Did lead in petrol cause the great crime wave?

I\’ve read the Mother Jones piece that George bases this piece on.

At first it seemed preposterous. The hypothesis was so exotic that I laughed. The rise and fall of violent crime during the second half of the 20th century and first years of the 21st were caused, it proposed, not by changes in policing or imprisonment, single parenthood, recession, crack cocaine or the legalisation of abortion, but mainly by … lead.

I am convinced: although that should mean nothing to anyone else. I\’m not competent to judge the background studies that it is based upon. But if they do indeed sway what it is said they say then yes, OK, tetraethyl lead did indeed cause the great 20th century crime wave.

But a little bit of advice to the various lefties who are likely to leap upon this as evidence of the perfidy of whatever it is they want to blame. Capitalism, Statism, transport, whatever.

Do note that this entirely obviates your usual claim that crime is caused by poverty or inequality. If you do accept this lead as the cause of crime then you\’ve got to abandon your previous insistence that it\’s all about wealth and tax rates.

It\’ll be interesting to see how many heads explode if this ever sinks in…..

96 comments on “Did lead in petrol cause the great crime wave?

  1. The most widely held theory at present is that the decline in crime is a consequence of the rise in abortions. Specifically, that it was the criminal class that were most likely to be aborted.

    An example can be found in yesterday’s story about Natasha Trevis, the young woman brutally murdered by her illiterate petty criminal boyfriend, when he found out that she had aborted their would-be fourth child.

  2. “The most widely held theory at present is that the decline in crime is a consequence of the rise in abortions”

    I think that turned out to be bollocks, good book though

  3. An intriguing idea, and easier to test than the one about the decline of the Roman Empire.

    You could compare crime rates before and after near main roads, urban / rural, etc.

  4. The economist covered this recently and pointed out that Afghanistan is one of the few places still using lead in petrol.

    As they shift to MTBE will they stop chopping people’s heads off?

  5. Tim, you seem to be saying that things can have only one cause. Which is odd, because you surely take many factors consciously into account in your day-to-day decisions, as well as who knows how many unconsciously.

    In the ideal libertarian state, immune to EU interference, how long would it have taken to get tetraethyl lead banned from fuel?

  6. Smells like rubbish to me. I remember at the time lead was removed we were promised that childrens educational achievement would rise, as lead was making them all stupid. Would anyone suggest that has happened? There are so many different variables in the equation that singling out one is virtually impossible I would suggest.

  7. @Ian Reid,

    But but , kids educational achievements have definitely risen – in fact exam results went up something like 17 years on the trot. At just exactly the right time. In fact they went up so fast that they had to add an additional grade, A* on the top of GCSEs to account for the fact that all the kids were becoming super-whizzes. In a mere few years the proportion of A* grades met and exceeded that of A grades when the GCSE was introduced (which pretty much coincides with the abolition of lead in petrol).

    So it must be true, mustn’t it?

  8. I suspect that it was more the motor car itself that caused the rise in crime. The actual number of criminals won’t have changed much, but their ability to commit crimes far from their neighbourhood and not get caught will have increased dramatically.

    Just shows that correlation is not causation with so many pet theories being expounded.

  9. I read a piece on this. The US is a federal system and therefore different states have different policies.
    Despite this crime has been falling in all of them since 1991 the only common factor was lead.
    The only problem is that crime in the UK hasn’t fallen that much – which of course means either a) lead isn’t a factor or b) we have been so incompetent with dealing with crime the
    lead benefit has been hidden by our incompetence.
    I vote for (b)

  10. “In the ideal libertarian state, immune to EU interference, how long would it have taken to get tetraethyl lead banned from fuel?”
    Er,… about as long as in the USA, one would imagine.

  11. I wouldn’t take it as read that crime rates really have fallen much. Murder is pretty constant; hospital admission rates, which are harder to game, don’t tend to match assault figures.

    Recorded crime certainly has fallen, but a lot of that may be to do with the way crime is reported (or not) and recorded.

    The BCS is interesting, but I’m not wholly convinced about either its methodology or the way it records crime.

