Commentary

Wilson: Another explanation for resurgent crime rate

CorrespondentMay 16, 2014 

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“We’ve just got to find a way to do better,” said Mayor Bill Bell, responding to Police Chief Jose Lopez’ report that first-quarter violent crime in Durham was up 36 percent over the same period in 2013.

No doubt both men want to find a way to do better. But what is that better way?

Pessimists would say there isn’t one, that we have no more arrows in our crime-fighting quiver.

That’s a depressing thought when violent crime jumped 36 percent over first-quarter 2013.

But as Lopez said, crime isn’t linear. It goes up and down like Galileo’s thermometer, and the reason is often just a matter of speculation. Clearly, hard times boost the number of robberies and property crimes, yet what accounts for the high rate of such offenses even when the economy is running on eight cylinders?

Well, you might say it’s all in the head.

English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the 18th-century jurist and social reformer who espoused utilitarianism, was the first deep thinker to realize that criminals don’t act willy-nilly. That’s as true in today’s Durham as it was in the London of Bentham’s time.

Bentham regarded criminals not as dim-witted sluggards but as rational actors who take into account risks and benefits. Thus, increasing the risk of failure and evenly applying its harsh consequences –up to hanging in Bentham’s time for theft – should be a deterrent.

Bentham’s argument won few hearts and minds, and it wasn’t until the late 20th century that his thinking caught second wind in the work of University of Chicago economist Gary Becker.

Becker, who died earlier this month, was one of the post-World War II giants of economic thought. He became interested in the rational theory of criminality after computing the risk-benefit ratio of having to park illegally one day to get to work. (Luckily for Becker, he wasn’t parking in Chapel Hill.)

In 1968, Becker published a seminal paper on crime, laying out in detail the economic rationality of criminality. He argued against conventional wisdom, which held that crime has its roots in poverty, oppression and related social maladies.

Unlike Bentham, however, Becker was a realist. Bentham harbored a utopian vision of society without crime; Becker knew that was impossible.

Becker reasoned, however, that the risk-benefit ratio of criminality could be shifted toward society’s favor by treating all but the most heinous crimes as civil infractions. He would impose fines that rise with the level of offense, thinking it better to make a criminal pay instead of dunning the taxpayers to support the miscreant in prison.

We can’t summarily dismiss Becker’s theory as hogwash, because it hasn’t been tried. You can’t get blood out of a turnip nor money out of most criminals. So we still have a costly criminal justice system and likely will far into the future.

Nonetheless, Becker’s work reveals the hidden dimension of crime in Durham and elsewhere. As long as criminals figure they have a reasonable chance of evading the consequences of their actions, they will ply their trade.

So when Mayor Bell says we have to find a better way, there is one with its roots in, of all places, philosophy and economics.

As for making the rational theory of criminality work for us instead of against us, I leave that to the pros while I compute the risk-benefit ratio of doing 75 mph on a trip to Charlotte.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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