A Market for Criminal Skills

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We’ve all suspected that the market economy has a civilizing effect on people, but I’ve rarely seen such a poignant example.

Here I was returning a rental car to the dealer, and some confusion set in about the keys. The attendant asked for them back, and I handed them over even as I was pulling bags and things out of the car. The attendant hopped in the driver’s seat to check the mileage, and left the keys in the car. He shut the door, I shut another, even as one more bag remained insider. But there was a hitch: the car was now locked.

We all looked at each other with a sense of: what were we thinking? Now the car was locked, and it was the only set of keys. This isn’t one of those old-fashioned cars that were easy to crack open. No sir, this was a new car with all the security features we’ve come to expect. It surely couldn’t be broken into.

I was imagining that we would have to throw a brick through the window, and we would be arguing for weeks about liability.

Then something amazing happened. The attendant, who didn’t look like a pillar of the community, called over some of his rough-looking buddies — authentic archetypes of street thugs — and gave them a special signal. They reached into their little bag of tricks and pulled out four little items:

  • A business card
  • A crowbar
  • A squeegee stick
  • A clothes hanger

I watched with intense interest, and then astonishment. One person slid the business card between the top of the door and the car. Another stood next to him and began to work the crowbar between the card and the door until it began to move outward. He gave it a bit of a twist, and a third person made the gap wide with the squeegee stick. The tools moved here and there until they locked into place and a clean gap separated the doorframe and the car body.

Next, one person bent the clothes hanger in a curved way, and put a loop at the bottom. He inserted it and with surgeon-like precision, he lifted the lock. The door opened right up, the tools were removed, and all was well. The car alarm did not sound, and there was not a single scratch on the car. No evidence remain that the car had been hacked.

Total time that it took to open this door: about 20 seconds.

The operation was a marvel, and it proved to me something I did not know: namely, that cars only appear to be locked. In the hands of these guys, every car was only superficially secure.

The owner of the rental place came over to see what had been happening, and he too was rather shocked. "If one of my cars ever turns up missing," he said in a gruff way, "I’ll know who took it!" Then he smiled and winked: "Good job, men."

Now, it is possible that this skill was one learned on the job. Possible, but doubtful. They were too accomplished at it. And one confirmed to me that this was the first time in memory that a set of keys had ended up being locked in the car.

So what do we have here? A skill gained from, mostly likely, years spent doing things they should not have been doing, now put to service in a way that is beneficial and profitable to the human community of civilized people.

It’s hardly the only example. We can think of the number of computer hackers now serving large companies to the benefit of everyone, or toughs who might otherwise be hurting people who play sports, or people with a penchant for guns and violence now serving as security guards or bouncers. There are many ways in which skills associated with criminality can serve a productive purpose.

Imagine a world without market-based opportunities to serve. These people would be social parasites instead of producers who are valued by others for their contribution. The more the division of labor expands, and capital is accumulated in a context of the freedom to trade, the more opportunities there are for civilizing what would otherwise be destructive impulses.

There are the effects of markets that are impossible to quantify but they have a grand impact on the culture in turning people away from crime and toward peaceful forms of human engagement.

They can also teach us a few things about security holes that exist in the world we inhabit. In the same way that a hacker can provide a good test against holes in program code, the crowbar kids at the rental place showed me something important: if you are worried about the security of your automobile, you need to do more than lock your car.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org. Comment on the Mises blog.

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