This week many of us received e-mails telling us to check our gasoline receipts because gas stations in places across the country had reset their pumps to cheat their customers. The pumps would register and charge for more gasoline than was actually pumped, and the station owner would pocket the extra money.
At the same time, many of us are also seeing signs at gas stations that tell us that all cash customers must pre-pay for gasoline because they have had so many consumers fill their tanks and then just drive away without paying.
So, while consumers are asking the government to investigate and prosecute the station owners who are rigging their pumps, station owners are asking the government to investigate and prosecute consumers who are leaving without paying. In both cases, the aggrieved side is looking to have new laws passed to impose harsher penalties on the perpetrators.
We used to agree on a single law that dealt with both sides of this situation. We used to display that law on government buildings and teach it in our schools. It was a simple law.
It said, "Thou shalt not steal."
It was part of a larger code of laws that we used to agree was a necessary part of American culture. That code began by acknowledging that there was an ultimate lawgiver, who did not change, and to whom all of us were accountable. The laws in that code were not complicated. In fact, the entire code fit on two stone tablets.
As we move farther away from that code, we find that we need to create an almost endless series of rules to deal with every conceivable situation – like "Don’t rig the gas pumps" and "Don’t take gas from gas pumps without paying". And that ever-growing set of rules comes with a matching growth in government investigative, enforcement, and punitive agencies.
We used to just say that it was wrong to steal – no matter what the circumstances of the stealing happened to be. But since the concept of "wrong" brings us back to that original code and the original lawgiver, we cannot use that word.
We can only talk about what is legal, so our only alternative to deal with situations like our gasoline dilemma is to make the particular behavior illegal. That means that every behavior will need a law to govern it. The thousands and thousands of pages in our current legal code are just the beginning. And every new code will need new government powers to make it work.
The sad reality is that it doesn’t matter how many new laws are written. As long as we let people focus on legal and illegal, they will find ways to get around the law.
And that is the basic problem in today’s America.
"Thou shalt not steal" was a moral concept, not a legal one. It was based on the notion that the legality of an action was not as important as it righteousness. So even if there was no specific law dealing with rigging a gas pump or driving away without paying, it was still wrong and therefore unacceptable.
We are told that clinging to that original code is bad, that we do not have the right to impose our morality on others.
But perhaps a little moral imposition is just what America needs.