From the Great Society to the Big House

The U.S. Justice Department recently released a report highlighting the horrifically high American incarceration rate. According to the report, at the end of last year there were 2.2 million Americans behind bars, with an additional 4.8 million on probation or parole. That compares with 1.5 million incarcerated in China and 870,000 in Russia, the countries in second and third place.

Comments from various experts and spin doctors attributed the figures variously to high U.S. crime rates, too few social welfare programs, and the War on Drugs, even though crime rates in Europe are now higher than in America, the postwar welfare state has quite generally featured radical increases in crime, and the article itself mentions that drug convictions—even if all of them are utterly unjustified—account for only a moderate part (2/7) of the disproportionately high American figures.

Journalists and experts who discuss basic problems ignore the obvious when there’s a story they like that doesn’t work as an account of reality. In the ’60s all the troglodytes complained about crime while the experts and beautiful thinkers said it was an optical illusion. The attitude of the superior people prevailed, even though their specific claims were obviously wrong and have been thoroughly debunked. Today no one in our public life, which has grown far more sensitive and enlightened than it once was, wants to talk seriously about crime. How could they? By definition, crime is at odds with the rationalized system of life and thought that for reputable thinkers today defines reality and the good. It shows there are important things that can neither be adjusted by social therapists nor obviated by letting the market and various incentives work their magic. Why should anybody in a position of importance want to talk about that? What’s the advantage?

People mostly commit crimes because they have strong impulses, weak intelligence, and spotty human attachments. Those things can’t be incented or administered away. Welfare state programs on the whole make them worse, because they reduce the penalties for stupidity and impulsiveness as well as the habit of maintaining and relying on systems of informal social connections, like the family. Nor are efficiency, economic growth, freedom of contract and the cash nexus much of a help in promoting self-control and giving people loyalties outside themselves.

Crime, in fact, is the reductio ad absurdum of liberalism. Liberalism makes preference the standard of the good, reduces reason to the servant of desire, and deprives human connections of authority and makes them just another private taste. For mainstream thinkers today such views define social and moral rationality. They also guarantee crime and other forms of gross human malfunction, because they justify the very qualities that make men criminal.

The problem’s a basic one, which means it cannot and will not be dealt with, because thinking about it seriously would mean a fundamental rejection of what is now thought right and rational. As it is, we can either treat criminals as liberals and Europeans prefer, and try to ignore the resulting crime wave, or we can throw half the young black men in Baltimore into the slammer, and still try to pretend that a society with as many prisoners as ours is free and just.

3 thoughts on “From the Great Society to the Big House”

  1. Wild West redux
    There’s a helpful post at the ever-helpful Brussels Journal on recent trends in crime in Europe and the U.S. The author concludes that the Europeans have caught up with and often surpassed us in crime, and need to catch up as well on the “stomp ’em” method of dealing with it.

    Rem tene, verba sequentur.

  2. Crime
    You mention spotty human attachments, but I would say the replacement of actual communities with mass culture (and a particular kind of anonymous mass culture), which individuals of impulse or low intelligence confuse with reality. The values of that mass culture are as you describe.

    Another way to look at crime rates is to place them in a longer time line; that is, outbursts of anti-social behavior usually track eras of political and social distintegration or upheaval. Your analysis suggests that crime, given the cultural setting and its assumptions, is a more or less normal and expected phenomenon. That’s an interesting thesis.

    As for what contemporary experts could or would say, what can they say? They cite the standard Marxist analysis, with education as the curative. When we’re all suitably educated and rich, there will be no crime.

    As for market incentives, I think those that subscribe to that form of social formation have no problem with crime or the incarceration rate; it’s every man for himself, and those that can’t cope, can’t cope. Sensible communities will have large, effective police departments, and ready access to prisons. It’s a cost of doing business.

    • “Spotty” attachments
      “Spotty human attachments” were intended to describe the mass culture situation you mention. In mass culture our attachments are weak and indefinite, so strong attachments capable of anchoring human conduct are at best spotty. (I thought the expression would also apply to traditional societies in which there’s lots of brigandage etc. because in such societies the attachments that matter only apply to a restricted class of people.)

      Rem tene, verba sequentur.


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