Crime & Society

The big hobbyhorse issue for libertarians is America’s incarceration rate. They love the issue because they get to prattle on about weed, while sucking up to the liberals, who are always looking for an excuse to release felons into middle-class neighborhoods. In other words, they get to sound butch about small government in a way that is entirely safe.

While I think our prison system is a mess, my response to libertarians over the issue is always the same. “How many current inmates would you like released into your neighborhood? On which corner of your block should we put the halfway house?” It’s a fun bit because no has yet provide an answer. Just as it is easy to be generous with other people’s money, it’s easy to be kind to convicts from a great distance.

It’s even easier if you are insane. This story I saw posted on twitter was getting passed around by the usual suspects, suggesting that maybe I’m too soft on libertarians.

What Lind doesn’t talk about is the way that the vast, vastly profitable private prison industry created and lobbied for legislation that criminalized more conduct and set out longer sentences for violations, operating in opaque secrecy, running forced-labor camps, profiteering from prisoners and their families, bribing judges to send black kids to jail, and producing a system where the rich can launder billions for drug cartels without a single criminal prosecution, but poor people caught with minute amounts of weed go to jail for long stretches.

In other words: that hockey-stick growth isn’t an accident.

If you follow the links, you find the Alex Jones type paranoia that has always been a part of the modern Left. Instead of secret government agencies in league with space aliens, you have secret corporate agents in league with aliens. It’s The Deep State™ run out of a corporate boardroom instead of Langley.

Putting all of that aside, it does raise an important question and that is how were we able to have relatively low crime rates, adjusting for race, age and sex, while having a stable prison population. Something changed in the 50’s and 60’s that led to the sudden upward turn in crime.

The obvious candidate for what changed preceding the spike in murder rates is the Civil Rights Movement. The greatly diminished status of blacks would have suppressed crime rates in two ways. First, the fear of white retaliation would have resulted in high levels of self-policing among blacks. Second, white indifference to black life would have artificially reduced the crime stats.

The trouble with this explanation is that white murder rates did tick up in the 60’s, just off a much smaller base so it was less obvious.

Black-White-Homicide-Victims-1950-2010

The trouble here is getting good data of crime rates by race from before 1980 is surprisingly difficult. I’ve been searching and this is the best I was able to find. Crime rates by race are slowly becoming forbidden knowledge. Even so, it’s hard to honestly tie the spike in black crime to the Civil Rights Movement without better data showing a bigger spike than we saw in white crime rates.

The more politically correct answer is the proliferation of street drugs and the drug trade. Libertarians love this one, but so does the Left because it conveniently avoids talking about race. The trouble with this explanation is that it assumes people suddenly went insane and started taking massive amounts of street drugs. This is one step away from blaming evil spirits.

The Old Right answer is that general assault on traditional culture that started in the late 50’s and accelerated into the 70’s eventually broke down the traditional ways of controlling crime and other social pathologies like drug taking. The result was a rise in social anarchy. Eventually, we evolved a new way to deal with the problem, which was mass incarceration.

The crime issue is a good example of how public policy is always about trade-offs, Swing the wrecking ball through a social institution and something replaces it. It’s also an example showing how American Liberalism will inevitably end in authoritarianism. As traditional institutions are destroyed, the state flows into the void. The existing organic institutions grow weaker relative to the state, making them easier to knock over.

10 thoughts on “Crime & Society

  1. Since we are talking about armchair responses to issues, I am going to throw out there that the black crime rate spiked about the time that the media began to venerate the black hoodlum culture. Dressing like a criminal, speaking like a criminal, and living the life of a criminal became some sort of twisted status symbols and things to aspire to. Now, as actual black hoodlum culture has begun to prey on the rest of us in the last few years, people have stepped away from walking the walk, even if they still dress and speak like hoodlums.

  2. There are obviously many factors involved, but I think the rise of the Welfare State in the 60’s is the número uno reason that led to the accelerated breakdown of the black family, which led to increased crime and incarceration rates. The same things happened to whites but a couple decades later. Still, blacks do commit more crime and have higher incarceration rates than whites, proportionally.

    My concern with prisons, undetected by most people unfamiliar either with prisons or Islam, is that many of them have become jihadist recruiting centers. It’s genius, really: a captive audience, disaffected from normal society, aggrieved population, bent on revenge or some manner of mayhem. Most of these felons will re-enter the general society at some point. Better in some Leftist or Libertarian neighborhood than mine.

  3. Pingback: Crime & Society, Armed Citizens Best At Preventing Violent Crime | IowaDawg Blogging Stuff

  4. I have long said, being older than many these days, that when I was young it was the fear of discovery in your own neck of the woods that tended to keep crime down.* If everyone knew you then any bad behaviour would get reported pretty swiftly to one’s parents, though I accept this holds less sway if you had no parents. Nonetheless, it was because people lived in relatively small areas that meant everyone knew who were the bad apples and who to avoid.

    Take that ‘threat’ away, as I began to see in the ‘seventies as people became more mobile and could range further, then that until then natural fear of social stigma was lost. Couple that with ‘do-gooder’ solutions that didn’t solve anything but make the morally-superior feel better about having unworkable ideas, and the mixture became increasingly toxic. I recall being surprised years ago seeing young kids from a council development wandering through my city centre looking for trouble (or amusement) because it was becoming apparent to them there was no real penalty for missing school other than being ‘understood’ and to help, the local council had moved the kids’ families to new, soulless developments bordering the city centres.

