DC Decriminalizes Theft

Legalized theft.”

A favorite saying of libertarians when talking about taxation. A metaphor invoked by reformers of civil asset forfeiture. A wry phrase constitutionalists use when describing eminent domain.

And now, real-life public policy being pushed by cynical politicians who have, seemingly, given up on civilization.

The Washington, D.C., City Council recently voted to waive the criminal charge that comes with evading fare on the city’s Metro system. The vote -- a one-sided 10 “Yea”s to 2 “Nay”s -- made the matter strictly civil, charging $50 for anyone who jumps a turnstile without paying. The bill now goes to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s desk for signing.

“Decriminalization is not the same as legalization,” Council member Charles Allen argued in favor of the measure. “A criminal citation stays on your record for life. [Fare evaders] will have a criminal conviction for their rest of their life for a $2 fare.”

Allen’s argument is, unsurprisingly, overwrought. Judges can always expunge criminal records for petty offenses like this. Bypassing a $2 train charge need not be a black mark on one’s permanent record. He knows this is true but tells his lie anyway.

Council member Robert C. White, Jr., was more open about his racialist intention. Citing the fact that 91% of fare evasion perpetrators are African-American, White threw financial considerations aside, admitting, “I’m sad that’s Metro’s losing money, but I’m more sad about what’s happening to black people.”

To be fair, the Metro is better at losing money than transporting people. The entire system is in continual financial distress. Last year, it faced a $125 million revenue shortfall due to declining ridership. Fare evasion currently costs the Metro system $25 million a year -- about half the cost of the agency’s new headquarters.

When the biggest retailer in the world is about to come to town, fleecing the city’s main public transportation system might not be the smartest fiscal move.

Pecuniary matters aside, the argument that black people are disproportionately affected by fare evasion arrests is an interesting one. I’ve ridden the D.C. Metro to work every day for years. In my time on the plodding steel line, I’ve witnessed a variety of fare evasion, from casual offenders who sashay through the emergency exit gate to avoid payment to reprobates bumping up behind me to double up on my own fare. Most of the time, station managers look the other way. Usually, and this will no doubt offend more sensitive readers, it’s black station managers who let black fare evaders go free unmolested, perhaps out of racial solidarity, a not all-together unsympathetic feeling.

But, casting aside moral strictures on account of one race of people comes off as, among other things, patronizing, overly paternalistic, and, trite as it sounds, racist. Does the D.C. Council really consider black people incapable of following basic rules? Compared to other expenses, the Metro fare isn’t prohibitively expensive. What’s wrong with asking everyone to pay the price for a public service? Singling out blacks as incapable of not skimming off the top doesn’t put the race in a great light. It excuses malefaction, contradicting Frederick Douglass’s plea to view black Americans as equal, morally autonomous individuals and to “give [them] a chance to stand on [their] own legs!”

Legalizing fare evasion is symbolic of the greater dissolution of honorable mores that once governed our private behavior. Public-defacing malfeasances like urinating on the street or littering are having their preventative enforcement power whittled away to the point of legal sanction. Saul Bellow noted this general trend in his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, where the protagonist, a Holocaust survivor, observes the societal degradation wrought by the sexual revolution in Manhattan. “You had to be strong enough not to be terrified by local effects of metamorphosis, to live with disintegration, with crazy streets, filthy nightmares, monstrosities come to life, addicts, drunkards, and perverts celebrating their despair openly in midtown,” he plaintively observes. “You had to be able to bear the tangles of the soul the sight of cruel dissolution.”

Fare evasion -- the process of defrauding the greater public -- is stealing by another name. Wiping away its criminal component is a surrender to decivilizing forces.

What kind of lessons do we imbue our children with when we excuse and justify plain theft? That the rules don’t matter? That consequences are, unlike gravity, not an iron law that should enforce good behavior?

If the issue is that minorities shouldn’t be punished for being too impecunious to afford to ride the train, surely, the D.C. Council is not above passing a welfare program to provide free Metro fare to the needy. Such a benefit already exists for the disabled and elderly. Extend it if necessary.

Keep what few moral bounds we still have in place.

