How to Help a Thief

Welcome back to The Tulip Teacher the place where I share economic life lessons, nonsense, and insights into everyday life, and it’s all smushed into one bitesize edition for you. This edition is certainly no different, as we take a look at thieves and what we do that make their lives easier.

So let’s start with the absolutely stupidly basic, a simple description of a thief, just so we’re all on the same page. Unsurprisingly, a common thief is someone who is motivated to steal something from you, and as citizens with possessions that we’d quite like to keep, and family who we love (at least most of the time), we want to protect ourselves against theft.

To provide protection, we can take measures that make it harder (or less enticing) for a thief to choose our house, our money, our car, or any of our stuff as their next target. The protective measures that we can take are quite extensive, ranging from childs play to armegeddon level defense that would make Virginia Baker think twice. However most of us probably aim for somewhere in the cozy middle, where we face a trade-off between risk of theft and finanical cost. Let’s take a look at a few particular examples of protection measures that share something in common which I’ll come on to. I should imagine you will be familar with most if not all of these:

  1. Steering wheel locks
  2. House alarms (specifically, the ones that include sticking a flashing light box on the outside of your house)
  3. Parked lorries that leave their empty trailers open
  4. Doorbell security cameras

These are effective methods at deterring thieves from your precious items, there’s no doubt about it, they work. In fact they may work so well that it can feel like you’ve done your part for society by making the world a slightly safer place. However, in true Tulip Teacher fashion I’m here to burst that idyllic bubble. The reality is you’ve done a great job at protecting your stuff, but you’ve made everyone else’s stuff a little bit more enticing to steal. How selfish, yet perfectly human of you.

Yes unfortunately it is true, if you use anything for the list, you are making a thief’s life marginally easier because thieves have the capacity to think rationally and assess risk too. Let me explain with a few likely scenarios:

Robberton is a sleepy well-to-do village with just 30 homes. 23 of these homes have house alarms (which, as part of their installation, have boxes with flashing lights mounted to the outside of the house) and doorbell security cameras that are visible from the street. Which homes in Robberton are preferred by a thief?

Nick the HGV driver pulls in to a small layby for the night, his trailer is fully loaded and he notices that the other drivers have left their empty trailers open for everyone to see. How safe does Nick feel?

Imagine it’s the 90’s (or ask your parents), Mr T. Heath parks his car on-street and like so many others adds a steering lock that can be visibly seen from the pavement. Which cars are now more at risk at having a window caved in?

If I’ve nailed my analogies, you’ll recognise that anyone who doesn’t use these specific protective measures is made worse-off when their neighbours use them. These are all examples of negative consumption externalities. Sounds complicated, but economists have a knack of making simple things sound complex.

A negative consumption externality can be described as follows – a transaction between a buyer and seller takes place, (could be anything), and when the buyer consumes or uses the transacted item, it creates problems for a third party,  an individual or group that had no involvement in the original transaction, and because it creates a problem, the third party don’t like them.

Here’s a more familiar example that most of us will have experienced at some point, either as the buyer or as the third party affected by the buyers decision.


Smoking is an excellent example of a negative consumption externality. Imagine you’re sat in a restaurant with your family, and a gentleman sits down at the table opposite and lights up a cigarette. As a non-smoker, the smell of smoke from the cigarette is unpleasant and the second hand smoking is causing you to cough. In this scenario you, your family, the other customers, and the waiters, you are all the ‘third party’. You didn’t purchase the cigarettes for him and you did not sell them to him, you had no involvement in the purchase and sale of those cigarettes, yet you are all negatively affected by his consumption of cigarettes in the restaurant.

Negative externalities exist in many places when items are transacted, and some can indeed make a thieves life that little bit easier.

I always enjoy writing these and I hope you found this edition of The Tulip Teacher insightful. If you have a question or a topic you’d like to see, perhaps you’ve noticed something unusual that could be explained using economics, please do reach out via the contact page on The Tulip Teacher website, I’d love to hear from you.

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Published by James Oliver

The Tulip Teacher Discussing all things business, economics and education