On Saturday, Louisiana’s “EBT” system malfunctioned, causing spending limits on users’ food-stamp cards temporarily to be lifted. In two counties at least, recipients noticed the error, spread the word, and set about trying to check out as much as they could fit into shopping carts. At Walmarts in the towns of Springhill and Mansfield, employees called corporate headquarters to ask what they should do. They were instructed to “keep the registers ringing.” This they did — and with a vengeance.
By the time that proper limits on the cards had been restored a couple of hours later, the shelves had been all but stripped bare. “Just about everything is gone, I’ve never seen it in that condition,” Anthony Fuller, a customer in Mansfield, told the press. Will Lyn, the chief of police in nearby Springhill, agreed, telling the Daily Mail that “it was definitely worse than Black Friday. It was worse than anything we had ever seen in this town. There was no food left on any of the shelves, and no meat left. The grocery part of Walmart was totally decimated.” One man even managed to spend $700.
“I saw people drag out eight to ten grocery carts,” Lynd reported. Those who did not manage to take advantage in time simply abandoned their hauls in the middle of the aisles.
“Contrary to rumors,” CBS proclaimed, “nobody was unruly or arrested and [the police] were mainly there to help prevent shoplifting and theft.” Given the circumstances, “preventing theft” is a rather peculiar way of describing the behavior of officers who stood and watched the incident. Whether or not local authorities had legal cause to arrest the shoppers on the spot, there really should be no doubt that widespread theft took place — or, perhaps, that widespread fraud took place. Neither that the beneficiaries evidently believe that they could get away with it, nor that the victim was the unsympathetically anonymous mass of Louisianan and federal taxpayers alters the plain fact. This was a crime.
Uttering what has become the most widely reprinted quote from the scene, a witness told local television station KSLA that stealing food when presented with the opportunity was a “natural human” reaction. If this is true, it should serve as an indictment of the society that Washington, D.C., has created, and of the vastness of a government that has disconnected so many people from the real world. We are not talking here about a moral grey area, in which starving people saw and took a rare chance to feed themselves. Instead, we are talking about people who, over and above their normal allowance, elected to steal from the millions of people from whose paychecks the food-stamp program’s funds are forcibly taken — and on whose beneficence they rely.
Indeed, even if the behavior was the product of “human nature,” merely stating this is the case does not inoculate one from the consequences. The best governments and institutions are those designed by people who recognize the contours of man’s constitution. But to recognize human nature is not necessarily to indulge it, and the people who elected to steal when afforded the opportunity should be punished by the system for having done so, as would be any other thief. Doing so, it seems, will not be too difficult. The very same electronic system that allowed recipients to take advantage of a glitch also recorded their doing so. Officials, news reports say, are not sure how to proceed. How about prosecution?
That so many people apparently did not recognize that they were stealing is problematic. In the January 23, 2012, issue of National Review, Daniel Foster wrote an essay on the necessity of “restoring a measure of shame to the welfare state.” By way of illustration, Foster focused on the movie Cinderella Man and discussed the behavior of its central character, Jimmy Braddock, who reluctantly takes public assistance when he feels he has no choice:
Braddock owes no apologies for doing whatever it takes to keep his family together. But Braddock is sorry nonetheless, and more important, he’s ashamed. It’s a shame so powerful that it kept Braddock from looking for a handout until he had exhausted all other possibilities. And it’s a shame so powerful that by the end of the second act, with Braddock well on his way to the miraculous championship bout that gives the film its title and its central metaphor, he returns every cent of charity he ever took.
“To argue this,” Foster concludes, “is not, as some would no doubt imply, to argue for the wholesale dissolution of the welfare state.” Instead, it is to argue that shame is “the social virtue most critical to the success of the American project,” for “the only society that can make entitlements work is one that doesn’t feel entitled.”
Certainly, we can debate ad nauseam the degree to which citizens should feel ashamed for taking handouts. But what should be beyond discussion, surely, is that when a significant number of people feel so comfortable taking what others provide that they elect not only to rip the system off but to encourage others to do the same, we have a serious moral issue on our hands.
Acknowledging this does not make one Ayn Rand. There is a reason that even the most fervent socialists have adopted the Biblical aphorism that “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat”: This principle was even codified into the 1936 Soviet Constitution. “The labors of thirty or forty honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain a hundred and fifty idle loiterers,” instructed John Smith at Jamestown in 1609, setting a precedent that would obtain in America for three and a half centuries. In a modern industrial economy, one can construct a case in favor of loosening this principle in order to feed the truly indigent. But there is no such case to be made in favor of allowing wards of the state to steal the excess.
That the amorphous “government” was on the hook, as opposed to a local church or benevolent association, does not change anything; nor does it matter that the welfare in this case was distributed via an impersonal electronic card rather than by someone with a face. Would it have been more moral, for example, if the shoppers had taken advantage of a lack of security and stolen the food from Walmart directly, rather than from their fellow citizens? And if not, why not? There is, after all, nothing magically different about money that is stolen from the federal treasury. One suspects that many in the United States are in need of a refresher course of the sort that Mrs. Thatcher gave a sybaritic British public in 1982, when she reminded them of that “one unchallengeable truth,” that “the government has no money of its own. All that it has it takes in taxes or borrows at interest. It’s all of you — everyone here — that pays.”
Presumably, the people most annoyed at this behavior will be progressives who do not consider this latest incident to be symptomatic of a wider ill. In addition to sticking their fingers into the eyes of taxpayers, what shoppers who spent beyond their allowances did in Louisiana was take aid away from other users who did not. Conservatives who suggest that the food-stamp budget has ranged wildly out of control and needs trimming back are immediately accused by their ideological foes of “stealing food from the mouths of children,” to borrow a favorite phrase of Nancy Pelosi’s. What, then, are individual citizens doing who diminish the available food-stamp budget? What responsibility do they carry?
Conservatives are fond of repeating the old line that the republic “can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury.” In Louisiana this weekend, many citizens got the opportunity to do this without even having to bother to vote — and they took it. Whatever legitimate disagreements there are about the role of democracy in a free society, there should be none here. This was theft, pure and simple, and its perpetrators should be treated as any other thief would be.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.