Image credit: Planka.nu

Legalized theft.”

A favorite saying of libertarians when talking about taxation. A metaphor invoked by reformers of civil asset forfeiture. A wry phrase constitutionalists use when describing eminent domain.

And now, real-life public policy being pushed by cynical politicians who have, seemingly, given up on civilization.

The Washington, D.C., City Council recently voted to waive the criminal charge that comes with evading fare on the city’s Metro system. The vote -- a one-sided 10 “Yea”s to 2 “Nay”s -- made the matter strictly civil, charging $50 for anyone who jumps a turnstile without paying. The bill now goes to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s desk for signing.

“Decriminalization is not the same as legalization,” Council member Charles Allen argued in favor of the measure. “A criminal citation stays on your record for life. [Fare evaders] will have a criminal conviction for their rest of their life for a $2 fare.”

Allen’s argument is, unsurprisingly, overwrought. Judges can always expunge criminal records for petty offenses like this. Bypassing a $2 train charge need not be a black mark on one’s permanent record. He knows this is true but tells his lie anyway.

Council member Robert C. White, Jr., was more open about his racialist intention. Citing the fact that 91% of fare evasion perpetrators are African-American, White threw financial considerations aside, admitting, “I’m sad that’s Metro’s losing money, but I’m more sad about what’s happening to black people.”

To be fair, the Metro is better at losing money than transporting people. The entire system is in continual financial distress. Last year, it faced a $125 million revenue shortfall due to declining ridership. Fare evasion currently costs the Metro system $25 million a year -- about half the cost of the agency’s new headquarters.

When the biggest retailer in the world is about to come to town, fleecing the city’s main public transportation system might not be the smartest fiscal move.

Pecuniary matters aside, the argument that black people are disproportionately affected by fare evasion arrests is an interesting one. I’ve ridden the D.C. Metro to work every day for years. In my time on the plodding steel line, I’ve witnessed a variety of fare evasion, from casual offenders who sashay through the emergency exit gate to avoid payment to reprobates bumping up behind me to double up on my own fare. Most of the time, station managers look the other way. Usually, and this will no doubt offend more sensitive readers, it’s black station managers who let black fare evaders go free unmolested, perhaps out of racial solidarity, a not all-together unsympathetic feeling.

But, casting aside moral strictures on account of one race of people comes off as, among other things, patronizing, overly paternalistic, and, trite as it sounds, racist. Does the D.C. Council really consider black people incapable of following basic rules? Compared to other expenses, the Metro fare isn’t prohibitively expensive. What’s wrong with asking everyone to pay the price for a public service? Singling out blacks as incapable of not skimming off the top doesn’t put the race in a great light. It excuses malefaction, contradicting Frederick Douglass’s plea to view black Americans as equal, morally autonomous individuals and to “give [them] a chance to stand on [their] own legs!”

Legalizing fare evasion is symbolic of the greater dissolution of honorable mores that once governed our private behavior. Public-defacing malfeasances like urinating on the street or littering are having their preventative enforcement power whittled away to the point of legal sanction. Saul Bellow noted this general trend in his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, where the protagonist, a Holocaust survivor, observes the societal degradation wrought by the sexual revolution in Manhattan. “You had to be strong enough not to be terrified by local effects of metamorphosis, to live with disintegration, with crazy streets, filthy nightmares, monstrosities come to life, addicts, drunkards, and perverts celebrating their despair openly in midtown,” he plaintively observes. “You had to be able to bear the tangles of the soul the sight of cruel dissolution.”

Fare evasion -- the process of defrauding the greater public -- is stealing by another name. Wiping away its criminal component is a surrender to decivilizing forces.

What kind of lessons do we imbue our children with when we excuse and justify plain theft? That the rules don’t matter? That consequences are, unlike gravity, not an iron law that should enforce good behavior?

If the issue is that minorities shouldn’t be punished for being too impecunious to afford to ride the train, surely, the D.C. Council is not above passing a welfare program to provide free Metro fare to the needy. Such a benefit already exists for the disabled and elderly. Extend it if necessary.

Keep what few moral bounds we still have in place.

Image credit: Planka.nu