Scott Sumner  

War on crime? Or war on the poor?

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Intellectuals on the far left will sometimes argue that the entire criminal justice system is engaged in a vast right wing conspiracy to repress the poor. I'm not quite that paranoid; violent crime is a serious issue, for which we need police, courts, prisons, etc. But people on the right sometimes overlook that there is a grain of truth in that complaint.

Consider the traditional approach to the so-called "victimless crimes" like drugs and prostitution. Economists tends to see market transactions as symmetrical. There is a buyer and a seller. It takes two to engage in an illegal transactions. But the criminal justice system sees the prostitute who sells her services as being much more of a criminal than purchasers like Eliot Spitzer. (BTW, does society actually care about male prostitutes?) Society sees the guy who sells illegal drugs as being more evil than a purchaser like Rush Limbaugh. I wonder if this is partly due to the fact that suppliers of illegal goods and services tend to come from the lower classes, as they have less to lose (in foregone income.)

Of course you might argue that the asymmetry is there for some other reason, such as the fact that buyers of drugs are addicts, and hence helpless victims. I actually doubt that the typical drug buyer is any more addicted to drugs than the typical drug dealer is addicted to money, and the "bling" (and drugs) that it buys. But let's say I'm wrong about drugs. Are buyers of the services of prostitutes addicted to prostitution?

And here's another problem with attributing the asymmetry in the drug laws to the moral difference between the greed of a seller and the pathetic addiction of a buyer. If that was the reason for the asymmetry, then we'd punish uses of addictive drugs like heroin less harshly than we punish users of less addictive drugs like pot. But of course the opposite is true. On the other hand, we do tend to punish drugs traditionally used by the poor (heroin, crack cocaine) much more severely than we punish users of drugs used by the middle class and rich (regular cocaine, pot, fine wines, etc..)

Now of course you could probably come up with some justification for even the preceding asymmetry. Maybe there is some reason we should punish heroin use more harshly. But if you are a right winger who doesn't think this is a war on the poor, then what would you predict would happen if heroin use suddenly became more popular among the non-poor. I don't think you'd predict this:

Now that heroin addiction is no longer a disease only of the urban poor, however, attitudes are changing. The Obama administration's latest national drug strategy, published in July, criticised "the misconception that a substance-use disorder is a personal moral failing rather than a brain disease". It called for greater access to naloxone, an antidote that can reverse the effects of heroin overdose, and backed state-level "good Samaritan" laws, which give immunity to people who call 911 to help someone who is overdosing. Needle-exchange services, which have cut rates of hepatitis and HIV among drug users in Europe, are expanding. These programmes are easier for politicians to sell now that heroin addiction is no longer just the "bum under the bridge".
Yes, it's a "disease." Middle class people should go the the Betty Ford clinic, not, heaven forbid, to prison.

Overall, I'm a moderate on crime. I favor legalizing victimless crimes like drugs, gambling and prostitution, but think we still do need prisons for violent criminals, and non-violent people who do too much harm to be deterred by monetary fines. Thus we need both lots of people in prison, and a lot fewer than we currently have.

What interests me more is the attitude of the left and the right. I suppose GOP politicians don't see any gain in being nicer to the underclass (despite their phony "freedom" and "small government" claims.). The Democrats are a tougher case to figure out. There is a lot of outrage by liberals over recent cases of policy brutality, but not over the far vaster abuses of the entire criminal justice system. About 400,000 people in prison for drug "crimes." You could concoct some cynical reason for that, but isn't that asymmetry also true within the African-American community? That makes me wonder whether this is not just a conspiracy, as intellectuals on the far left often claim, but rather a sort of cognitive illusion that affects (infects?) our entire society.

Lots of blacks vote against drug legalization. Popular Hollywood movies treat drug dealers as the lowest scum on earth. But without drug dealers how would the Hollywood elite get the drugs they consume at fashionable parties? With cognitive illusions this deep we face a long uphill struggle. But don't give up, the recent gains in pot legalization are far greater than anyone would have dreamed of even 20 years ago. (Unfortunately, I fear the gains are mostly due to the fact than many middle class people use pot, especially when they are young.)

And consider other activities increasingly associated (in the popular mind) with the poor---smoking cigarettes, obesity/junk food, spanking children with a stick, domestic abuse, divorce, lax study habits at school, littering, watching violent activities like boxing and professional wrestling, single motherhood. I've purposely included items that I disapprove of, with those I'm more laissez-faire about. Those activities have become less common among the affluent in recent decades (although single motherhood was never very common among the affluent.). Notice how our concept of "right and wrong" is strongly linked to "the way we educated upper middle class people live now."

