Why the Violent Crime Decline? And Why So High to Begin With?



According to the FBI, violent crimes declined 5.3 percent in 2009, the third year in a row they receded, and property crimes declined 5.3 percent, the ninth year in a row they decreased.

Sociologists, political scientists, criminologists, economists, journalists, pundits and policy wonks will no doubt offer up their theories to explain this trend. It is impossible, I believe, to nail these things down absolutely, what with all the factors involved, but I believe we can arrive at some informed and substantive insights, based on this latest good news and some other facts of contemporary America.

First of all, pedestrian economic troubles do not lead inevitably to more crime. Left-liberals love to blame crime on poverty. There might be correlations, but free will and other factors clearly preclude economic well-being from being the main decisive factor. Crime plummeted during the Great Depression, and with the economy doing poorly in 2009, and violent crime dropping for the third straight year in a row, I think it’s fair to say that welfare and food stamp programs are not all that’s standing between placid civilization and urban chaos.

Second of all, guns do not cause crime and gun control does not stop it. More and more jurisdictions have liberalized their gun laws over the last few decades, and crime has continued to mostly decline. In 2008, the Supreme Court overturned the most draconian gun ban, in DC. Crime dropped there too.

Third, liberalization of society, which has occurred regarding certain questions of social freedom, also does not open the door immediately to chaos in the streets. Many conservatives worried that liberalizing drug laws, in particular — even in the instance of medical marijuana, which has been adopted by many states in the last decade or so — would lead to an enormous increase in violent and property crime. That hasn’t happened.

On the other hand, the police state has seemingly grown overall. We have more prisons, more police, more weapons at their disposal, more tasings than ever. Is this why we are safer than a few years back?

Before addressing this question, we must first recognize that there’s an unseen cost to all this, even if it were to result in fewer reported violent and property crimes (and this completely ignores whether reporting figures are distorted as the police become more intimidating to normal Americans). Let’s say Americans become 5% less likely to be mugged, but 5% more likely to be harrassed by the police – or even unjustly arrested. Or let’s say Americans are less prone to be burglarized in their homes, but they must pay higher taxes, face more invasions into their privacy by the government and face a greater risk of having their door knocked down and their pets or family members killed by police with the wrong address on the search warrant. These excesses of police protection have surely become more severe in recent years, and so even if government growth is the main reason crime has declined, we must keep in mind the very high price paid, not just in liberty but in physical safety from the police themselves. Being clubbed by a police officer is not clearly better than being clubbed by a street thug.

One might interject that there are also unseen costs with drug liberalization and increased gun freedom. Perhaps. But in the discussion over violent crime, the main costs and benefits that are raised as important are the ones concerning freedom from bodily injury or other invasions of one’s person or property. If more guns make people more rude, or more legal marijuana means people will be less productive, that might be an important consideration. But we haven’t even contemplated here the very far-reaching social effects of having a huge police presence. Focusing only on threats to one’s person or property, it is clear that increasing the size of the police force runs the risk of automatically making citizens less physically safe as it concerns the police themselves, even if it could be shown to reduce the risk of being physically hurt by private criminals.

Adding in the social effects of the growing government, we can probably find all sorts of policies that tend to accompany a large police force that also lead indirectly to increased crime: welfare, public education, immigration controls. And of course, the police do spend a lot of time enforcing victimless crime laws, which not only lead to increases in violent crime but are themselves acts that could be defined as violent violations of person and property.

But how do we get around the idea that the government has grown while violent crime has not? We can back up and look at the greater historical trend. The police state has grown incredibly since the 1960s with the advent of Nixon’s war on drugs. So has the welfare state and almost every other tentacle of government. While crime has dropped since the 1980s, it does not appear to be lower than it was in the 50s and early 60s – when the government’s role in our daily lives, and the police powers it claimed over street crimes, real and victimless, were in most ways substantially smaller.

Also, the private sector in rights protection seems to have ballooned. Ever since the 1980s, private security personnel have outnumbered public police. This is a gloriously welcome market trend, and, perhaps not coincidentally, it has come about alongside the recent drop in private crime.

But nevertheless, many will argue that it is the expansion of prisons, surveillance and police forces that, more than anything, has been winning the war on crime. My hypothesis is nearly the opposite: that crime has diminished despite these political trends, and that if the government were to become less involved in law enforcement, as well as in social engineering, violent crime would plummet even further. The historical, economic and philosophical case for relying on market and community norms, rather than the monopolizing state, to enforce the law, is presented in the hundreds of pages of essays, papers and case studies that constitute the Independent Institute’s indispensable book Anarchy and the Law, edited by economist Ed Stringham. For one example, detailed in the book, the so-called American Wild West was not wild at all, but rather peaceful with very low recorded violent crime. The absence of modern state institutions was probably a great blessing for social tranquility.

But we are about to see another case study unfold over the next few years. Strapped for cash, police forces around the country are slashing law enforcement programs, in particular as it concerns many violent and property crimes. Notoriously, governments facing budget crises never propose to cut pensions for their employees or many of the other programs of obvious waste and graft, but instead go after those the public most demands, so as to gin up support for higher taxes. Will the public go for the extortion racket?

The most desired of government services, the one even most libertarians defend, the protection of person and property, are being held hostage. In my city of Oakland, CA, the police chief threatened earlier this year that if police layoffs occurred, city cops will no longer answer routine calls for burglary, grand theft, identify theft, sex registration violations, waste violations, phony check writing, employee embezzlement, extortion or vandalism—among many other offenses of varying degrees of severity. But now the police chief says that we cannot believe the police union when it claims that crime has risen as a result of these layoffs. Oh. So the police force shrank but we are no less safe than we would have been?

Some worry that more police layoffs through the country will unleash chaos and violent crime. I’m worried about crime rising if the economy truly ever does fall off a cliff, but I am honestly not so concerned that society will crumble even if the police budgets are cut to the bone, and then cut some more. Most homicides are committed by someone who knows the victim, and most of the remainder are due to street violence related to the drug war – the police roaming around the streets probably have a minimal effect on the first category and probably make matters worse in the second. Most property crimes are never solved by the police and I don’t see the police as much of a deterrence. Why is society not brimming with chaotic violence in the streets? Civil society and civilized culture, for which we probably have little to owe the government, is the main reason. It’s corny to say, but the main reason society is relatively civil is because most of your neighbors as children were taught good values by their parents—that is, when they weren’t busy being told to sit still in a government school and hear lectures on how FDR cured the Great Depression. This is the key to civil society, and it is in fact a testament to its power that most human interactions are peaceful and voluntary despite the government doing everything it can to encourage the opposite sort of behavior.

Aside from that, there is private protection of much commercial property by private individuals and private security agencies. I believe everyday Americans owning guns offers much more protection and deterrence than police carrying guns. And I believe the police themselves have become such a threat to liberty that fewer of them prowling the streets, looking for people to fine and arrest, is probably a good thing.

As governments throughout the country continue to lose their grip on law enforcement, as the numbers of cops shrink due to inevitable budget cuts, as the private ownership of guns continues to rise in popularity, as the drug laws continue to liberalize and the market continues to take over security, I am actually somewhat hopeful that violent crime will continue to trend downward. What I am most hopeful for, however, is that Americans will wake up, realizing that the cops are not even good for calling when your house has been robbed any more — just one more key promise that government always uses to expand itself but doesn’t fulfill.

What I fear, more than an increase in private crime accompanying a reduction in police forces, is that the overall trend of expanding the police state will not reverse after all, but that politicians will find a way to continue it. I don’t fear urban chaos following police layoffs. I fear that we and our liberty will be protected to death.

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