Bryan Caplan  

Crime Statistics and The Village

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[Warning: Spoilers for a 2004 movie].

At the end of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, we discover a bizarre conspiracy: In the 1970s, a group of people whose loved ones were murdered move to the middle of nowhere in order to recreate a simpler, safer time.  Under the guidance of a history professor/billionaire, they pretend they're in the 19th-century, and raise a new generation with the Big Lie that they are in the 19th-century.

The irony is that the historian's history was way off.  Here's Alex Tabarrok on U.S. homicide since 1650.  Murder rates used to be much higher than they are today.  Take a look: The 1870s actually look worse than the 1970s:
crime.jpg
The lesson: As usual, the good old days ain't what they used to be, and never was.  In long-term perspective, the "huge crime spike" after the 1950s was merely a blip in the march of progress.  Take a close look at the graph.  Despite near-linear progress, myopic newspaper readers could have easily convinced themselves for decades at a time that progress was zero or negative.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
ziel writes:

Well it's more than a "blip" - it's at best a bottoming out. While the murder rate has come down a lot from it's early 90's high, it also doesn't seem to be resolutely heading back down the same slope it was on in the 50's, which would have had us near zero by now. Instead, we seem to be bottoming out at around 5 per 100k.

Bob Murphy writes:

I am generally OK with the spirit of this post, but this conclusion seems too much:

Despite near-linear progress, myopic newspaper readers could easily convinced themselves that progress was zero or negative for decades at a time.

But progress *was* zero or negative for decades at a time! That's why it would be easy to convince oneself of that.

Patrick writes:

That last blip was two generations long. Temporary does not mean inconsequential. The ice ages were temporary, too.

Jeremy H. writes:

Possibly irrelevant: the increase in murder rates in the mid-20th Century coincided with a drop in immigration. The murder rate then dropped when immigration picked up again.

Joe writes:

Yes, but the question is what explains the spikes and the drops??? There are 6 or 7 spikes and the same number of drops? Do scholars know what caused each one of those?

Megan McArdle also noted that rape is something like down by 80% since 20 years ago. But why???

fralupo writes:

From the chart it seems that the 1990's saw the highest homicide rate of the entire 20th century. Without some assurance (or before 1994 or so, any evidence) that the historic secular trend would continue, it would be very reasonable to believe that the trend was for homicide rates to rise.

Heck, without data for the rest of the 21st century we don't know if the current decline in the homicide rate is itself the manifestation of the long-term trend or just an anomaly in future stable or rising rates.

ziel writes:

Jeremy - I think you've got it backwards - the murder rate was on the rise during the early part of the century - coincidental with the great wave of immigration from that period. That crime wave ended just a few years after we closed the borders in 1925. The real pick up in crime happened after the 1965 immigration act.

Related? I agree that overall the two phenomena - mass immigration and crime waves - seem to be orthogonal, but increases in immigration and decreases in crime don't seem to occur at the same time too much in the record.

Alex writes:

And the real decrease in crime beginning in the mid 1990s happened just a few years after the Immigration Act of 1990 increased quotas and illegal immigration started to pick up.

Crime is also low in high immigrant cities like El Paso and very high in low immigrant cities like Buffalo and Detroit.

Richard A. writes:

Young adults have a higher murder rate than do old adults. It would be interesting to see these figures adjusted for age.

Seth writes:

In defense of M. Night, it seems like the (attempted) murder rate in the Village was reverting back to the previous centuries.

JSW writes:

This chart is likely not illustrating rates of violence alone, but rates of violence AND improvements in medical technology. What was a murder a hundred years ago might be a run of the mill stabbing today.

Thomas writes:

A major determinant of crime (not the only one, of course) is age, as suggested by Richard A. The big "blip" between 1960 and 1990 (or thereabouts) correlates well with the percentage of the population in the 15-24 age bracket (according to the decennial census): 1960, 13.4%; 1970, 17.4%; 1980, 18.8%; 1990, 14.8%; 2000, 13.9%; 2009 (in lieu of census stats), 14.0%.

I submit that the graph posted by Bryan reflects the long-term aging trend of the U.S. population. Large deviations from the trend are the result of significant demographic shifts (e.g., proportion of population in 15-24 bracket). I submit, further, that there were and are significant differences in crime rates between densely populated urban areas and smaller cities, towns, and villages (e.g., http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/ascii/usrv98.txt).

A retreat to a village environment makes a lot of sense from the standpoint of crime reduction.

rapscallion writes:

The scale of the graph detracts from what I think is really the most startling fact: the overall homicide rate hasn't changed that much. Over about 300 years it's gone from .035% to .005%. Everyday lifestyle choices like smoking, exercise frequency, owning a swimming pool, etc. probably cause bigger mortality differentials.

Shane writes:

Absolutely, and this is true for war as well as criminal violence. I recommend Lawrence Keeley's excellent "War Before Civilization", which argues that almost all early tribal societies were locked in near-constant war.

This war consisted mostly of small raids, in which perhaps only one or two people were killed. Yet these raids were very regular, and interspersed with occasional massacres. The proportion of populations directly involved in violence, and the proportion killed violently, were incredibly high.

Really the evidence for this is all around us. I am writing from Ireland, which is dotted with ruined forts and castles. Why, if primitive life was harmonious and peaceful, were people building massive fortifications to ward off invaders? It wasn't like Avatar after all!

Shane writes:

(One point to add is that emergency medicine has improved dramatically over time. An injury that would kill someone in the 19th century might leave them alive today. Presumably this would show up as a decline in homicides over time, even if assaults did not decline.)

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