Or go back further in history. The character of today's urban poor is similar to the character of our founding fathers. They both have a reputation for fighting "duels" to avenge insults to their reputation. What's happened to the way we think of dueling, now that it's done only by "the other," not by "us"? Today we fight "duels" in the blogosphere, but only wielding a pen. (If I was blogging in 1804, I'd need to have been a good marksman!)

PS. If you haven't done so, check out David Henderson's excellent piece on police brutality, and also Adam Ozimek's great post.


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CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime




COMMENTS (22 to date)
Jeff writes:

Perhaps both sides implicitly believe (or maybe they just can't or won't say it publicly) that lower class people are prone to more dangerous and self-destructive activities like the one's you mentioned (smoking, eating junk food, domestic violence, etc), and that dealing with their various social pathologies requires a harsher and more paternalistic approach than those afflicting middle class people. That would be my guess, anyway.

Robin Hanson writes:

I completely agree - we tend to think take upper class behavior as the model, and lower class behavior that deviates is seen as problematic, to be solved via policy.

Massimo writes:

Preaching to the choir. I bet that 95%+ of this crowd already agrees with this mindset, although Sumner articulates it more clearly.

Steve Waldman writes:

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Scott Sumner writes:

Jeff, I agree.

Robin, Yes, you've done a lot of great writing on this themes. I'd guess everything here is in one of your earlier posts.

Thanks Massimo.

Vipul Naik writes:

In Sweden, buying sexual services is legal but selling them is not. Is Sweden the exception that proves the rule?

Vipul Naik writes:

Oops:

> In Sweden, buying sexual services is legal but selling them is not. Is Sweden the exception that proves the rule?

I should have written "illegal" instead of "legal"

Tom West writes:

I completely agree - we tend to think take upper class behavior as the model, and lower class behavior that deviates is seen as problematic, to be solved via policy.

Except when upper class behaviour deviates from the model, in which case it's youthful hijinks.

Nick writes:

'What interests me more is the attitude of the left and the right. I suppose GOP politicians don't see any gain in being nicer to the underclass (despite their phony "freedom" and "small government" claims.). The Democrats are a tougher case to figure out.'

Here's my two cents: In America, you might as well define the 'underclass' as 'people who it is difficult to turn out to vote'. If you start there, indifference on both sides of the aisle is expected to be the norm. Given that Dems are currently struggling most in off cycle elections, this group is not currently an attractive target.

Glenn writes:

"But the criminal justice system sees the prostitute who sells her services as being much more of a criminal than purchasers like Eliot Spitzer."

I am not at all sure that this is true. Can you provide supporting data? All else equal, it is generally easier to catch the prostitutes than the "johns", and prove the elements of the crime. This is not a motivational bias, but rather an institutional one, and in practice courts are extremely lenient towards the lowest tier of prostitute. You'll typically only see criminal prosecution of high-value targets, like pimps and madames, on the premise that they are morally exploitative and most culpable (the boss bears a greater responsibility for the conduct of his organization than the doorman).

In my own state, a voluntary diversion program has been set up for arrested prostitutes, for example. They are given the option of going to a women's house in lieu of citation. Even those that opt for citation are seldom prosecuted criminally, afaik.

" Maybe there is some reason we should punish heroin use more harshly."

Of course we should. Yes, all else equal, the heroin user is "more addicted" and therefore perhaps more deserving of our institutional sympathy than the pot user. This is why their are publicly-provided treatment and diversion programs for heroin users, but not marijuana abusers (typically).

However, all else is not equal. Heroin addicts tend to exhibit more violent and destructive behaviors. Their arrest for heroin abuse is often incidental to their contact with police (the call originated due to harassment, property crime, and even violent crime). Society has an interest in preventing this behavior, and believes in some proportion the heroin dependence is causal. Therefore, we aggressively punish the behavior to dissuade it.

None of this is irrational. None of this would be solved by legalization.

The liberal claim that the prisons are full of non-violent drug users is almost certainly incorrect. You do not go to prison for smoking pot or even shooting heroin. In fact, it's relatively hard to end up in jail for such offenses (less so for heroin and the like). However, by the time you've worked your way through the system and been plead down, you may APPEAR EX-POST to have done so. Ex-ante, we would find contact with the police was probably initiated due to something else - like suspicion of property or violent crime. The heroin posession/abuse is the easier offense to prove and lesser offense charged, and therefore most likely to be the offense to which you plea.

nl7 writes:

Agreed, it's not a conspiracy so much as a widely held prejudice combined with some serious policy momentum.