    As to what ’causes’ crime: there are many factors. The two key factors, I would say, are an upbringing in which (from a very early age) one is not told, repeatedly, that crime is wrong (or is even told that it is good, and that only suckers don’t take what they want), and the likelihood or otherwise of being caught and dealt with.

    Build 100,000 prison places and use them and there would be a huge real decline in crime in the UK. It’s the same relatively few people, over and over again.

    Lead may be a factor, but it’s one of many and I suspect will end up just being noise in the stats.

  12. Sad But Mad Lad, most burglars burgle the house next door but one (metaphorically speaking).

    Most gang relateds happen on the gang’s own turf.

    Most domestics happen at home (duh).

    Most drugs offences happen locally: obviously, someone ships the gear to the UK, and then from Dover to Manchester, but once it’s in Manchester or your city of choice, where most of the recordeable offences happen, it’s intra estate.

    Blaggings, cash in transits, proper travelling crime, you’re right about obviously.

  13. You’re saying that our hypothetical libertarian state would have an Environmental Protection Agency empowered to push through such a ban?

  14. Tim that’s utter nonsense.

    that’s rather like saying that if we discovered exam results have been improving because of an improvement in diet, than exam results have nothing to do with whether you go to a good or bad school. Clearly nonsense.

    for example, suppose lead poisoning affects a person’s propensity for violence. A person with a given propensity for violence will be less likely to be violent when moving in well behaved middle class circles but more likely if living in a rougher neighbourhood, because of social norms or whatnot. It doesn’t really matter, there are countless potential reasons why poverty and related factors may cause crime, even if the lead thing is true.

    Crime is obviously correlated with socio-economic status, and you have to bend over backwards to explain that correlation by other factors that are only correlated with poverty but not to do with poverty itself. If you believe that poverty causes crime, that doesn’t mean you that if you take a criminally inclined person and give them more money they’ll commit less crime (although they might in some cases). It means you think that everything that goes with poverty – where you live and who you mix with, how well you and your parents are educated, what your chances of grasping various economic opportunities are … Christ, there are hundreds of ways in which poverty connects to crime.

    Do you really think otherwise? I am reluctant to believe it, because although we disagree on a lot, I don’t think you’re a complete idiot. Do you really think that being born into a wealthy family in Hampshire of a poor family on a Tyneside council estate has nothing to do with how your life is going to turn out, including how likely crime is to feature? Of course you don’t.

  15. The abortion/crime fall theory has been pretty thoroughly de-bunked. The Freakonomics guys themselves aren’t really disputing it anymore.

    See Pinker’s ‘Better Angels’ p121 onwards for round-up.

  16. The poor were more likely to live in places where the concentration of lead in the air was highest, so yes, there could well be a correlation. How you go about isolating one possible factor from all the others, however is a different story.

  17. “Grumpy Old Man // Jan 8, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    The poor were more likely to live in places where the concentration of lead in the air was highest, so yes, there could well be a correlation. How you go about isolating one possible factor from all the others, however is a different story.

    If you look at the original article it says

    “For example, murder rates have always been higher in big cities than in towns and small cities. We’re so used to this that it seems unsurprising, but Nevin points out that it might actually have a surprising explanation—because big cities have lots of cars in a small area, they also had high densities of atmospheric lead during the postwar era. But as lead levels in gasoline decreased, the differences between big and small cities largely went away. And guess what? The difference in murder rates went away too. Today, homicide rates are similar in cities of all sizes. It may be that violent crime isn’t an inevitable consequence of being a big city after all.”

  18. Would be brilliant if true.

    The abortion/crime thing is bollocks. The same collapse in crime happened at the same time in countries where abortion was available long before the US Supreme Court decision. The Freakonomics guys got caught up in exactly the kind of nonsense logic that their book claimed to debunk. Clever way to sell books though.

