Like a lot of Americans, I have occasionally received e-mail letters from Nigerian con artists. Nigeria is apparently to Africa what Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is to the United States — the capital of con artists.
My favorite con is when some guy claims to be a banker who has discovered that I’m the last surviving descendant of a wealthy Reese. What the con man doesn’t know, of course, is that I’m quite familiar with my branch of the Reeses, and that the first time I got a raise to $100 a week, I became the rich relative.
I’ve always thought that conning people out of their money should not be considered a crime. After all, for a con to work, the victim must be either stupid or greedy. No force or threat of force is involved. The victim is simply persuaded to part with his money because he hopes to gain wealth he doesn’t earn. The con story is usually far-fetched, but greed seems to overwhelm judgment.
Perhaps it is rooted in the original curse of mankind that to live we have to work. All people do, even those who live in some form of paradise. Even when the Jews were being fed by manna from heaven, they still had to pick it up. This necessity to labor leads some, perhaps all, to harbor dreams of finding a way to gain wealth without the expenditure of great energy.
That’s what motivates the person to drop a coin in a slot machine or fork out a buck for a lottery ticket. It is what motivates presumably intelligent and well-educated people to invest in Ponzi schemes or to buy nonexistent gold mines or franchises. It’s the main cause of stock-market bubbles. Even people who hand their money over to preachers who are obviously living a lifestyle more akin to a corporate mogul than to a man of God are probably hoping to buy a cheap ticket to heaven.
I don’t believe the power of the state should involve itself. The police have enough to do chasing down criminals who use force or the threat of force. Victims of con artists should be told to learn from their bad experience or, if they are determined to find the culprit, hire a private detective at their own expense.
I once read of a case in Miami where a financial adviser lost all of his client’s money. Unfortunately, not only did the adviser not know a lot about investing, he also didn’t know a lot about his client. Turns out his client was a hit man in the Witness Protection Program. He shot his financial adviser to death. That did not get the hit man’s money back, but perhaps it did offer him some psychological reward.
That’s the marvelous thing about the human race: It’s infinitely varied. You never know who or what the next person will turn out to be — a saint or a monster, a hugger or a puncher, a genius or a moron. That’s why history is the best story ever written. It has everything — war and peace, villains and heroes, brilliance and stupidity, horror, excitement, nobility, love, hatred, tolerance, bigotry, beauty, ugliness, violence and tranquility. No novelist could create a world as varied and as interesting as the real one.
Some people occasionally speculate as to why God created the Earth and the human race. No disrespect intended, but perhaps he did it for his own amusement. Perhaps we are all actors in a never-ending celestial soap opera with an audience of one. Should that be the case, then all of us should hope to make God laugh or smile rather than cry or rage.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.