But if I told you a hypothetical society was waging a secret war on poor people, it wouldn't necessarily look much different than what we have today (take out transfer and assistance programs and it would no longer appear to be a 'secret' war on the poor). So maybe it doesn't matter that there's no active ring of conspirators meeting around an evil conference table.

Sure, there are lots of efforts and programs targeted to helping the poor and those with lower incomes. But there are also endless efforts to proscribe, criminalize or restrict the activities of the poor. Efforts to restrict EBT purchases from cosmetics, cigarettes, or birthday cakes and efforts to restrict fast food and convenience stores are about controlling the behavior of poor people.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I think Scott has the causation backwards. As cigarettes, beating children, duels, etc. became less respectable, the middle class scurried away from being associated with those behaviors.

So it isn't that these behaviors become less respectable when only the lower classes participate in them, it is that only the lower classes participate in them after they've become disreputable.

Nick writes:

Glenn,
The situation is even more ambiguous for dealer / addict than prostitue / John. Activists often attempt to convince local law enforcement to focus more or less on dealers. Obviously this has some effect, but unfortunately it's also a bit of a false choice. Practically, the only way for cops to put more dealers in jail is to arrest tons of addicts and use plea bargains to motivate testimony. The legal barriers to establishing the crime through surveillance alone are formidable, and very few cops have the skill to bring in those cases. Undercover work is expensive and dangerous--to the public as well as to the police.

MikeDC writes:

It always seems to me that it's a vast left wing conspiracy against the poor, at least insofar as the GOP has little to no voice or say in it.

Granted, if one is sufficiently far left, everyone else looks right wing, but generally speaking the entirety of the issue seems to be a core of the Democratic party. To wit:

1. Consider the places where poverty and crime are greatest; Big cities. Cities entirely under Democratic political control.

2. Likewise, consider the three primary policy levers we have against crime and policy. Education, policing, and public health and welfare. All of these are union controlled and generally overwhelmingly Democratic.

This is, of course, further evidence of cognitive illusion. Without doubting motives, we see that both wealthier and poorer Democrats keep throwing money at non-solutions.

However, I think it's also possible to question motives because these groups often have conflicting interests. Just like a priest isn't going to advocate a solution to good behavior that doesn't involve more religion, the teacher's union isn't going to advocate a solution that doesn't involved more teacher's union.

In short, there are obvious conflicts between good intentions and self interest.

hanmeng writes:

Law enforcement is likelier to get more funding the bigger the crime problem is, so why would they support the decriminalization of drugs or prostitution (or anything else)? Less crime means less money for crime fighters, right?

Scott Sumner writes:

Vipul, Yes, I've made the same observation--Sweden is much more utilitarian than the US.

Glenn, Many of the problems faced by prostitutes occur precisely because they are forced to live in the underground economy, where they are much more easily exploited.

Yes, a certain fraction of the 400,000 drug users in prison are also guilty of violent crime, but many are not---which is a huge scandal. Drugs are expensive precisely because they are illegal, which of course adds to property crime. Then there is the violent crime caused by the fighting over the right to distribute drugs in a specific territory. The murder rate in America plunged dramatically lower immediately after alcohol was legalized in 1933.

If heroin users become violent they should of course be prosecuted. And I do understand that even if drugs were legalized that there would be many drug users in prison, as drugs can mess up a person's life. But then punish them for the crime, not the drug use.

nl7, You said:

"But if I told you a hypothetical society was waging a secret war on poor people, it wouldn't necessarily look much different than what we have today (take out transfer and assistance programs and it would no longer appear to be a 'secret' war on the poor). So maybe it doesn't matter that there's no active ring of conspirators meeting around an evil conference table."

Agreed.

hanmeng, Yes. The crime/industrial complex is a big problem for the same reason that the military/industrial complex is a problem. When a lot of money is at stake, special interest groups are quite powerful.

Glenn writes:

I don't disagree with much of what you've said, in principle. I just think the reality is far murkier than you allow. You want to suggest that there is no rational reason to prosecute so-called "victimless" crimes; I think reasonable people can plainly disagree on the value of such prosecutions, and that the correct answer is a public-good provision problem. The social ideal is grey, and maybe not that far from where we are: some vices are legalized, others are criminal but enforcement is lax, while still others are policed aggressively. The constituency of each bin may shift over time (reflecting changing social standard and popular attitudes), but I doubt you'll see significant divergence from this model in either direction. E.g., while marijuana has been moving towards the legalization category over the past decade, a number of new substances (designer and natural) have been added to the "aggressively policed" bin.