  19. “Christ, there are hundreds of ways in which poverty connects to crime”
    Indeed. So why does the cause/effect have to run poverty>crime. Perfectly arguable, crime>poverty. Acquisitive crime is, after all, simply redistribution of wealth. In essence no different from taxation. And we know there are forms of taxation that are a disincentive to wealth creation.
    This is the root problem of gang culture in inner cities. Kids who don’t join gangs find it hard to accumulate wealth because the gangs will take it off them for their own benefit. But the gangs don’t produce any wealth themselves. It’s all redistribution of a small wealth creation base.
    Conversely, in middle class areas the kids get to keep what they’ve got. So there’s less incentive to join gangs.

  20. I believe it has more to with demographics, at least for the USA. Crime peaked when the children of the babyboomers came of age in the 1970s and early 80s.

  21. PaulB: How long would it take to get lead “banned”?. Don’t know, hopefully never–but I do know that if people in Libland started to take this tripe seriously (God knows why Tim is:it must be travel fatigue) that within days there would be countermeasures for sale–house/car air filters, masks to wear on the street etc.
    This is a retread of the idea that the violence of the ancient Romans was caused by them using lead pipes to channel their water . The Romans were very nasty by today’s (non-socialist) standards but not much more so than the rest of the world at that time.
    As for poverty being the cause of crime–well it does play a part but millions of ordinary people have worked hard all their lives and still lived under what, by modern standards, would be classed as poverty but have not turned to stealing and esp not to violence.

  22. “The economist covered this recently and pointed out that Afghanistan is one of the few places still using lead in petrol”

    South Africa still uses it and the crime rate is one of the highest in the world but if we’re making up causation I bagsie murder, theft, and adultery with Christianity. Correlates wonderfully!

  23. bis

    “So why does the cause/effect have to run poverty>crime.”

    it doesn’t. two way causality in this context would be known as a vicious circle.

  24. I suspect that it was more the motor car itself that caused the rise in crime.

    That point is so well known it was made in a 1970s Ladybird book on the motorcar.

  25. I have an idea that the chemist who developed lead additives for petrol went on to invent CFCs (for fridges) which then damaged the ozone layer. Quite a record, if true.

  26. Two points.

    1) During the same period, the prison population in the USA has dramatically increased particularly of those at the lower end of the social scale.

    As more bad people get locked away, fewer are free to commit crime…. plus deterrent effect… could explain decrease in crime rate.

    2) These studies are epidemiological, notorious for being open to a wide range of interpretations. They are retrospective and are questions posed specifically to support an answer already decided.

    They are not ‘scientific’ as they have no process which is repeatable and which can be tested by prediction confirmed by experiment or observation and so their ‘evidence’ is not falsifiable.

    No matter how many other factors are considered, and of course rejected if they challenge the overall assumption, it is impossible to calculate their contribution to any observed effect either jointly or severally.

    The only way to discover if Pb in motor fuels caused crime, would be to run a controlled, blind randomised, comparative study where one infant population were subject to high ingested Pb levels and another current ambient levels. Then monitor these individuals into adulthood.

    I am not sure if criminal activity can be replicated in animals, so I doubt a blind comparative study in animals would give meaningful results, but then epidemiological studies don’t either, but people, particularly in the media and in politics lap them up like they are Gospel truth… because they are ‘scientific’ but of course are not.

    Pb may indeed have been a factor in criminal activity, but there is no more reason to suppose it was, rather than some other factor or combination of factors.

    We have climate change, obesity crisis, saturated fats versus polyunsaturated fats linked to cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease, all based on epidemiological studies, none based in proper controlled, comparative studies either in Humans or using animal proxies.

    Always in support of such studies, tobacco is used as the benchmark, but the ills of tobacco were easily demonstrable pre and post mortem in Humans, and by controlled, comparative studies in animal proxies.

    The link between tobacco and cancer and other diseases is not reliant on epidemiological studies.

    I wish, I wish politicians and the media would try to understand the scientific process and the importance and weight of the different types of studies.

    We might then get some sanity in policy decisions.

