Niven and the legality of pickpocketing

| Comments (6) | Misc
Was rereading Niven's Neutron Star the other day and the following passage from Flatlander struck me:
"You picked my pocket?"
"Sure! Think I found it? Would I risk my precious hand under all these spike heels?"
"How if I call a cop?"
"Cop? Oh, a stoneface." She laughed merrily. "Learn or go under, man. There's no law against picking pocket. Look around you." I looked around me, then looked back fast, afraid she'd disappear. Not only my cash but my Bank of Jinx draft for forty thousand stars was in that waller. Everything I owned.

"See them all? Sixty-four million people in Los Angeles alone. Eighteen billion in the whole world Suppose there was a law against picking pockets? How would you enforce it?" She deftly extracted the cash from my wallet and handed the wallet back. "Get yourself a new wallet and fast. It'll have a place for your address and a window for a tenth-start stamp. Put your address in right away, and a stamp too. Then the next guy who takes it can pull out the money and drop your wallet in the nearest mailbox—no sweat. Otherwise you lose your credit cards, your ident, everything."

This all sounds very plausible initially—Niven has a talent for sounding convincing—but upon a moment's reflection it doesn't make any sense. I suppose it's possible that with a high enough population density it would become impossible to enforce laws against pickpocketing, but the rest of the reasoning doesn't make sense. You wouldn't expect people to react to an epidemic of pickpocketing by just accepting it, but rather by taking countermeasures. Sure, it's inconvenient to lose your entire wallet, but losing your cash isn't much fun either.

Of course, there are simple countermeasures. First, it's dramatically harder to steal your wallet if you're wearing it inside your clothes rather than in your hip pocket. Second, if people are actually having their wallets stolen enough that they need to put a stamp in them, you'd expect them to simply stop using bearer instruments entirely—or at least stop keeping them in their wallets. And of course, once people stop using cash, there's no point in picking their pockets. This certainly seems like a more likely equilibrium than one where pepople frequently lose their hard earned cash to pickpockets and don't take any countermeasures.

Even stranger, it emerges later in the story that the pickpocket is an otherwise perfectly nice woman with a good job. Even if we accept that pickpocketing is legal, I think we can also agree that it's not exactly what you'd call nice. There are lots of things that are legal but still aren't done by people who desire not to hurt others. I would expect that even in a pickpocket-legal world, stealing others wallets would fall into that category.

6 Comments

Agreed. I find it difficult to believe that any society would make non-victimless crimes legal. There is too much of an incentive for people not to want to be the subject of crimes -- they will want to fight back. Victimless "crimes", sure, but that's different, since the participants all have an incentive to conceal events.

I also don't see why sheer population density would change anything on this. "How would you enforce it" becomes no harder at 64 million people in a city than at two million. If you catch someone with their hand in your pocket and can get them to a cop, well, why would the cop have a harder time arresting them in a dense population center? If a camera gets a clear shot of someone doing such a thing, or a security guard notices a pickpocket and stops them, why would it be harder to arrest them in a large city than in a small one?

Also, if there are so many people you couldn't enforce pickpocking laws, I doubt you could enforce laws making it illegal to beat up on pickpockets either.

Niven's not really writing about pickpocketing. Well, yes, technically he is, but what he's really trying to do is make a point about changes in society in the future, brought about by changes in technology or the like (in this case, overpopulation). I always read this part of the story as Niven trying to show how different Earth society is compared to the colonies that Shaeffer (the protagonist) came from.

And being who he is, he's probably also making a point about unenforceable laws...

Incidentally, the pickpocket (Sharrol) does indeed end up being a perfectly nice woman. So nice, in fact, that she becomes Shaeffer's partner.

There are plenty of places in the world where the density of people in the available space regularly approaches the maximum. (Think of the Tokyo subway system, for instance.) Yet none of these places has legalized pickpocketing. Sounds like Niven came up with the idea, and thought it too entertaining not to use, despite its incoherence. Sort of like the stuff in Ringworld about luck being a hereditary trait....

In one of the other stories, Niven explains how Belters smuggling ore to avoid duties is illegal but not immoral. IIRC, he contrasts this with the pickpocketing as immoral but not illegal. So he clearly recognizes that pickpocketing isn't nice.

A little bit of thought also bursts the smuggling-not-immoral bubble. Presumably those duties pay for public goods so avoiding them is victimizing the public. At the very least, if a smuggling belter ever took advantage of such public goods he's a welsher.

I agree with Dan that you really can't take Niven too seriously.

I imagine you might need to know something more about the situation to decide whether it's immoral or not. It may be paying for public goods the belters seldom benefit from, or for which they're already compelled to pay in other ways.

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