    If penalties were light or non-existent, word soon got round that there was no penalty worth bothering with. I knew someone who worked in the court system and he told me that most of the criminal lower class, when fined, would pay the first instalment and never bother again. It was too much trouble to go and collect what the perp owed to the system, so it was written off. Plus, it was apparent there was no penalty with fines as if they were on benefits, the state paid the criminals so they could pay their fines. They wouldn’t go without. Judges too began to talk about ‘alternatives to prison’ which essentially meant no problem for the wrong-doers.

    But, for all the faults of the British underclass, gun crime was not a significant factor. If it happened, there was quite a shock factor. It simply was for many years regarded as ‘not the done thing.’

    *It would be easy to see London in the UK as an example of people ranging far and wide but Londoners were very clannish: people born in say Tottenham or Croydon tended to stay in their own part of the world. Even a comprehensive transport system didn’t make them travel if they could avoid it. I knew Londoners who had never travelled the ten miles or so into the city centre. It was a foreign country to them, though sadly much of London now is very much foreign country.

  5. It is known that young black males commit the great majority of gun crimes, violent crimes and interracial hate crimes. The total number involved is probably less than two million nationwide, and might be less than one million. This is certainly a manageable number, and a targeted, intense program focusing on young black men would essentially eliminate most crime in the US. Our crime statistics would look like those of a pre-invasion European country.

  6. I’m 59 but my older friends who grew up in ethnic city neighborhoods (mostly Irish or Italian) talk about zip guns. Now the idea of using a homemade .22 would make your average gang banger laugh. But gun control laws were not a significant factor in the 1960’s so why were the murder rates lower? I’m going to venture a guess that a tougher (even if corrupt) city police force would make it less desirable to settle disputes with murder. Conviction of premeditated murder often brought execution in a relatively short time. Last, the seriously mentally ill were then institutionalized. All this changed in the 1960”s and 1970’s. Today a big problem for urban cops is the no-snitch culture that is enforced by witness intimidation and murder. Why would you help put a thug away if his buddies would kill you as a witness (and he would not suffer a similar fate)?

    • The lead-crime has been worked over for years and my conclusion is that there is a reason we have the expression “correlation is not causation.” Japan, for example, has higher population density and had leaded gasoline. Lead levels were higher than in the US, but they did not have a crime wave. When you want to associate an environmental factor with a disease, the standard test is to see if the correlation appears in other places. If high levels correspond with high crime everywhere, then you have a good starting point.

      The real problem with the hypothesis is that no one has been able to back it up with data. Yes, lead exposure in youth can lower IQ and that can lead to high crime rates. As yet, we have no data to show that this is what happened in say Detroit or Flint Michigan. That data is unlikely to ever be found as it would require a long term controlled study in which you expose children of all races to lead and measure their criminality over time. Even the Chinese are not going to do that.

      I think if a more novel theory is that globalization/transportation/communications are the root cause. For most of human history, social pathology was a local event. People got high on their local intoxicants, committed crimes against their local culture and organized all of this within walking distance. In 1945 a guy in Detroit was not getting his hands on heroin. He was not going on the road to take his favorite brand of lawlessness or intoxicant with him to some new community over the horizon. At least it was not happening in any sort of volume. I’m sure they had morphine addicts.

      By the 60’s, it was suddenly possible to move to California and discover Mexican drugs, then turn around and sell them to your friends in Amherst Mass. Amherst Mass was good at handling the locals getting drunk. When they had to contend with strangers selling weed, they had no natural defense. Replicate this with every taboo and Americans everywhere were suddenly facing strange new threats like heroin and weird porn. Put another way, the world’s taboos and vices became an invasive species. Eventually, the solution was to lock up the deviants and criminals in large quantities.

      • I left correlation/causation out of my comment because I didn’t want to be too wordy (!), but the research done in other western countries appears to lead to the same possible conclusion. You mention Japan, which as a culture still held shame and shaming in high regard for most of last century. They might have had a better grip on their deviants or even more self-control, as that is an important trait there. Or was, anyway.
        I agree completely that a smaller world has led to a greater dissolution. I just found that correlation interesting.

        • Lead/Crime is an interesting hypothesis, but it is one that I was suspicious of from the start because it checks too many narrative boxes for my tastes. A big part of the Progressive project over the last fifty years has been to use science! to explain away what people have observed about humanity for 3,000 years. The other part of it that I find troublesome is that there should be other consequences. Presumably, the lead exposure would have lowered IQ’s but when you correct for population movement, that does not show up. In Baltimore, for example, blacks in the city are a full standard deviation duller than blacks in the county, but those county blacks grew up in the same area during the crime spike.

          It’s an interesting topic because it does show how impossible it can be to model even the simplest human qualities in a society. Did the effects of lead cause a rise in crime which then triggered black flight of the black middle-class from the city? Or, did lead effect the left side of the bell curve more than the right, thus explaining the disparity between races as well as disparities within races? As I said, the bigger issue with the lead theory is it only explains a small part of the spike, even when accepting some pretty big assumptions.

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