  27. John B

    whether or not you wish to call it science, statisticians (or econometricians) spend a lot of time thinking about how to tease causal relations from observational (non experimental data). Mindful of the difficulties involved, it is just daft to say “there is no more reason” to suppose one factor is more or less important than another, in the absence of experiments. For example, your incarceration rates idea could be tested by seeing whether other countries experience drops in crime without slinging so many people in jail. There is cross country and time-series variation in lead exposure, which helps causal inference. Everybody knows correlation is causation, but only because some third factor explains the correlation. If you can’t think of likely confounding factors then you have reasonable grounds for supposing causation. If we can find other factors that varied in tune with lead exposure, across time and place, then yes that would undermine the lead idea. But of course that’s what decent researchers look for, and if they think the lead thing has legs then it should be because they’ve rule out other explanations.

  28. ““So why does the cause/effect have to run poverty>crime.”

    it doesn’t. two way causality in this context would be known as a vicious circle.”

    Why?
    And this relates to the OT & a chance to get all IanB.
    Why do the left persist in regarding crime as some sort of illness & therefore responsive to factors like inequality for a psychological cause or in this case, lead in petrol for a physical?
    Crime is an entirely logical economic activity. In truth, what defines a crime is mostly arbitrary. What’s the difference between importing & marketing a legitimate agricultural product & an illegitimate one? Redistributing wealth by means of implied force through the taxation system or redistributing it by street mugging? Even if you look at the violence end of it. Most violence derives from arbitrating illegal transactions. The violence, for its own sake, through gaining status on the violence league table. Not really much difference from the entire system of law enforcement. Just replaces uniforms on police & wigs on judges with tattoos & baseball bats. Go back a few centuries & half the aristocracy would have rated as common criminals if they hadn’t been the ones running the legal system.
    The problem with crime as an economic activity’s it tends to be so bloody inefficient. Which is why the career path for a successful criminal is so often a legitimate business, to launder the proceeds, which does so well it replaces the requirement to do the crimes. Our ex-crook ends up living in a middle class area bemoaning the crime levels. He’s no different from his so-called legitimate neighbour.

  29. The problem with crime as an economic activity’s it tends to be so bloody inefficient.

    there was some study that found that the average haul in an armed bank robbery was under £20,000 (I think it was around £19,600), and that it involved 1.6 people on average, making it around £12,300 per person.

    Which I assume you have to launder (at a loss), and then out of that you have to pay all your overheads.

    Oh, and the average blagger gets arrested after four.

    Basically, it’s a rubbish risk-to-reward ratio.

  30. bis

    are you asking why poverty leading to crime and crime leading to poverty should be thought of as a vicious circle?

    really?

  31. JimW: You’re correct. It was Thomas Midgley Jr., who has to be one of the unluckiest inventors in the world. Not only were his two main contributions to the world later banned as unacceptably hazardous, but his final invention killed him. Not by slow, insidious poison, it was more direct than that. He came up with a set of pulleys to help him get in and out of bed after being disabled by polio. It malfunctioned and strangled him. Poor bastard, he only ever tried to help people but it just kept backfiring.

  32. bis.

    oh right. so you’ve ruled out all the various ways in which poverty might also lead to crime, have you? impressive work.

  33. Looks like codswallop to me. There are lots of factors in crime. Economics is important. People are incentivised to commit crimes when there is a worthwhile return on the risk.

    One thing that happened in the 20th century was a general rise in wealth, leading to an increased pool of victims. The working class a hundred years ago had little worth stealing; burglary might net you a wooden chair and a mangle. Street robbery, a farthing and a flat cap. Nowadays people have electronic goods to steal, and reasonable quantities of cash, or bank cards that might be used rapidly before cancellation. And so on.

    And that doesn’t get us into the demographic rise in the numbers of “angry ethnics”. Tell a man that his poverty is due to hegemonic current and historical oppression, and he will feel more morally justified in expropriating the hegemonic class, via theft, or in using violence against them.

    And so on.

    One possibly key factor that if it is overlooked is female attitudes. Females set the moral tone. If women are prepared to reward males who enrich themselves through crime with sex and status, men will commit crime. Hence, a gangsta’s hoe (e.g. Barbara Windsor) might be seen as a prime causative factor, and some law which imprisons them for living off their blokes’ immoral earnings might be useful. If being a crim made it very hard to get a girlfriend due to disapproval, crime rates would probably plummet.

