Utopia: The proper punishment for theft
Apparently, 500 years ago, the death penalty was commonly believed to be the appropriate punishment for theft. (The TV series The Tudors has many scenes showing the shockingly harsh [to the modern viewer] punishments of the early 1500s.)
Raphael objects to this on several grounds: (1) death is too harsh of a punishment for the mere crime of theft; (2) it’s not a deterrent, because people steal because they don’t have enough food to eat, so the correct way to reduce crime is to ensure that everyone has a job so they can feed themselves; and most interestingly (3) if the death penalty is the same for both theft and murder, this encourages thieves to murder their victims, because the penalty is the same either way, but by murdering the victim you eliminate the witness to the crime and reduce your chance of getting caught.
It’s obvious that Raphael’s viewpoint has, for the most part, become the standard view of the modern world. In fact, the world has become so horrified by the death penalty that it’s rarely meted out even for murder, and the Europeans look down on us Americans for having the death penalty at all.
Also, there are no shortage of liberal criminologists who believe that all crime has roots in “poverty” and “socioeconomic deprivation,” despite the fact that we live in an economy vastly different from Thomas More’s time. Today, poor people are too fat, and liberals blame this on poor people being unable to afford “healthy” food. The poor people of the early 1500s could only dream about having so much to eat that they have to worry about being too fat rather than worry about starving to death.
One can still debate how well the modern-day punishments for crime correlate with the severity of the criminal act. For example, the consensual crime of selling drugs is punished much more harshly than crimes with actual victims such as theft, assault, and robbery. And we still punish the crime of rape almost as severely as the crime of murder, even though a woman’s virginity and sexual purity are no longer considered important the way they were in the past. There is still the incentive for a rapist to kill his victim and dispose of the body rather than leaving behind a witness to his crime of rape.
And what did Raphael propose as the better alternative to the death penalty as a punishment for theft? The answer is a life of slavery, with enough of a chance of being released eventually after years of good behavior such that the slave is motivated to behave well.
To demonstrate the soundness of the slavery idea, Raphael tells the story of the Commonwealth of the Polylerits (per the 1901 translation) which Paul Turner translates as Tallstoria. I like the Paul Turner translation better because it makes it obvious that Tallstoria is not a real country, and therefore you should ponder whether such a system of punishments would actually work, or if it’s just a tall tale with no basis in reality.
It’s my observation that modern-day criminals don’t behave well enough to be utilized for cheap labor, and could certainly never be trusted to behave well without armed guards watching over them all the time. But in the land of Tallstoria, the people sentenced to slavery are so well behaved that they can work independently without fear of them running away, and they rarely need to be whipped. Nope, not very likely.
In Les Misérables, Jean Valjean served 19 years of hard slave labor (with 4 unsuccessful escape attempts) for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sick nephew, and it’s portrayed as a harsh and unfair punishment for such a minor and justifiable crime. Yes, we’ve come a long way since the 1500s, haven’t we?