Make Crime Pay

Crime is rational, not random

Mr. Kopel is the research director & Linda Gorman is a senior fellow at the Independence Institute

National Review Online, February 28, 2001 9:55 a.m.

What are the two most ridiculous words in modern political lingo? "Random violence." Calling violence "random" implies that crime is just a "random" event, like hail or falling rocks. During the Los Angeles riots, truck driver Reginald Denny, by this theory, just had the misfortune to happen into some random violence emitting from sociologically deprived victims — just as if he had taken a wrong turn into a sandstorm.

The theory that violence, like hail and sandstorms, is the result of environmental conditions is popular among those who believe the standard sociological hypothesis that people who commit crimes are sick or somehow socially deformed as a result of our maladjusted society. We are told that unless we radically change the social order and spend billions on rehabilitating these "sick" people, we will continue to suffer the "public-health" epidemic of "random violence." While this theory is widely believed, it is wrong.

Several years ago, economists Gordon Tullock and Richard B. McKenzie mounted a search for statistically sound studies to support the "sick criminal" hypothesis. They found none. Instead, they found a great deal of support for the hypothesis that most criminals are rational individuals bent on breaking the law in search of profits. Or, as one specialist in armed robbery told the Washington Post, "I want to go to barber school, but I know there's not that kind of money in barbering."

The "public-health" nostrums suggested by the "sick criminal" theory are at odds with the solutions offered up by the "rational criminal" school. "Sick criminal" theorists teach that punishment does not deter crime. Just as we send people with pneumonia to hospitals instead of prison, we should, according to this voguish theory, shepherd "sick" criminals off to halfway houses and other rehabilitative institutions.

The "sick criminal" theorists insist that we must seal the criminal records of young thugs to protect their fragile self-esteem. While the theorists can "understand" and forgive the "sick" people who commit violent crime, they demand zealous prosecution of law-abiding citizens who would even consider using guns to protect their property.

In contrast, folks who believe in the rational criminal theory argue that crime will be reduced when it doesn't pay. They believe that individual citizens interested in protecting their lives and property form society's first line of defense against criminals. Buying door locks and firearms thus raises the costs of stealing by increasing the number and potency of obstacles with which the criminal must contend. As John Lott demonstrates in More Guns, Less Crime, when more citizens carry guns for lawful protection, rates of violent crime fall. So, if the personal costs of a life of crime climb high enough, it stands to reason that some criminals will be on the lookout for other lines of work.

Conversely, laws inhibiting individual action against malefactors reduce the costs of lawlessness. When landlords cannot evict unsavory tenants, when property owners cannot oust suspicious trespassers, and when teachers cannot eject rowdy students from class, crime rates will increase. And as Lott details in a new research paper, when state laws force guns to be locked up, crime rises.

If the risks of crime fall, then crime increases. And vice-versa. It's that simple. There's no need to send all those "sick" people out there who are perpetrating rapes and robberies to a psychiatrist's couch. Increase the odds that they'll go to prison or get shot, and they'll cure themselves.

In one study of major felonies, the rate of robberies decreased by about 1.3 per cent in response to each 1 percent increase in the probability of punishment. In a study of crime rates in England, the fall in imprisonment rates between 1954-1967 was found to have contributed to a 44 percent increase in aggregate crime. These studies also explain why overly harsh mandatory sentences often have no deterrence effect. Life in prison means little if would-be criminals believe that their chances of conviction are slim.

Our legislators, although they often posture about being tough on crime, too often miss the point of "rational criminal" theory. Example: Because so much prison space has been squandered on lengthy mandatory minimums for drug offenders, burglars rarely go to prison. Then legislators wonder why burglary is increasing.

Meanwhile, politicians like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Gov. Parris Glendening of Maryland attack the very principle of self-defense — while enjoying the protection of well-armed government bodyguards. They display little patience for the theory that people who live in rough neighborhoods should have just as much right as politicians to defend their lives. But making it harder for law-abiding citizens to possess and carry guns only means that rational criminals will face a smaller risk of armed resistance. Chances are the politicians will then blame the NRA for the surge in "random violence."

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