  34. @Matthew L
    I once watched an episode of QI where the question was who the man responsible for killing the most humans was. Stalin and Mao both triggered the klaxon or whatever sound effect it is that is used. We were then treated to the smug bastards smug bastard Stephen Fry revealing the answer was Thomas Midgley Jr, who invented lead additives for petrol and CFCs as you mention. I would certainly pay a lot of money to see a lead additive being applied to Stephen Fry, preferably at high velocity.

    But I digress, and let me offer this alternative viewpoint. By adding lead to petrol he made personal transportation for the masses possible, which in turn has facilitated much greater economic prosperity and therefore wealth, and by extension better health. By inventing CFCs he enabled the safe storage of foodstuffs for the masses, which greatly increased health. By contrast the evidence that lead in petrol, in the concentrations that it was found in, leads to ill health or people committing crime, is based on non-scientific epidemiological studies of dubious provenance. Years after CFCs were banned we are still seeing huge variations in the size of the Ozone hole which call into question the whole hypothesis.

    His contribution on the positive side of the balance sheet far outweighs any negatives.

  35. Ian Reid–seconded–not that it needs to be.

    Lead/CFCs killed more than socialism?–only on the bloody BBC.

  36. there was some study that found that the average haul in an armed bank robbery was under £20,000 (I think it was around £19,600), and that it involved 1.6 people on average, making it around £12,300 per person.

    That’s only if you factor in cash-in-transit attacks. Actual bank robberies (especially if you discount the cash storage centre attacks) get very low returns. And immediate police attention.

    When I had access to actual stats, which was a few years ago, I pointed out to a group of bank security people that a London financial services IT contractor – on a pretty standard rate – would have to commit 2 to 3 armed robberies a week to be on similar money.

    Of course armed robber day rates (ah, yes, sorry, I meant IT contractor day rates …) have fallen since then. Dunno what has happened to the bank robbery takings.

  37. @ those of you who have read the original stories: what are the crime figures like in towns where they mine lead, or have lead-working industries? (I’m assuming the original authors must have looked at that.)

  38. Dearieme-

    I would guess that since this is post-hoc epidemiology, nobody will care, as with tobacco smoke, whether there is a dose/response relationship. “Toxicity” is treated rather like a pre-modern concept of noxious effusions, which cause harm simple by existing rather than by some scientifically quantifiable mechanism.

  39. Monbiot’s article and the Motherjones.com one are mostly about violent crime so I’m not sure the statist poverty wallahs will be trapped in some sort of paradox by this.

    Monbiot wrote: “The crime rates in big and small cities in the US, once wildly different, have now converged, also some 20 years after the phase-out.”

    If it was an economic/poverty/crime and punishment/etc effect causing the reduction it would surely have also caused a reduction in small cities as well as large ones? Perhaps a smaller reduction but still a reduction. That does not appear to be the case going on the description of the studies in the motherjones article.

  40. Most violent crime is committed by teenagers and, according to the article to which Monbiot refers, the crime curve lags the tetra-ethyl lead curve by 23 years. But since when did Monbiot do arithmetic?
    Incidentally, in the middle ages, monasteries had lead pipes because they did not burst during frosts: these were hardly the main centres of violent crime.

  41. I don’t recall researchers stating that poverty causes crime so much as poverty is a predictor of crime rates (well, particular crimes anyway). There is no denial of agency, but a statistical observation about inclinations.

    This is analogous to the environment being a predictor of crime rates. Surely you would expect more crime to happen in a dark alley than in a well-lit avenue. Does the dark alley possess its inhabitants minds and force them to commit crime? Of course not. But people antagonistic to the idea that poverty is a predictor of crime rates claim this is the suggestion of their opponents (that poverty possessed the criminal).

