All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 1995

The “Root Causes” of Crime

We Must Address the Moral Abdication Occurring in Our Homes, Communities, and Institutions

Mr. Bidinotto, a staff writer for Reader’s Digest, is a long-time contributor to The Freeman and lecturer at FEE seminars. Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Mr. Bidinotto and published by FEE, is available at $29.95 in cloth and $19.95 in paperback.

Since 1960, per capita crime rates have more than tripled, while violent crime rates have nearly quintupled. By any measure, we live in a nation much less safe than that in which our parents grew up.

This simply cries out for an explanation. What in our modern society could possibly account for the sudden and explosive growth in force, fraud, and coercion?

Liberals typically posit socio-economic factors, such as poverty. Yet how can we attribute the rising tide of violence to rising poverty, when the periods of fastest crime growth have been during times of rapidly rising American wealth?

This popular “explanation” also fails on comparative grounds. Why is the richest nation on earth experiencing increases in predatory behavior that vastly exceed crime rates in much poorer nations? Why now, at a time of relative abundance and wealth, instead of during impoverished times past–say, during our Great Depression? And why after decades of dumping trillions of dollars into programs to eradicate privation, hunger, illiteracy, insecurity, disease, homelessness—the alleged “root causes” of crime?

Liberal explanations for crime that blame psychological or biological factors also fall flat. Why, for example, would there have been an abrupt leap in mental illness or genetic defects starting in 1962, when crime rates began to take off?

However, I must also challenge a common conservative explanation for rising crime: blaming it on the welfare state.

Though a governmental “safety net” of sorts has existed since the New Deal, the modern American welfare state wasn’t enacted into law until the Great Society, and didn’t begin to make its impact felt until the end of the 1960s. Yet crime rates began to soar before that–in the early 1960s. How can we attribute rising crime to a welfare state which didn’t then exist?

Second, criminal behavior patterns start in youth, peaking in the late teen years. Whatever caused crime to explode in the 1960s would have to have been planted in young people during their formative years: in the 1950s. Where was the 1950s welfare state?

Third, many nations have had welfare states far longer than America, yet have crime rates far lower than ours. Why?

Finally, U.S. crime rates have begun in recent years to level out, even decline a bit. Has there been any corresponding decline in welfare statism to “cause” this? Clearly not.

These liberal and conservative explanations for criminality share a common root: they blame factors outside the criminal himself. Liberals say “poverty made him do it.” Conservatives say “welfare checks made him do it.” Both share the false premise of economic determinism.

It is more fruitful to ask not “What causes crime?” but “What causes us not to commit crimes?” Social scientists posit two reasons: what they refer to as “external and internal constraints on behavior.”

External constraints are deterrents. We don’t commit crimes for fear of negative consequences, or punishments. Internal constraints, by contrast, are what we used to call “conscience.” Most people accept certain moral standards; and when we violate those standards, we feel guilty about it. Our guilt feelings inhibit us from committing crimes–even when we think we can get away with them.

My view—spelled out in Criminal Justice?—is that crime has increased because of a systematic erosion in recent decades of both external and internal constraints on behavior. Deterrence has been weakened, while conscience has been deadened.

Consider, first, the undermining of deterrence. For half a century, utilitarian prescriptions for crime control amounted to giving endless “second chances” to juvenile criminals, repeated probationary sentences to adult felons, and speedy releases to the relative few who landed behind bars.

In 1949 the U.S. Supreme Court declared that retribution was “no longer the dominant objective of the criminal law,” but should be replaced by “reformation and rehabilitation.” Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, in his influential 1970 book, Crime in America, declared that “Punishment as an end in itself is itself a crime in our times…. Rehabilitation must be the goal of modern corrections. Every other consideration should be subordinated to it.”

And so it was. The odds of punishment for a given crime have fallen sharply over the past 30 years. Today, a person who commits a serious crime has a better than 98 percent chance of avoiding prison. And thanks to early parole and generous “good time” allowances, the typical inmate serves only a third of his court-imposed sentence.

The undermining of external constraints is only a part of the problem. More important is the erosion of internal constraints.

Most of us go about our daily business with a secure sense of routine. We walk past co-workers, sit with family members, wait in grocery store lines, seldom giving a thought to our personal safety. But imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which all these people suddenly, inexplicably, violently turned on you. In such a jungle, human life would become impossible. We would live like animals; our operative premise would no longer be “live and let live,” but “kill or be killed.”

We have not yet reached that stage, but the signs of social deterioration are unmistakable (see my March column, “Cultural Pollution”). More and more people act like speeding vehicles without steering wheels or brakes, leaving in their wake a growing trail of bloodshed and destruction.

A moral code is the source of “internal constraints on behavior.” It is the rudder of any culture, which keeps it from crashing against the shoals of violence, and sinking into chaos. Yet modern intellectuals, wedded to relativism, have not only abandoned the helm of moral leadership: they assault anyone who dares to assume it. Their normative vandalism has been so complete that today, even to use words such as “morality,” “conscience,” or “virtue,” invites mockery and the rolling of eyes.

These intellectuals have virtually obliterated all external and internal constraints. As utilitarians, they have undermined deterrence. As relativists, they have eliminated guilt. They have thus unleashed the sociopaths we see around us–savages who act with impunity, and without conscience.

We rightfully expect our justice system to impose external constraints on those lacking internal constraints. But we can never hire enough police, or build enough prisons, if our underlying moral crisis is not addressed. The real roots of criminality lie in the moral abdication occurring in our homes, communities, and institutions.

Restoring moral direction is not a job we dare delegate to politicians. Rather, if our culture is to survive, we ourselves must begin to uphold, fight for, and inculcate the values and standards upon which any civilization rests.