Crime, Math, and Libertarians

I started out to make a simple point, and then it got bigger, and soon butted up against an issue that I plan to lay out here in clearer form at a later date. But in deference to the patriarchal, eurocentric linear time concept, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

The New York Times reported a recent study that reveals a climbing recidivism rate among inmates released from prison. The study’s authors, along with a host of other experts interviewed for the article, blame inadequate rehabilitation for the increase.

Here’s another thought. Assume that criminals derive some satisfaction from their deeds. Let’s call this the demand for crime. Assume further that this demand has some elasticity, meaning that it is affected by the “price,” which comes in the form of risk-adjusted punishment (i.e., the odds of incarceration multiplied by the average time served for a particular crime in a particular state). Now we have a math problem.

Thankfully, the fine folks at the National Center for Policy Analysis have done the hard work for us. They find, by examining data on crime and clearance (the odds someone will serve time for a crime) rates, that the “price” of committing crime has dropped considerably since the 1950’s.

But here’s the catch for the claim that a declining price for crime is the cause of the elevated recidivism rates: the price started to increase in the 1990’s. Here’s where the sociologist (perish the thought!) might come to the aid of the economist. Imagine not just a price threshold confronting the potential criminal, but a moral threshold as well. This moral threshold is determined in part by how others in the community view crime. As the price for committing crime dropped from the 1950’s into the 1980’s, more and more people in some communities succumbed to the temptation. Every person who did so thereby weakened the social norms against crime in his community. Thus even after the price has started to rise, the moral threshold continues to decline.

This appears to be what happened in another area: out-of-wedlock births. Illegitimacy increased with welfare payments, but continued to grow even as AFDC was reduced, in real terms, during the early 1980’s. Most welfare experts (dominated by the hard left) pointed to this as proof that welfare doesn’t breed illegitimacy. Some bright thinkers argued, however, that the continued growth of out-of-wedlock births even after a reduction in AFDC payments was the result of a similar moral threshold erosion, precipitated by an initial erosion of the economic cost of illegitimacy.

Interestingly enough, both crime and illegitimacy display marked geographic clustering, with considerable variance even across poor neighborhoods, which is a strong sign that community norms matter. In other words, both phenomenon behave as epidemics, spreading as more and more people in a neighborhood “contract” them.

The difficulty this reality brings to those (mostly conservatives and libertarians) who want to adopt a purely economic view of crime and welfare is that an increase in the economic price of these pathological behaviors may not bring about a cure. Pandora’s box, in the form of eroded social norms, has been opened in many neighborhoods. The cost of closing it again, if we rely solely on punishment, may be extremely high, amounting to little more than transplanting entire families and neighborhoods into prisons. Absent any sort of moral or spiritual awakening, we may simply create a new way of life for these people — a brief stint in public school, a few years of wilding, and then life with friends and family behind bars.

But the state has never been good at administering moral and spiritual guidance. It has at its disposal mostly the blunt tools of economics. And now that it has, after decades of drunken liberals at the wheel, contributed to the destruction of community social norms, it may have no means of recreating them. Conservatives and libertarians, whose social prescriptions often amount to nothing beyond the reduction of government, may have little to offer as well.

This, I think, is an overlooked problem confronting libertarians especially. Our solutions are anti-solutions, namely, the elimination of government. We assume that when the cause is removed, the problem will be removed as well. I wonder if there is room in libertarian philosophy for something more.


  1. ockham

    If we’re serious about using economic methods, we’ll begin with Skinner’s definitions of reward and punishment: reward is anything that increases a behavior; punishment is anything that decreases it. Trouble is, prisons have been designed by people whose sense of value is entirely different from that of criminals. Prisons would do a good job of Skinner-punishing the kind of people who design them, but are actually Skinner-rewards for the people who inhabit them. Three squares, lots of friends to talk with, a guard available to keep fights from getting really serious, a free hospital in case that doesn’t work…. hell for intellectuals but just a vacation for criminals. Solitary is the only part that actually punishes the criminal class, because they are intensely gregarious and need constant engagement to maintain status. So if we want prison to Skinner-punish the criminals, we should design a situation that would be heaven for egghead intellectuals: a bare isolated cell with no chance of human contact but plenty of deep-thinking books. That would be sheer unmitigated hell for the criminal class.

    (And yes, I speak from experience; spent most of a year in the slammer during my mis-spent youth.)

  2. Patrick R. Sullivan

    See Theodore Dalrymple’s _Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass_, for a thoroughly depressing explication of the phenomenon.

    He’s a physician who works in a British prison, and tells many stories of his “patients” who have absorbed the cultural norms that excuse their behavior. “The knife went in”, explains one murderer.

