Vital Signs

Coping With Street Crime

Any cogent discussion of crime must begin by casting aside the obfuscations of criminologists and social scientists who habitually lump together all types of crime. But while most people can be made to wax indignant against fraud or against such abstract "crimes" as insider trading, or even become outraged at employees taking pencils from their employer, these "white-collar crimes" do not terrify them because they do not violate the physical integrity of the person or the home of the victim. The latter crimes are the ones that terrify and destroy the security of the average person and wreck social peace. We might call these malign forms "crimes of violence," except that we should also put in the same category home burglary, which technically does not use weapons but inflicts the same sense of personal violation as more directly violent crimes. Let us then call them "street crimes," which would include crimes of violence on urban streets or sidewalks, and also the home burglaries in suburban or rural areas.

Economists have added their own special forms of fallacy and misdirection to the problem of crime. To most economists, led by Chicago School economist Gary Becker, crime is a business like any other, and the criminal, like any businessman or investor, engages in a rational cost-benefit calculation in deciding whether or not to commit a crime. He compares the expected monetary benefit from the crime, with the expected costs of getting caught and the type of punishment probably received, all costs and benefits duly discounted by the rate of interest. This sort of analysis may well be applicable to business-type crimes, such as committed by organized groups of jewel thieves, bank robbers, or counterfeiters, or to the sort of mafioso activities immortalized in The Godfather. But these business-type crimes don't terrify, and they do not qualify in our definition of street crime as street assaults, rapes, muggings, shootings, as well as home burglaries. To apply monetary cost-benefit analysis to street criminals in the Becker manner is so divorced from reality as to verge upon absurdity.

Take, for example, the latest fashion in street crime, rampant in Detroit, which in so many ways has blazed the path in this field and now spread to other urban areas: the drive-by shooting. A driver pulls up alongside his victims, opens fire, and then zooms off. How in the world can this practice be encompassed by Chicagoite monetary cost-benefit analysis? More and more, it has become clear that much or all such street crime is done not for the money but for psychic benefits. One young lad, when asked why he killed someone at random in a driveby shooting, replied: "I just felt like killing someone." Some years ago, they would have replied "for kicks," but it seems that anomie has replaced a sense of joy among young muggers and murderers.

One reason why standard economics has gone so far astray is that, ever since Adam Smith, economists have routinely assumed that people are exactly the same as every other, with the same values, norms, and preferences, and that they only act differently because of different institutional indictments or constraints. Combine this egalitarian legacy of the Enlightenment with Benthamite utilitarianism, and it becomes clear why economists' analyses and policy conclusions have so often tended to be far off the mark and even counterproductive.

From its mathematical calculations, the Beckerite remedy for crime is to make punishment not so much more severe as more probable: to increase the certainty of getting caught and punished. Apart from the fact that the Beckerites have come out with precious few practical suggestions on how this increased certainty can be accomplished, there is more askew here. For the Beckerites ignore one of the important contributions of Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian School of economics: that individuals all differ in their values, habits, and preferences, and that a crucial aspect of that variety is what Austrians call their "rates of time preference."

Working independently of the Austrian tradition, the political scientist Edward C. Banfield—in his delightfully cool, bitter, and hardheaded The Unheavenly City (1970), and the later edition, The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974)—put his finger on a key to the nature of the street criminal: a very high rate of time preference for the present over the future; in other words, a very short time horizon. The street criminal places a high value on present, instant gratification: whether it be from money stolen, from rape, or from the sheer "kicks" of beating or killing another human being. He commits these acts not because punishment is uncertain, but because punishment is sometime in the future, and he simply doesn't care about the future. In a later article applying his analysis to street crime. Professor Banfield put the case well: "The threat of punishment at the hands of the law is unlikely to deter the present-oriented person. The gains that he expects from his illegal act are very near to the present, whereas the punishment that he would suffer—in the unlikely event of his being both caught and punished—lies in a future too distant for him to take into account." Banfield goes on to add that "for the normal person" there are other stronger deterrents to crime than the legal penalty, such as disgrace, loss of job, hardship for wife and children if he goes to prison. These deterrents do not exist, however, for the present-oriented person. Everyone in his circle naturally gets "in trouble" with the police from time to time. He has no steady job anyway, and he contributes little or nothing to the support of his wife and kids, who, Banfield adds, "may well be better off without him." Banfield makes it clear that the high-time preference person's lack of a steady job is not due to lack of "employment opportunities," but because this sort of person has no intention of subjecting himself to the discipline of engaging in full-time steady work.

In his trenchant analysis Banfield consciously harks back to the great political philosophers of the West, particularly Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. In Leviathan, Hobbes pointed out that there would be no need for government if everyone obeyed the dictates of reason and natural law, for then there would be social peace. But instead, government is required because of people acting on "their perverse desire of present profit." Hume writes about government being made necessary because "men are not able radically to cure, either in themselves or others, that narrowness of soul which makes them prefer the present to the remote."

It is all too clear that in recent decades, government in the United States has lost its reason, its being, since the hightime preference street criminals have increasingly been allowed to run riot. We are being plunged, at an accelerating rate, into the sort of horrible criminal anarchy that no libertarian or "anarcho-capitalist" would countenance for one moment. What, then, can be done?

