Theft or Appropriation?

To pocket the bread or not?

The second Buddhist precept is not to steal:

Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

In the AN more is said about the blessings conducive from following each precept, for the second precept it says:

abandoning taking what is not given (stealing), the disciple of the noble ones abstains from taking what is not given. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the second gift…

AN 8.39

I’ll put forward the premise that the current capitalistic system of withholding basic requisites (food, shelter, medicine, clothing) behind money requirements is creating oppression. The vinaya rule on the subject goes into a lot of detail on what constitutes stealing:

“There is no offense: if he perceives it as his own; if he takes it on trust; if he borrows it; if it is the possession of a ghost; if it is the possession of an animal; if he perceives it as discarded; if he is insane; if he is deranged; if he is overwhelmed by pain; if he is the first offender.”

“Receiving stolen goods. Accepting a gift of goods or purchasing them very cheaply, knowing that they were stolen, would in Western criminal law result in a penalty similar to stealing itself. However, neither the Canon nor the commentaries mention this case. The closest they come is in the Vinita-vatthu, where a groundskeeper gives bhikkhus fruit from the orchard under his care, even though itwas not his to give, and there was no offense for the bhikkhus. From this it can be inferred that there is no offense for receiving stolen goods, even knowingly, although a bhikkhu who does so would not be exempt from the civil law and the consequent proceedings, in the course of which the Community would probably urge him to disrobe.”

The only way to justify shoplifting in a Buddhist framework is reinterpreting the rule as applying only to possessions and not property (sometimes terms private vs personal property, I will be using possession vs property). Property cannot be rightfully given or taken, the very concept of property is itself theft. The difference between property and possession is often misunderstood. A possession is something that has personal and relatively immediate use. For example, a toothbrush is a possession, the house you live in is a possession, your car, your closet of clothes, your shoes, and food in the fridge. Property is that which does not have immediate personal use, such as a toothbrush factory., the goods which line Target’s shelves. In the event of expropriation, property is dissolved and redistributed such that “that every human being born into the world shall be ensured the opportunity in the first instance of learning some useful occupation, and of becoming skilled in it; next, that he shall be free to work at his trade without asking leave of master or owner, and without handing over to landlord or capitalist the lion’s share of what he produces” ( In an Anarcho-Buddhist framework, property is redistributed such that everyone is assured of the four requisites of food, shelter, medicine, and clothing.

Why is this understanding of property and possession useful? It helps us to understand one of the functions of the state under capitalism: the enforcement of a system of private property through the use of military and police. Property only exists so far as there is a threat of violence to enforce its existence. The toothbrush factory only functions as being owned by the capitalist (boss) because their position is backed up by the truncheon and the gun. Otherwise, the workers and community would be free to produce and distribute toothbrushes as needed without stifling or overproducing. One capitalist cannot stop thirty workers.

What is the consequence of making “theft” permissible for property? It’s first worth noting, as Stirner does: “Is the concept ‘theft’ at all possible unless one allows validity to the concept ‘property’? How can one steal if property is not already extant? … Accordingly property is not theft, but a theft becomes possible only through property.” (Stirner, Max. The Ego and Its Own. Edited by David Leopold. p. 223). For the purposes of this post I’ll refer to theft as appropriation, as the removal of tampons from Target shelves is the appropriation of the excess labor value stolen from the worker to the end of providing for one of the four necessary requisites. You do not steal when you put in your pocket that which is rightfully yours.

What is the consequence of appropriation? When appropriation is both permissible and practiced, it directly enables individuals to reduce the degree to which their excess labor value is stolen through wage slavery, it allows otherwise deprived people to satisfy their need for food, clothing and medicine. Squatting, a form of appropriation, allows one to find shelter in a country that criminalizes homelessness, the state The Buddha himself lived in. There was a video that went around in the last few months of two people appropriating food and other goods from a supermarket, making care packages, and distributing them to the local homeless population.

What distinguishes appropriation from theft? This is an important question. While there’s an obvious clarity when it comes to removing the last blanket from a man sleeping on the street or taking the toothbrush out of my mouth. What about a local fruit stand, operated by a sole producer? We can apply simple arithmetic of discerning how much labor value is stolen in the production of the goods. In the fruit stand example, little to no labor value is stolen. For the goods sitting on the shelves of Target? Very little of the value produced is returned to the worker, with most being stolen. An appropriate heuristic here is that to take from small, local, and fairly organized groups (Worker-owned co-ops being the ideal) is theft, to take from large, hierarchical, capitalistic corporations is appropriation.