“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.”
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come not to praise this Commandment, but to bury it. For all the good that it may have done in its social graces, so has it been undone in the policy sphere.
Let me begin by saying that I am a child of the Eighties. It was a decade known both affectionately and without irony as both “The Decade of Greed” and “The Decade of Excess”. If the Sixties were a party and the Seventies were a hangover, the Eighties were the day everyone went back to work, ready to get things done. It’s like the entire country decided one day that free love might be great, but everything else worthwhile costs money, and they were going to do whatever it took to get as much of it as they could.
You want to talk about coveting? Oh, they had coveting down. The official motto of the decade was “he who dies with the most toys wins”. It wasn’t enough to keep up with the Joneses. You had to beat them into the ground and then rub their noses in it. Everything had to be bigger and louder, faster and cooler, newer and just plain BETTER. Too much was never enough, and style always trumped substance. If you don’t believe me, let me point out that this was the decade that glam rock reigned supreme, and even Poison packed stadiums (sorry, Bret Michaels, you know I’m still a fan).
Is it any wonder my generation turned out to be a bunch of slackers? We had seen what commercialism and the desire for what the other guy has (y’know, coveting) had wrought, and we wanted none of it. Well, until we had kids of our own and needed to get a mortgage, but that’s a different story. The point is, I see the social value in this Commandment, truly I do. But I fear the policy implications far more.
Consider for a moment: what exactly is coveting? Is it an action? When you covet a man’s house, do you go inside of it? When you covet a woman’s ox, do you take it from her? When you covet your neighbor’s wife, do you bash him over the head and drag her off? Or even attempt to woo her away? The truth is, coveting something may drive you to do any of these things, but it is not the same as actually doing them. In the same way I might think about giving to charity, but go buy a burrito with the money instead. Do I get good karma for the thought, even though I don’t carry out the deed?
When crafting laws, it is important to make a distinction between action and motive. Motive is an element of a crime, but it is not a crime in and of itself (which is good for me, because as Prince wrote, “if a man is guilty for what goes on in his mind, give me the electric chair for all my future crimes.”) But the truth of the matter is that we do have crimes in this country that are based solely on what goes on in a person’s mind. They are called “hate crimes”.
Now I know there are those of you who are thinking “what does that have to do with coveting?” and that’s a fair question. To me they are one and the same. The motivation to commit an act is an element of thought, something that exists solely in the mind of the individual. Hatred, while it is something that we as a society should stand against, is no more or less repugnant that wanting something just because someone else has it. And just like covetousness, hatred in itself should not be a crime, nor should it be an additional element that can exacerbate a sentence.
Consider: if I were to propose a law against covetousness, such that if someone were deemed to have committed a crime out of covetousness, would that be acceptable? Would that be something that should warrant a harsher sentence than committing the same crime for another reason? If I stole your jacket “because I wanted it” rather than “because I was cold”, you still don’t have your jacket. By the same token, if a person has been assaulted, to me it does not matter why; the assailant should be punished.
When we start defining motivation itself as a crime, we are delving into thoughtcrime. For any literate person that should be enough to give them pause; for any moral person that should be enough to give them concern; for any just person, that should be enough to give them fear. Unfortunately, for politicians it doesn’t even seem to lose them a single moment of sleep.
UPDATE (12/16/12): I recently discovered The Illustrated Guide to Criminal Law, which I highly recommend to everyone. Of particular relevance to this post is “Part 7: The Axes of Evil”, which discusses culpability, responsibility, and depravity in relation to crime. In the issue of hate crimes, I would consider those a matter of depravity, which is an element of the crime to be considered when determining the total punishment to be served, but again (as I stated above) not something to be charged as a separate crime. In the same way that we would consider any other element of a person’s mental state, of course we should consider their total relationship to the victim, and that includes any specific prejudice they may have IF it was a motivating factor.