    He also notes that many of the criminals are completely up to date on their sociology. Even semi-literates can recite the fashionable reasons for their “addiction to crime”, and demand the doctor “cure them” of it!

    One particularly astute observation on his part, is the role of tatooing on social pathology. You’ll never again be able to watch an NBA basketball game without being taken aback by the decorated skins on the “role models” of our nation’s young men.

  3. tom scott

    I saw that article also and I’m glad that a person of your analytical and writing qualites decided to address it.
    I worked for 12 years as a correctional officer. I read Herrnstein (sp) on criminality and many articles from Heritage (Policy Review) and others.
    Most indentified a core of about 7% of dedicated and recidivist criminals. In the nineties truth in sentencing laws, three strikes, etc kept this core constituency in prison longer and crime rates fell. These people are now being released.
    I read Dalrymple’s work in (I think)National Review and was intrigued by it and think it would serve us well to have a broader look at this factor.
    P.S. I think your site re-design is great and worthy of your superb efforts.

  4. John Thacker

    There’s a second argument that can be made. Naturally, as the price of crime increases, one expects fewer people to choose to become criminals. Indeed, the crime rate has dropped. However, as the crime rate drops and fewer people choose to commit criminal acts, we expect that those who do choose to continue to commit criminal acts are those who gain an unusually large sense of pleasure out of it, the career criminals.
    In other words, a rising cost of crime has successfully deterred new people from becoming criminals. That said, the remaining population willing to commit crimes are the career criminals; those who have already had their lives shaped by crime. Naturally, career criminals have a higher recidivism rate.
    In short, there’s a selection bias. Recidivism rates are complicated, because they don’t just measure the rate of crime among the whole population, but among former criminals. As the price of crime increases, fewer people are willing to commit them. In the short term, this may reduce the recidivism rates, and certainly the crime rates. Due to this, over the long term the population of “former criminals” contains proportionally more career criminals, as casual criminals are deterred by the increasing cost. This puts an upward pressure on recidivism rates, even as crime rates drop.

  5. Tony

    Thacker’s point is brilliant, and I’m jealous that I didn’t realize it myself.

    On Occam’s point, I wonder how far we would have to go to deter crime. A work on criminology that has always impressed me is Gottfredson and Hirschi’s A General Theory of Crime, in which they argue, with data, that much crime is opportunistic, and committed by people with very little self-control (in economists’ terms, they have very high discount rates for the future). The challenge this creates is that a civil society may run into the limits of its willingness to punish before it reaches a pain threshold great enough to deter significant numbers of criminals.

  6. Jim Naso

    A number of points (perhaps peripheral) on this subject:

    1. I too read Dalrymple’s excellent book (the contents originally appeared in City Journal, by the way). It’s a firsthand account of societal dysfunction by a man who is unafraid of speaking the truth frankly. There needs to be more such people. Obviously, we all can’t publish books, but we can express ourselves forcefully whenever the usual liberal pieties are trotted out. We need to be more overtly judgmental — more discriminating — precisely because the intellectual corrupters of societal norms regard these traits as if they were crimes. Of course, speaking out may cost one a few friends or a promotion at work; that’s why most people just shut up and put up with things as they are.

    2. It is hard to discuss crime in America without including race. Virtually every study of crime that has ever been done in my lifetime has shown much higher rates of crime by blacks — staggeringly higher rates, in fact. The previous sentence would not be allowed in most major newspapers. To express disgust, outrage, etc. over black crime figures would be completely beyond the bounds of reasoned discourse. Whenever the number of black men in prison is cited, it is for the purpose of implying that these men were imprisoned because they are black, not because they are criminals. An article appeared just today in the Plain Dealer (Cleveland’s hideous rag) about the fact that an Ohio appeals court (Ohio Supreme Court?)allowed Cincinnati’s lawsuit against gun manufacturers to proceed. The article ended with a quote from a black Cincy public official to the effect that so many black men are being killed by guns that ANYTHING (his word) that can be done should be done. Thus, the proximate cause of dead black men is not other black men but the marketing methods of gun manufacturers. How can a serious approach to crime be made when black leaders engage in such excuse-making rhetoric that makes their own race look stupid and childish and the largest news organs believe that they must propagate and ratify the fatuous ideas on which such rhetoric is based? It would be premature to suggest that the forthcoming court case will turn on this illogic, but it would not surprise me if it did.

    3. The seeming decline in at least certain types of crime has been attributed to the fact that many crimes that were once deemed felonious have been reclassified as misdemeanors over the past decade. This, of course, is only further evidence of the decline in societal norms.

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