We can eliminate theft if we eliminate ownership; by definition, something that is not owned cannot be stolen. Moreover, I think we're already starting to move in the direction of "mass ownership."
Consider newspapers and magazines, the Internet, iTunes, and bicycles as examples. (Stay with me. It'll make sense.)
I can pay for an individual newspaper (or magazine), or I can subscribe to their services. With a subscription, I [typically] have access to more than just the newsstand issues and receive "member benefits." Newspapers today (yes, I'm looking at you, Internet) may soon have to abandon the price-per-issue system and go subscription only. Why? Because Internet-based newspapers and news services will lose their shirts if they continue to offer their services for free; a simple subscription fee, however, in exchange for complete access to a database of news is a typical explanation of where newspapers will be in ten years (if they're not there already). NOW, let's apply the subscription model to something we're more familiar with.
When a music lover purchases a song on iTunes, there are strings attached to prevent theft: you can only play the songs on authorized computers or devices, you can only make a limited number of "hard copies," and the file cannot [typically] be altered. WHAT IF iTunes moved to a "subscription-only" model? What if, for a monthly fee you had access to everything in the iTunes Library? If they were to make it sensibly priced and available to enough people, Apple would have a steady stream of income and the populus would have access to more music and movies than they could possibly watch in their lifetimes. (I know. It sounds like I'm describing cable or satellite TV.) What if we tried to apply this to something a bit more tangible?
Ever hear of ZotWheels? The concept has been around forever--especially in Europe--and it's now coming to at least three UC campuses in the coming months. It's a bikeshare program: you pay the monthly fee, and you have access to any ZotBike parked near you. They're supposed to be for short, one way trips across campus (you even get a text message when your two hours--or whatever it may be--is up). Some companies do this with cars. Nobody owns the vehicles, but everyone has access.
And if nobody owns them, then no one can steal them. ("Ah," you say, "But what if someone who does not pay for access obtains access? Is that not stealing?" You're right. Let's zoom out even farther.)
I've always loved that aspect of "Star Trek" in which the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of humanity--especially when you consider that the "replicator," the gizmo that makes everything from clothing to starship parts to chocolate sundaes, makes that kind of economy possible (I often wonder what it must have been like for the fictional guy that invented it: "With this device, I will bring the entire economy to a crumbling ruin!"). But what do people in that fictional universe do in order to obtain access to whatever they need, includng food, clothing, and shelter? They particpate in industry, or science, or something. "Star Trek" is like one big floating kibbutz, when you think about it. But could we do that? Could we tell people that when they go to work, instead of a paycheck they will receive access to groceries, a carshare program, a houseshare program, cable TV, and iTunes . . . and if they work for a year they'll receive access to a vacationshare program.
Could we become a collective economy, where everything is shared and therefore NOTHING is owned (or everything is owned by everyone)?
Am I describing a form of Communism? Of course I am (and I'd be foolish not to admit it). I think part of the reason that the concept gets such a bad rap is that people look at it as a kind of "all or nothing" way of life. I, on the other hand, see the possibility of gradations in the economic structure; I'm not the first, and I certainly won't be the last.
Why wouldn't any of this work? I can think of two reasons, and neither of them paint humans in a positive light. The first is that, as a society, we're greedy. We want stuff. We want to own things. For some reason we look more at possession and less at function when it comes to our cars and our music. Does it matter to us who owns the bike if we get to use it as though we owned it? To us, apparently, it does. The second reason is that we're competitive, and many believe that Communism, while a dynamite idea on paper, failed in Russia for exactly this reason. We don't feel good about ourselves unless we surpass our peers. It's not enough that we have what we want; we must have more than others, even in an "equal" society. It's Orwell's Animal Farm. Or, to quote Richard Pryor, as he tried to describe what's wrong with people: "People got this mindset, man, that goes, 'I got mine, f*ck you.' And it ain't right."
Anyway, I just got to thinking about how to reduce theft at the school I work at, and came to the conclusion that if everyone collectively owned everything, no one could steal anything. And it turned into this big, long blog post.
Geez, imagine what I may come up with tomorrow. :)