The first step toward a solution is to identify the problem. The problem is not poverty, unemployment, discrimination, or lack of playgrounds for youth; the problem is the proliferation of a criminal class of people that Banfield defines as "the lower class," marked by trails centering around high-time preference and present-orientation leading to massive street crime. It is well-known that virtually all street crime is committed by males from the onset of puberty until their late 20's. The problem, then, cannot lie in poverty or discrimination since females are, on the average, poorer than males, and surely suffer from no less discrimination. Indeed, it is only sensible for the police to keep a particularly wary eye on groups likely to be a source of street crime. Some years ago, my wife and I purchased a used police car, with a powerful engine, just the sort of car beloved by hot-rodding teenagers. We found that we were often accosted by the traffic cops, even though tooling along well within the speed limit. The cop would shine his flashlight at our placid and nonthreatening middleaged faces, and then stammer some patent fiction, such as "your right taillight is cracked." Although it was not exactly pleasant to be picked on, we didn't think of suing the police for harassment, since it was perfectly proper for them to keep a watchful eye on teenage drivers.

In criticizing the current treatment of crime, conservatives have denounced the coddling of criminals in light sentences, parole, and luxury accommodations in the prisons. All this is well and good, but it misses the central point, which is not so much that retaliation or punishment should be severe, as that it should be swift and immediate. The chief problem is the delay of punishment: the entire "process," beloved by liberals and the ACLU, of arraignment, bail, indictment, lengthy trial procedures, and appeals. The fault is the process itself that delays punishment to what the high-time preference criminal sees as the remotely distant future. Sometimes the delay and the argument become ludicrous. After appeals had kept Sacco and Vanzetti in death row for years, leftists began saying it was "cruel and unusual punishment" to keep these murderers so long awaiting execution—reminiscent of the old joke about the man who murdered his parents and then pleaded for mercy as an orphan.

Short of the unacceptable idea of incarcerating all males from the onset of puberty in preventive detention, the only solution to the problem of street crime is to make sure that the criminal will face—and expect to face—instant counterforce, both by his victim and by the police. The solution, then, comes in two parts. First, permit and encourage every citizen to be armed to the teeth and ready to defend himself with maximum and not minimum force. Right now, in our cities, victims have been effectively disarmed. Gun and other weapons control have deprived the average citizen of the right to defend himself adequately. In New York City, the happy hunting ground of street crime, people are not only deprived of guns, but they cannot even carry Mace, and women are not allowed to carry hat pins in their purses for self-defense. Moreover, laws prevent people from using more than absolutely minimum force in self-defense; everyone has the legal obligation to run, and your back must be literally against the wall before you can turn and use force to defend yourself against criminals.

All this must be changed. Criminals have got to know that, should they mess with anyone, they are more likely to get clobbered by their victims. Even Professor Banfield, no friend of Appalachian culture, admits that, even though the people there are highly present-oriented, their crime rate is low. For "in a society the culture of which is present-oriented, one's knowledge that others are as hot-tempered as oneself is apt to constitute (despite Hobbes and the other political philosophers) an effective social control." "In such a culture," Banfield adds, "people are likely to go to great length to avoid giving accidental offense to others, out of fear of provoking quick reprisals."

The great desideratum was once demonstrated in a short story by Mickey Spillane. Mike Hammer, hearing a noise downstairs, gets out his gun and quietly pads down the stairs, when he sees someone trying to open his safe. Immediately, Mike blows the intruder's head off. No "what are you doing there?" or "put up your hands or I'll shoot," no holding the guy there while calling the cops and all the rest of that nonsense. There is instant maximum counterforce in defense of one's person or property. Hollywood had it wrong, the wild West was not a lawless society; on the contrary, everyone was very careful to be courteous.

Next to ending all weapons control, the most important step is to unleash the police and encourage them to administer instant punishment of street criminals. Only instant punishment can be understood by high-time preference criminals. During the 1930's, New York City, despite the poverty and unemployment of the Depression, was virtually free of street crime. Why? Because the police engaged in instant beating and clobbering of the perpetrator, either on the spot or inside the station house. And, more importantly, everyone knew it.

The ACLU and all left-libertarians will be predictably horrified at these proposals. What about the "procedural rights" of the alleged criminals? As someone who is devoted to the natural rights of each person, I would reply that such rights—to person and property—are only substantive and never procedural. No one can derive from John Locke anyone's "right" to bail, or to put off punishment for three months. Procedures of the criminal law can only be decided on the basis of utility and effectiveness, and we have seen that there is no point to procedures that delay swift and immediate punishment. It is grotesque to worry about the "rights" of criminals when the persons and property of all of us are at risk every day in a rising tide of crime. It is almost as if the current procedures of criminal law are designed deliberately to encourage street criminals and to weaken defenses against crime. But to make such an assertion would be to lay oneself open to the gravest charge in the lexicon of the modern academic: of falling prey to the "conspiracy theory of history."

Once disposed of the bogey of "procedural rights," other methods of swift punishment, of "taking the law into one's own hands," that have had a strong tradition in American history but have had bad press in recent years, can be disinterred and resurrected. "Vigilante justice" worked far better, and far more smoothly, than has been credited by modern propaganda. But whether justice be done by the armed citizenry or by the police, let it be done, and done swiftly.

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Rothbard was right on nearly everything, and he was/is right on this too. He is a treasure. I hope to live long enough to read a majority of his beautiful works. There were a couple transcription errors I noticed. First, the word "tum" instead of "turn" was typed into the last line of paragraph eleven (11). Finally, the word "modem" was typed instead of the word "modern" in the second-to-last line of the final paragraph. Thanks for having this online!