I think we would both agree that the drug war is extremely costly to society, by any measure. Given that, how do you explain broad social willingness - not just in the contemporary West but across states, cultures, and times - to pay this cost? We would also both agree that the drug war has had, at best, limited effectiveness. But I contend this undercuts your argument for legalization - it suggests (rational) people, despite knowing the weakness and cost of the mechanism, are still willing to persist in employing that mechanism. How much more strongly, then, must they value prohibition relative to legalization?

Drug use has tremendous, external social costs. Contrary to the assertions of some legalization advocates, these costs are not conditional on prohibition (see alcohol). The socially optimum solution requires trading off the costs of prohibition against the costs of legalization, unless we want to argue that there is some "fundamental right" to abuse substances, as with expression - this latter approach is philosophical, though, and not particularly interesting (not saying it's wrong).

In general, there are very good arguments on both sides, and perhaps greater evidence that we over extended in the direction of too much enforcement over too little by the beginning of the 21st century. But you are already seeing social push back in the other direction. I also tend to think the problem is much more pronounced at the federal level - and extends beyond vice control into many fields of the law, like environmental and financial regulation - than the state, and that it is far less responsive to changing social attitudes at this level and therefore perhaps more concerning.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Glenn

Contrary to the assertions of some legalization advocates, these costs are not conditional on prohibition (see alcohol).

But the costs of alcohol were way higher under Prohibition.

It is not a matter of costs v no-costs. It is (much) higher social costs v lower social costs.

Shoving a whole series of transactions outside the ambit of state mediation, property protection and tort coverage makes things much worse.

Effects which are magnified in areas with weaker states (Mexico, Colombia, etc) where so it is much easier for gangs to act as predatory competitors with the state.

Floccina writes:
but think we still do need prisons for violent criminals, and non-violent people who do too much harm to be deterred by monetary fines.

How about bodily fines:

Suggest adding the whipping post to America’s system of criminal justice and most people recoil in horror. But offer a choice between five years in prison or 10 lashes and almost everybody picks the lash. What does that say about prison? … Never in the history of the world has a country locked up so many of its people. … Not even the most progressive reformer has a plan to reduce the prison population by 85 percent. I do: Bring back the lash. Give convicts the choice of flogging in lieu of incarceration.

The paragraph below is great:

And consider other activities increasingly associated (in the popular mind) with the poor---smoking cigarettes, obesity/junk food, spanking children with a stick, domestic abuse, divorce, lax study habits at school, littering, watching violent activities like boxing and professional wrestling, single motherhood.

I think that neither the left or right like the poor. They both want to change them into middle-class people the left by getting them into school earlier and spending lavishly on their schooling all to change the values of the poor. The right tries to change them by punishing them for bad behavior. Me, I have learned to live with people being varied even by class.

BTW I think that not only whites but blacks also have some anti-black racism. It always seems odd to me that a black person will say this was my way to get out of ghetto. But black culture is great in some ways.

Floccina writes:

And we did not even discuss slow growth policies which can be used to drive poor people out of an area. Laws against mobile homes and dividing land etc. We cannot all have no new housing built in our towns without some people having no place to live.

blacktrance writes:

I agree with the general idea of the post, but "The character of today's urban poor is similar to the character of our founding fathers" is a strange claim. Yes, the modern poor and the Revolutionary Era upper class are more violent and cared more about honor than modern middle-class people. But in other respects, I'd expect the Founding Fathers to have more in common with the modern middle class than with the modern poor.

RobF writes:

I am completely sympathetic to the ideas expressed in this post about the ways in which the intensity of pain doled out by our criminal justice system is inversely correlated with the socio-economic status of the perpetrator. To the list of examples sketched out by Scott, I would add tax law, corporate law, and environmental regulation. It's funny (not really) how rock-jawed law-and-order types can suddenly develop an exquisite sensitivity to the manifold failings of statutory justice whenever the conversation shifts from poor-person crimes like cannabis distribution to rich-person crimes like corporate fraud or tax evasion. Still, I can think of at least one semi-legitimate explanation for the asymmetry between the ways we punish the supply-side rather than the demand-side of banned transactions: ease of enforcement.

There are typically many, many fewer producers of a good or service than there are consumers of same. It's easier to stomp on Al Capone than to stomp on the thousands of consumers at the periphery of his distribution network. I'm not saying that supply-side enforcement is ultimately effective, but the temptation on simple logistical considerations seems obvious.

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