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The Real Way to Reduce Crime and Incarceration

The battle over criminal justice "reform" can be seen as a struggle between two forces: Some, in the name of increased safety and the better lives and opportunities safety creates, prefer crime suppression as the touchstone of progress. Others see incarceration itself as the problem,  certainly at its present levels. They think that, in a country dedicated to freedom, less incarceration is in order even if it means a degree of increased crime.  (Those claiming we can significantly reduce incarceration without increasing crime simply are not serious.  Fifty years of nationwide data show this proposition is false).

Who has the better of the argument?  I'm in the first camp, for reasons I've elaborated in dozens of posts.

But the debate over criminal justice reform elides a crucial point.  How much crime and incarceration we get depends less on the laws we adopt  --  tough or easy  -- than on the culture we create.  In the 1950's, we had an admirable degree of safety (roughly comparable to what we have now) with a prison population vastly smaller.

This did not happen by magic.  It happened because of what is derisively called "bourgeois" culture.  Astonishingly, and with great courage, two professors, Amy Wax of Penn and Larry Alexander of San Diego, have described what we can achieve when we embrace standards and reject excuse-making.
Paul Mirengoff at PowerLine has the story, which I repeat here in full, so exceptional is its importance:


We have written about the war on standards. Most of the time, this war takes the form of attempts to bulldoze standards of conduct and achievement that stand in the way of equal distribution of society's benefits and prizes....

Usually the standards are specific, as are the potential consequences of falling short. A certain test score must be attained to qualify for a job. A criminal law, if disobeyed, can result in a prison sentence. A rule for students, if violated, can result in suspension.

The war on these standards consists of demanding that the standard be changed. The cut-off score for passing the test must be lowered or, better yet, the test eliminated entirely. The criminal law must be taken off the books or the sentence for violation be reduced. Rules for student conduct must be softened and alternatives to suspension used to enforce them.

But there are some standards that are unwritten and cultural. No specific penalty attaches to refusal to adhere to them; nor, in most cases, does society demand adherence. No one imposes the standards in any formal way. But those who do not adhere are far more likely to encounter difficulties than those who do, and society will suffer if lack of adherence becomes widespread.

There is no cure. A test or a criminal law can be eliminated. If that happens, it becomes a dead letter. But failure to do what is good for you and/or society will tend to be bad for you and/or society, even if the standard falls out of fashion.

Here is a good a statement of the standards (or norms) I have in mind. It comes from professors Amy Wax (University of Pennsylvania) and Larry Alexander (University of San Diego):

Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

This statement appears in an op-ed praising what professors Wax and Alexander call America's 1950s "bourgeois culture." They were careful to stipulate, as any fair observer would, that there was "racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism" in that culture. However, they insisted that the modern "loss of bourgeois habits seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups."

They wrote:

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy.

The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the 'anti-acting white' rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.

These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script -- which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach -- cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.

Sadly, these are fighting words nowadays -- literally, at times. Fortunately, the professors have not been attacked physically, at least not yet. However, Rachel Frommer of the Washington Free Beacon reports that the two have been condemned by a coalition of University of Pennsylvania students, alumni, and, faculty as bigots engaging in "racist and white supremacist discourse."

In a letter to the school newspaper, the coalition claimed that the professors are "complicit in" and guilty of "normalizing" white supremacy through their op-ed. Drawing on the familiar mindless jargon of the contemporary left, the coalition members insist that the culture Wax and Alexander described, "if understood within [its] sociocultural context, stem[s] from the very same malignant logic of hetero-patriarchal, class-based, white supremacy that plagues our country today."

They added: "These cultural values and logics are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability, i.e. two-hetero-parent homes, divorce is a vice, and the denouncement of all groups perceived as not acting white enough i.e. black Americans, Latino communities, and immigrants in particular."

Naturally, they also called on the University of Pennsylvania administration to investigate "Wax's advocacy for white supremacy."

Here we see a common thread between the usual war on standards -- e.g., tests and laws -- and the war being waged against professors Wax and Alexander for advocating bourgeois values. If blacks aren't as successful as whites on a test or as compliant as whites with a law, the law or test must be modified or give way. If blacks aren't as successful as whites in avoiding a particular social pathology, then the social pathology must be deemed non-pathological -- indeed, non-harmful -- and those who don't go along with the charade must be investigated for advocating white supremacy.

We also see this difference. The law specifically disclaims the notion that using a selection device that disproportionately excludes blacks constitutes intentional discrimination, let alone "white supremacy." The mob that wants to run Professor Wax out of Penn for advocating cultural norms she says helped strengthen America shows no such intelligence or restraint.

Wax isn't backing down, though. This was her response:

What the objections boil down to is that the bourgeois virtues are somehow racist, or somehow cause racism--contentions that I and my co-author expressly contest, of course. But if, indeed, bourgeois values are so racist, the progressive critics should be out there in the street demonstrating against them, stripping them from their own lives, and forbidding their children to practice them.

They should be chanting, 'No more work, more crime, more out of wedlock babies, forget thrift, let's get high!' ... Of course, there's little chance we're going to see anything like that, which shows the hollowness, indeed the silliness, of the critiques. [Emphasis added by WGO]

Wax is no white supremacist. She may be an optimist.

Alexander said this:

The charges of racism, white supremacy, etc. are, sadly, the predictable responses of those who can't refute the claims we made. And those charges are laughable, given that I was a civil rights marcher and have a multi-racial family.

But, of course, when you don't have the facts on your side, you resort to calling names. Pathetic!

Alexander reports that he has not received any backlash from his campus community. Not yet, anyway.


The same liberals and libertarians lamenting high incarceration are responsible for it.

They believe that morality (e.g. God) is an outdated and subjective construct, so simple right and wrong becomes more complex. When morality is removed from the equation, the vacuum must be filled by something. That something is government in the form of legislation, social programs, etc.

Instead of objective facts like the traditional nuclear family being more successful for everyone involved, we have to pretend that mommy/mommy families or mommy/no daddy families are not inferior, just "different." Thus, the government takes the daddy role as disciplinarian and provider.

Our country will continue to degenerate as long as the concepts that built it-melting pot, middle-class or bourgeois values-continue to be undermined by the progressive elite.

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