Auto theft is a working-class issue — and the left should care about it
Vehicle theft is up in Canada and the United States. That's going to cost all of us, including those who can afford it the least.
Let’s start our discussion about auto theft by asserting what some of us will claim articles of faith. First, a ‘tough on crime’ approach towards those who steal cars is costly and ineffective policy. I made that case here last week. Second, the insurance industry is a lucrative in which consumers are routinely ripped off and it ought to be democratically controlled. I haven’t made that case in full, and I won’t here for lack of time. Finally, there are more significant issues to worry about and we ought not to pay outsized attention in the media to this one, particularly if it distracts from, say, the brutality unfolding in Gaza right now. Nonetheless, we can pay and must pay attention to multiple things at once, and auto theft is, indeed, an issue of concern.
These points are secondary to the primary point I wish to make here, however, which is that auto theft is a working-class issue and the left ought to care about it. There are plenty of reasons why the left should care, which I’ll address one by one. But let’s start with this: the left ought to be and stay close to issues that affect people’s day-to-day lives, particularly their material lives, and auto theft is one such issue.
Auto theft is up in Canada, with over 100,000 vehicles stolen in 2022 and more in 2023. It’s also up in the United States. There are several reasons for the increase, including issues related to the economy, organized crime, manufacturers making vehicles easy to steal, and inadequate policing at ports. These are structural problems. We ought not to blame individual drivers — and victims — for poor industrial and political decision-making.
The cars being stolen aren’t all those you’d find at higher-end dealerships. While a few luxury vehicles feature among the top-10 most targeted rides, the most commonly stolen vehicle in 2022 was the Honda CR-V followed by the Dodge RAM 1500 series and the Ford F150 Series. The Honda Civic ranks 6th. We’re not talking jalopies here, particularly as fully-stacked trucks can cost plenty. But it’s inaccurate to suggest the only vehicles being stolen are luxury models.
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Together, the top-10 most stolen list makes up just over 10 percent of total thefts, indicating that all kinds are of cars are being stolen, including the sorts driven by workers. The Trudeau government, among others, say they’re on the case, which ought to come as thin, cold comfort and, indeed, discomfort insofar as they seem to be buying into the ‘tough on crime’ narrative the right has adopted.
Losing your car is a pain in the ass. Dealing with the loss takes time, money, and other resources, and those who are least able to cope with the theft are apt to suffer disproportionately. The rich can easily navigate dealing with a stolen vehicle while the relative cost of the theft is much lower for them than it is for others, whatever the sticker price of the make and model or the insurance deductible may be. Furthermore, the lost time, foregone wages, and inconvenience is a major problem for working class people.
Insurance rates are set to rise in Canada and the U.S. in 2024, in part because of auto thefts. Rate increases will affect the rich and poor and everyone in-between, but it will affect them disproportionately. You might argue that rates are increasing because that’s what they do — that’s the industry, that’s inflation, that’s capitalism — but the more payouts insurers make because of theft, the more they’ll pass those costs along to consumers and the more working class people will pay for thefts despite not being at fault for the increase in stolen vehicles.
A portion of auto thefts are related to organized crime. Indeed, gangsters have a sophisticated and effective system for stealing cars in Canada. The proceeds of stolen vehicles fund, among other things, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and arms dealing. Presumably we can agree — setting aside the broader discourse on legalizing drugs — that human trafficking and arms dealing are black market industries we’d prefer not to let flourish, particularly as they end up harming the most vulnerable among us at home and abroad.
Stealing cars is a crime, and those desperate enough to steal them present a challenge to the collective good. Again, adopting a right-wing ‘tough on crime’ approach won’t solve the problem, but the crime nonetheless remains a problem. We ought to focus on getting to the structural causes — the social and economic determinants — of crime and address the phenomena that produce this sort of behaviour in the first place. For instance, poverty. This is very plainly an issue with which the left tends to be, and ought to be, deeply concerned. A collectivist politics is premised on collective cooperation and trust. Thefts are a breach of that trust.
A survey last fall found a majority of Canadians are concerned about having their car stolen, a subset of whom felt unsafe because of it. If the poll numbers are even close to accurate, they indicate what we’d intuitively expect to be true: normal people are concerned about normal things. Those concerns include violence (some vehicles are stolen violently) and having one’s means of transportation pinched, with all the physical, psychological, and financial that accompany being the victim of crime.
Certain segments of the left have a congenital inclination to wave-away problems which the centre or right claim as their own. Downplaying the seriousness of auto left risks alienating the left from the people they ought to be courting and for whom they ought to be fighting. Crime is a problem. Auto theft is problem. The left ought to treat each as such and advance short- and long-term policy proposals to address both the immediate need to lower theft rates and to address the structural problems that lead people to steal cars in the first place.