elevated from the diaries ~Welsh is our Canadian election correspondent
The Social Construction of Crime
Most crime is created by the government by choosing to outlaw something. Seem counterintuitive? It is, simply, true. All non-violent drug offenses are crimes that would not be considered crimes if the government hadn’t made drugs illegal. And right there you’ve accounted for most of the growth in the prison population for the last thirty years.
This is not to deny that there are non-constructed crimes, there are, and you can figure out what they are by doing cross ethnographic surveys. What you’ll find is that the big ones are murder, rape and assault. Even theft, as we understand it, is not universal, because there are societies where private property as we understand it doesn’t exist. (Most hunter gatherer bands hold almost everything communally, the best bow, for example, is held by the best hunter, and once that’s no longer you, you give it up.)
… More after the jump. (Thread on Canadian Election here)
People like forcing other people to obey their morals. In the sociological literature such people are called “moral entrepeneurs”. They take something that they believe in, say sodomy is evil, or adultery is bad, or some drugs are evil, and they try and convince their society’s authority to make violating their mores a crime.
You can see this in a very pure form in prohibition, where the primarily rural, Protestant areas of the country formed a coalition to force the non-Protestants in the cities to stop drinking. But you can also see it today, in the gay marriage debate, where some States have not only kept gay marriage illegal, but have gone further and stripped gay couples of rights they could already enjoy through normal legal means.
That is one form of how government constructs crime – another is when it constructs crime for its own interests. Money tracking laws fall into this category. Tax evasion falls into this category.
A third category is when the government acts to enforce the privileges of a monopoly or oligopoly. Calling yourself a doctor when you don’t have the right license is an example, and in fact in studies few things will get you cracked down harder than hanging up a shingle without the proper qualifications and memberships. Using the state to enforce some form of monopoly, whether service, good or labor is a long long standing practice. You can see it today when telecom companies have lobbied state legislatures to make providing free wireless internet illegal, so they can charge for it or in so-called intellectual property laws.
In fact the best way to make money is to get the State to force people to give it to you. Want mood altering drugs? Well, legally you can only get most of the really effective ones (other than alcohol) from the troika of doctors/pharmacists and drug companies). The cheap easy ones that can’t be patented are almost all illegal, and it is not a coincidence that as the AMA gained strength this is what happened (having a monopoly on being able to alter people’s moods is a sure money maker.)
So what we have in America is a society where the drugs of the rich and middle class are either legal, or not strongly enforced (how many celebreties who use cocaine have done serious jail time) and the drugs of the poor and minorities (who can’t afford to pay comissions and mark ups through the official mood altering regime) are illegal. I’ve had valium, and I’m telling you its a serious drug and how many people are on it or some form of similiar drug?
What you have, on a more local level, is the inability of people to throw a carpet down on a sidewalk and simply start selling things. They need “licenses” and for most of the poor, that isn’t possible. The rights of the official merchants who pay for market space, and kick back into government coffers and protected against those too poor to do so.
Then there is what sociologists call Labelling. Simply put, if you’re white, you won’t be stopped for driving while black. If as a white teenager you perhaps go on a joyride, it is significantly less likely that you will actually wind up being convicted of a crime and get that black mark on your record. These effects are statistically inarguable – if you are black, or hispanic. you are simply much more likely to be charged and/or convicted of the exact same crime as a white boy. And if you are poor, likewise you are more likely to be convicted than if you or your parents are middle class or rich.
The consequences of getting any criminal conviction on your record in the US are severe. Once it is there you will likely never, ever, hold a decent job. As such, you will likely be pushed into the gray or black economies, and are much more likely to commit further crimes, out of simple economic necessity and because as one of those who has been marked, the unmarked will not associate with you, so you necessarily fall into bad company.
Again, this is measurable, and you can compare the effects by comparing recidivism rates between countries and then looking at how hard it is to get a decent job with a criminal record. Make it harder to get a decent job with a record and you will have more recidivism. It’s just that simple.
The simplest and easiest way to reduce crime rates is to reduce or eliminate the criminaliztion of victimless crimes. The US has the highest prison population in the modern world, beating out even Russia, because it chooses to do so. It has them because it refuses to stop trying to tell its own citizens how they should live their lives, when their actions are either harming only themselves or are harming those who have consensually agreed to be harmed or because it is enforcing a monopoly for those who have power or who kick back into the system.
The prison population exists also because it is how competition is reduced for scarce jobs on the low end. With the exact same resume, a black candidate for a job will get half the interviews a white one will. With the exact same crime, blacks are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites. These two things are not coincidences, they are flip sides of the same coin.
Finally the prison population is also so large because it is a way of spreading pork to rural areas. Rural folks work at locking up urban blacks. It’s a great way to give them something to do so they don’t have to leave the area and go to a city themselves.
With only a few exceptions, crime is what a society chooses it to be, and the crime rate is what the society chooses it to be. Sure it will rise and fall with demographic swings, but with the exact same birth rates and immigration profile, different countries would (and filtering out do), have lower crime rates. Toronto is more multicultural than any American city I am aware of, yet we have a much lower crime rate than most. Wonder why?
There is more to it than this (we could, for example, discuss the gun market and how it is used as a proxy for cash in the US and why the authorities allow this) but this is the basis. Even if you take the position that criminalizing certain drugs is intended to stop car and machinery accidents, then it is still a choice – pay on the back end or pay on the front end.
Your crime rate is a choice your society makes, unless it is in an anarchic situation. And who is in your prisons tells the world what sort of society you are. I put it to you that what the US prison population tells the world about you is not very flattering. At all. (Although it’s better than what the Chinese prison population tells the world about them. But then the US shouldn’t be measuring itself against one-party unfree states.)
Everybody chooses the world they live in. Most people choose the world they are given. Welcome to yours