When I hear someone prattle on about how they earned everything they have (usually as an attack on social services or people less well-off) and never, ever(!) rely on handouts, or that they shouldn’t have to pay taxes for services they don’t use, I want to ask them: did you grow, harvest, roast, grind, and brew that $3 coffee you drank this morning (not counting any milk or sugar in that drink, or the cup itself) and would you pay yourself $3 for it? How exactly did you merit that money you inherited that you used for a down-payment of your house? And would you be OK with the 33% of Americans who don’t own homes to stop giving you their money through government handouts, (aka: first-time home-buyers’ “tax credits”)? The myth of bootstrapping, hard-working, totally self-sufficient, individualistic American meritocracy purposely obscures the system that redistributes and consolidates money and resources in ways that benefit few but effect everyone.I was prompted to write this after seeing the comments to this piece from Womanist Musings on poverty survival which suggests, among other things, to dent canned food in stores for a cheaper price and to steal pens and toothpaste. There was plenty of moral outrage against this promotion of theft: a commenter named disgruntled warned the original writer: “don’t blame society because you’re a thief– plenty of other people find a way to survive without theft. It’s a choice you willingly make and you need to take your responsibility for it” (emphasis mine). Another commenter, leorising, goes so far as to say that “Some of us [in poverty] would literally rather starve than steal.”

The response from maripoya summarized what I’m getting at:

Plenty of other people survive without theft? No not really. Our global economic system is built on wide-scale theft: society just decids to call this form of stealing capitalism. Any one having moral qualms about post-economic-collapse Wall Street bonuses? What about all the multi-billion dollar corporations who don’t pay one penny of taxes any where on earth; wow no moral qualms about that either. Because it’s—let’s say it together–the invisible hand of the free market.

Meritocracy supporters, free-marketers, those who were morally offended by poor person stealing to survive, and other pro-capitalists operate on the assumption that money is the arbiter of morality. If you give someone money for something, it has been rightfully “earned”, never mind a) how that money was acquired or b) the conditions of sale. Displacement, exploitation, coercion, and violence are subsumed under the dollar and a purchase becomes a clean, simple transaction and a right to possession has been earned. If a starving woman sells her oldest child for money to buy food it is not theft because the buyer gave her money. However, a poor man who dents food cans to get them half off is a thief who needs to “take responsibility” for his actions. The premise is clear: those with money are not responsible for their exploitation, but the exploitable are immoral if they steal to survive.

This myth is so powerful, it has been and continues to be used to justify the most heinous acts throughout time. Confederate sympathizers, for example, continue to defend their ancestors’ treason in the name of states’ rights: if a person paid for another human being, they “earned” the right to own that human being and no government can take that right away from them. Ownership rights, not human rights was the fighting principle of the South and this continues to guide the morality of the global North today.