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Crime and Culture

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Every now and again, some of our commenters have admonished me for wandering away from the central focus of this blog to talk more about cultural and political issues  --  for example, the sprawling welfare state and the assumptions about human nature that give rise to it.  We have some exceptionally astute readers, and I respect and welcome their perspective.  I remain convinced, however, that an understanding of culture and politics beyond the items that directly show up on the police blotter is essential to any long-range strategy for reducing crime.

Today I find support for this view in this Wall Street Journal piece about the brilliant James Q. Wilson.  Prof. Wilson asks an important question sometimes overlooked in day-to-day stories about criminal law:  What is the real reason for the now years-long drop in crime?  As the article notes:

It's now clear that a long and mysterious decline in America's serious crime rate began just about the time [a 1982 Atlantic article by Wilson] appeared. Like a true conservative, though, Mr. Wilson doubts government policies, including his own contributions, were all that important. Better policing and greater use of prison may have played a role, but he is convinced the major factor lies elsewhere. He believes "cultural change" was the important variable, albeit in a fashion he's still puzzling over.

Among the changes Prof. Wilson mentions are a "religious awakening" and a reaction against drug abuse as its dangers became better known.  My favorite, though, is this:

"[In the 1960's] there was cultural change as well as a numerical change [in the population of young males], and what caused the culture change? Whatever it was, it was powerful. I think it's best summarized by saying people abandoned the idea that self-control was the standard by which life should be led. That's my rough summary of what the '60s meant...I'm willing to guess that's less common today."

Just so, in my view anyway.  In the sixties, it was all about self-expression (you know, "do your own thing").  In recent times, I have the same sense Prof. Wilson does, that there has been a re-discovery of the virtues of self-control.  Liberals think "self-control" is code for leading a stifled, repressed, conformist life.  I think it's the key to leading free, peaceable and responsible one.  It's also the key to reducing crime, which is why I'll continue to talk about it, whatever its manifestations.  


1 Comment

I agree strongly with Bill that an understanding of culture and subculture is critical as the pendulum is swinging toward more interest in rehabilitation from both sides of the crime debate.

A lack of self-control-and the concomitant inability to delay gratification- is the foremost criminogenic personality trait of criminals.

It explains why youths drop out of school, are unable to commit to a rigorous job-training program, and why the immediate gratification that comes with a life of crime is so appealing.

It also portends that those who would have you believe that a reduction in recidivism is as simple as matching offenders with entry-level job opportunities are in for the same awakening that I had as a young probation officer in the mid 70's.

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