Just Be Mindful of What You’re Up Against

According to a story in today’s Wall Street Journal, there is a “boom in federal prosecutions alleging theft or attempted theft of trade secrets.” I’m not the least bit surprised.

I’m not surprised because, if there is one thing life has taught me, it’s that most people are dishonest. Not all people, to be sure. But most.

I can’t prove it, but it seems as though dishonesty — in particular, stealing — has become more widely accepted during my lifetime, whether it’s stealing from the government (actually, from other citizens) by cheating on one’s taxes, stealing trade secrets, shoplifting, padding one’s expense reports, overbilling a customer/client/patient/etc., insurance fraud, bank fraud, securities fraud, hacking a database, price fixing, misrepresenting the quality or character of services or products one sells, or any of the other garden variety ways of taking something that isn’t rightfully yours.

I don’t recall anyone warning me of this when growing up. To the contrary, I was led to believe that people are basically good, the inference being they are to be trusted. Right.

I have absolutely no interest in the philosophical debate over the true nature of humans. Whether they are “inherently” or “basically” good is of no consequence to me. I’m too practical for that. I’d rather focus on dealing with what is.

And what is isn’t a pretty picture, Vera. What is is this: if you assume a person is honest, you do so at your peril.

I suppose I should be grateful for this. After all, I’m a lawyer. I’ve drafted many contracts and been involved in suing quite a few people and organizations that have reneged on their commitments. In other words, I’ve profited from the shortcomings of humanity.

The security industry undoubtedly is grateful, too. They prosper from the threat posed by the untrustworthy in our midst.

But that’s not the point. The point is, don’t let your guard down (which, of course, is one reason we’ll continue to have a lot of lawyers — to help guard people and companies from the lies and false promises of others).

Fortunately, there are some people who can be trusted — people who would never dream of taking advantage of another through lies, misrepresentations or outright theft. Insofar as possible, try to funnel your business and dealings to such people. And try to avoid as best you can the other people.

Often, however, there isn’t any way of knowing whether someone is trustworthy or not. You will be tempted to infer trustworthiness even if the evidence is lacking. Again, you do so at your own risk.

In the meantime, companies will continue to steal each other’s trade secrets, and many will continue to rip off their customers in one fashion or another. People will continue to cheat on their taxes and shoplift. That’s life. I suppose it will never change.

At times, it may seem as though everyone is doing it and, therefore, that it’s O.K. If you ever have that sense or feeling, stop and reflect.

Ponder what it means to be willing to take or keep that which isn’t rightfully yours. And what you’d be giving up if you live your life in such a manner.

I could be wrong, but I think it’s a lot.

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