Saturday, June 16, 2012

Laissez-faire Criminology

Of the many theories of crime, none is based on doing nothing. Every theory assumes that someone has a duty to act to punish wrongs or remediate harms or save the sinner. Traditional studies of victimology come closest to a laissez faire theory that problems in our social environment are only analogous to problems in our physical environment: we protect ourselves from the elements; but we do not seek to punish storms, either for their own good or as general deterrence to any other bad weather.

Altruism informs criminology. Even more than the golden rule, the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us all that we are our brother’s keeper. And no one is kept better than someone in prison.

When Sir Robert Peel formed the London Metropolitan Police Service in 1829, crime was a political problem outlined by morality based in religion. Today, criminology resonates within sociology. A hundred years ago, Marxists criticized Max Weber in particular and sociology in general for being concerned only with church, family, and state. Today, those critical sociologists and critical criminologists control the content of most university programs: racism and sexism are caused by capitalism; end of story.

Even libertarians and objectivists who generally do not care what you smoke or with whom you sleep insist on the enforcement of property rights specifically as the punishment of those who violate the rights of others. Within those circles, self-identified “anarcho-capitalists” engage in long arguments with advocates of constitutionally limited government (“minarchy”) attempting to prove that a completely free market in protection and adjudication would still bring justice in the form of punishments to wrong-doers. That should seem peculiar. It is self-contradictory to claim that you are completely responsible for your own life, but someone else must be punished for your losses.  A completely consistent criminology based on individualism is centered on victimology: understanding your risks in society and taking preventive and preparatory actions to avoid losses.

Altruism has a range of definitions. Objectivists and libertarians cite the inventor of the word, Auguste Comte, and take him literally. Comte was a political Platonist who advocated for a secular civic priesthood to rule a common humanity that was united in complete concern for others – and no concern for self. Comte was explicit. Later philosophers softened this. After all, Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Self must come first before benevolence can be extended to others. Today, altruism is mere politeness and civility, common grace, and simple decency. That seems harmless enough.

But what happens when that fails?

I am a fan of public transportation and ride one or more buses to work or play most days. “Pardon me”, “excuse me”, and “sorry” are important acknowledgements of small harms. Criminal justice is based on the expectation of larger and more complicated apologies for harms of greater consequence.

We generally understand others as extensions, projections, reflections, or reiterations of ourselves. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” assumes that others share your values. More deeply, it assumes that others think as you do – even that they think at all. Our propensity for copying the behaviors of others runs far deeper than “monkey see, monkey do.” In point of fact, researchers found that given a puzzle and a ritual, and later shown the short-cut, chimpanzees abandon useless actions, while humans repeat them for no apparent reason. Thus, everyone seems to be able to learn how to drive a car (or ride a bus), use a computer or a cell phone, and learn a foreign language. So, when you are harmed by someone else, you assume that (like you) they had no intent of harm; and having committed a transgression they are remorseful: they cannot be content until they have rebalanced themselves with some propitiation.


And if that other person has no such inner needs, where do we find the motivation (“political right”) to redirect that person’s body, mind, and soul?

Why do we feel differently about losses caused by other people than we do about losses caused by storms?  If we protect ourselves from nature, why do we not also protect ourselves from human nature?

Design of a "speed bump" (USA) or "sleeping policeman" (UK)

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