This past week I read an article discussing the two-decade-long drop in crime rates. And an interesting thing about this crime decrease (in essence, an increase in civilization) is that we know so little about what has caused it.
The article that started me thinking, “Taking a biteout of crime,” by Charles Lane, in the Washington Post December 26th, is in part commentary on a book called The City that Became Safe, by Franklin E. Zimring about New York City, but there has also been a lot of response to the latest FBI report about a safer US. (I noticed a follow-up in yesterday’s news for Houston, about a drop from the 2006 high, following an influx from New Orleans after Katrina, down to the lowest rate in four decades.) As Lane puts it, “’What went wrong?’ is the question that launched a thousand blue-ribbon commissions. But we also need to investigate when things go right—especially when, as in the case of crime, success defied so many expert predictions.”
Normally I would assume that such an investigation would reveal a shift toward civilization (northward on the Spherical Model). But the evidence doesn’t necessarily, or obviously, show more adherence to the Ten Commandments, nor a religious motivation to do so. Lane (and I guess Zimring) claims that expectations of the left (statists, let’s call them) and right (conservatives, for lack of a better term) are both wrong:
Plunging crime rates also debunk conventional wisdom, left and right. Crime’s continued decline during the Great Recession undercuts the liberal myth that hard times force people into illegal activity—that, like the Jets in “West Side Story,” crooks are depraved on account of being deprived. Yet recent history also refutes conservatives who predicted in the early 1990s that minority teenage “superpredators” would unleash a new crime wave.
Government, through targeted social interventions and smarter policing, has helped bring down crime rates, confirming the liberal worldview. Yet solutions bubbled up from the states and municipalities, consistent with conservative theory. Contrary to liberal belief, incarcerating more criminals for longer periods probably helped reduce crime. Contrary to conservative doctrine, crime rates fell while Miranda warnings and other legal protections for defendants remained in place.
On the whole, though, what’s most striking about the crime decline is how little we know about its precise causes. Take the increase in state incarceration, which peaked at a national total of 1.4 million on Dec. 31, 2008. This phenomenon is probably a source of success in the war on crime—and its most troubling byproduct. But increased imprisonment cannot explain all, or most, of the decline: Crime rates kept going down the past two years, even as the prison population started to shrink. Crime fell in New York faster than in any other U.S. city over the past two decades — but New York locked up offenders at a below-average rate, according to Zimring’s new book, “The City That Became Safe.”
I’ll try taking these on one by one. I’m glad the “depraved because of being deprived” theory is debunked. It isn’t having little that is causative, but probably reasons behind being deprived. A broken home, fatherless home, uneducated single parent, possibly combined with addiction—that could be pretty depravity-inducing. But much of that is based on personal choice—and some of that personal choice is perpetuated by lack of civilization training within the home. Civilized society sees the public goal of trying to make up for the lack where it can. But that requires something of a critical mass of civilization. There are pockets, often in inner cities, where family dissolution has led to generations of poor and crime. But I don’t remember predictions of minority teenage “superpredators” throughout society as a whole.
Next, about turning to government for solutions: The chaos of crime-ridden areas are unacceptable to practically everyone—that is the tyranny of anarchy you see in the southwest quadrant of the Spherical Model (opposite hemisphere from freedom while also opposite to the quadrant of government tyranny). When people get fed up with this marauding tyranny, they will move either toward statist control (give up their freedom to the state in exchange for relief from danger), or they move toward freedom.
If the answers come up locally, targeted at specific local problems, and solved essentially locally, then that is probably a move northward (toward freedom from anarchic tyranny), rather than toward government tyranny. Liberals need to be disabused of the idea that conservatives never trust in a government solution. There is a proper role of government, and it is in essence protection. Using the most local level where such protection can be accomplished is the conservative approach.
About incarceration, indeed having society refuse to accept serious crime by incarcerating the criminals does have a deterrent effect. The criminals are off the streets, unavailable for committing crimes they would otherwise be doing. That deterrence would continue even when incarceration rates decrease isn’t that surprising. Once criminals know that there is a high likelihood that their crime will be punished with incarceration, they may actually choose not to commit the crime. So both the actual criminals and the possible criminals are deterred.
The specifics of how various cities and communities have problem-solved would be worth studying. But underlying the solutions is not really a rescue by governments, but rather it is the societal commitment to refuse to accept the savagery. People in the community work with law enforcement; they report crimes and watch out for one another within their neighborhoods. When “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal” become important enough to insist on, the aggregate desire for civilization brings it on. In other words, while specific causes aren't clear, I still think the Spherical Model for civilization is true.