To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father’s has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association – the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.7
Many point to other evils, like greed or the exploitation of the poor, to condemn the principle. Here is Abraham Lincoln, who fought so valiantly against forces who wanted to exploit people as property, making sure we did not perceive the property principle as the evil itself.
Property is the fruit of labor property is desirable is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.8
Indeed, some of the problems we experienced in the financial world in our times are a violation of this very commandment. Greed led many of those in power to steal from investors and they cheated the public of millions of dollars.
But these events confirm God’s Law and should not be used to attack it, as some are trying to do today.
Notice that the commandment does not care about motive. Whether out of greed or necessity, stealing violates God’s principles. And the same goes for the nature of the subject or victim; stealing from the rich or the poor makes no difference.
William Blackstone said, “So great moreover is the regard of the law for private property that it will not authorize the least violation of it – no, not even for the general good of the whole community.”9
We stand at a very crucial moment in history when it comes to the philosophical debate behind this commandment. And the consequences of our decisions will decide the future of our country.
John Adams sums up the stakes:
The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If “Thou shalt not covet” and “Thou shalt not steal” were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.10
May we heed the words of our Founders and, more importantly, our God.
- Exodus 20:15.
- “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (Genesis 1:26).
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 3 (Harper Collins 2001) (1952).
- Daniel Webster, The Works of Daniel Webster Volume III 15 (Edward Evertt, 15th Ed., Little Brown and Company 1869).
- Thomas Jefferson, The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia: A Comprehensive Collection of the Views of Thomas Jefferson 727 (John P. Foley Ed. 1900).
- Declaration of Independence para. 1 (U.S. 1776).
- Thomas Jefferson, The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia: A Comprehensive Collection of the Views of Thomas Jefferson 424 (John P. Foley Ed. 1900).>LI
- Reply to New York Workingmen’s Democratic Republican Association (21 March 1864), Collected Works, Vol. 7, 259-260. Moody Bible Institute Monthly, Editorial Notes 6, (1929).
- William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England Vol. I, 139 (Philadelphia: Robert Bell, 1771).
- John Adams, “A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America,” 1787.