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The Butterfield Fallacy

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James Taranto, who writes the snarky Best of the Web feature at WSJ, has long had fun ridiculing NYT reporter Fox Butterfield.  Butterfield was repeatedly puzzled about prison populations going up when crime was going down, apparently incapable of grasping that crime might be going down because more bad guys were being locked up.  Today's BOTW is quoted after the jump.
"Who's Fox Butterfield?" is one of this column's most frequently asked questions. Answer: Butterfield was a reporter for the New York Times--he seems to have retired in 2005--whose crime stories served as the archetype for his eponymous fallacy.

"It has become a comforting story: for five straight years, crime has been falling, led by a drop in murder," Butterfield wrote in 1997. "So why is the number of inmates in prisons and jails around the nation still going up?" He repeated the trope in 2003: "The nation's prison population grew 2.6 percent last year, the largest increase since 1999, according to a study by the Justice Department. The jump came despite a small decline in serious crime in 2002." And in 2004: "The number of inmates in state and federal prisons rose 2.1 percent last year, even as violent crime and property crime fell, according to a study by the Justice Department released yesterday."

In that last story, Butterfield made reference to "the paradox of a falling crime rate but a rising prison population." The Butterfield Fallacy consists in misidentifying as a paradox what is in fact a simple cause-and-effect relationship: "Of course, the huge increase in the number of inmates has helped lower the crime rate by incapacitating more criminals behind bars." That quote is from Butterfield's own 1997 story, but it is a to-be-sure throwaway line, which he seems to have completely forgotten by 2004.

The Butterfield Fallacy is rooted in ideological prejudice. The typical New York Times reporter does not like the idea of sending people to prison, because, among other reasons cited in Butterfield's reports on the subject, they think it is racially discriminatory (in 2004, "almost 10 percent of all American black men ages 25 to 29 were in prison"), and it diverts tax money away from what they think should be higher priorities (in 1997, "already, California and Florida spend more to incarcerate people than to educate their college-age populations").

These may be reasonable arguments for treating criminal offenders more leniently, but a nonideological approach to the question would balance these costs against the benefit of reducing crime by removing criminals from society and deterring those who would commit crimes. Butterfield became a subject of mockery because he was incapable even of comprehending the benefit.

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