  42. “bis.
    oh right. so you’ve ruled out all the various ways in which poverty might also lead to crime, have you? impressive work.”
    Luis. Let’s look at crime as a viable economic activity rather than as an illness or moral lapse. Say an area lapsed into poverty & the lads therein, otherwise reasonably bright, industrious ie employable, respond by turning to a life of crime. Not much in it stealing off each other, is there? There’s two ways they’re going to make money. To visitors on their own turf. Drug dealing, prostitution etc. Or from richer communities. Housebreaking, robbery, accountancy, journalism…. Oh, hang on. the last two aren’t crimes are they? So, either way, the poverty stricken community gets a net inflow of wealth & cheap consumer goods. Carry on long enough it’s not poor is it? If crime worked like that outside the stockbroker belt.
    Ian’s “demographic rise in the numbers of “angry ethnics” is part of the reason for high crime areas. Regrettably, immigration selects for criminals. They’re the most likely to leave their place of origin, more likely to regard crime as a source of income when they arrive. That’s internal immigration as well. Councils using estates as dumping grounds for problem tenants. Adds to the area’s inevitable home grown variety. Any area’s got that. Once you get a certain level of criminal activity it will start to crowd out legitimate. You get a culture of crime.As Ian implies, what’s the point of earning legitimate money when it’s being continually taken off of you & those who are doing so achieve the elevated status? And it’s economically destructive for the community because it reduces the inflow of wealth. Crime doesn’t pay very well.

  43. Ian B, @ 40, “One possibly key factor that if it is overlooked is female attitudes. Females set the moral tone. If women are prepared to reward males who enrich themselves through crime with sex and status, men will commit crime. Hence, a gangsta’s hoe (e.g. Barbara Windsor) might be seen as a prime causative factor, and some law which imprisons them for living off their blokes’ immoral earnings might be useful. If being a crim made it very hard to get a girlfriend due to disapproval, crime rates would probably plummet.”

    Indeed, the quality (where quality means ‘good looking’) of the girls visiting inmates at Belmarsh is astounding.

    UK Liberty @ 49, “I don’t recall researchers stating that poverty causes crime so much as poverty is a predictor of crime rates”

    I’m pretty sure they do say quite bluntly that poverty causes crime. I haven’t conducted a search, but I suspect a search for ‘poverty causes crime’, or some such would show that this is what campaigners, I mean researchers, usually say.

    bis @ 50, “Crime doesn’t pay very well.” Generally, no. Most criminals are idiots.

  44. I’m pretty sure they do say quite bluntly that poverty causes crime. I haven’t conducted a search, but I suspect a search for ‘poverty causes crime’, or some such would show that this is what campaigners, I mean researchers, usually say.

    Certainly I think campaigners will say that. Press releases might say it in such public-friendly terms. I don’t think the more serious research will tend to say it, BICBW.

    Really I am trying to get away from causes as denying agency. I don’t think campaigners or researchers deny agency. But their opponents say they do.

  45. I’ve looked at the Mother Jones article. By choosing their lag (23 years) and their scales, they get the lead curve and the crime curve to match pretty well on the way up. On the way down, however, the match is lousy.

  46. UK Liberty, I don’t think the allegation people like me make of these activists and campaigners that they deny agency is based on a determination to attribute to them something they don’t profess to believe. I remember BoJo, when still editor of the Speccie and still sound on such matters, penning an editorial resounding with the splendid cry that the cause of crime is the decision to commit it. This would have been about ten years ago, when the idea that crime was caused by something, anything, but the decision-making of the criminal, was really starting to gain mainstream traction. I recall feeling how jarring and against the zeitgeist BoJo’s declamation felt.

  47. It’s kind of oxymoronic (the “oxy” may be redundant when applied to Boris Johnson) to say that a decision to commit a crime is caused by a decision to commit a crime. If somebody equires to the cause of some other decision, they expect some kind of prior cause. Like, “why did you become a vegetarian?” isn’t usefully answered by “I made the decision to”. The questioner already knows that. What they mean is what influenced that decfision.

    It is not particularly daring to note that poor people become muggers and burglars. It is reasonable to think that this may be because, for instance, the proceeds of mugging have more utility to a poor than a rich person (i.e. the marginal utility of the money stolen is greater).

    “Why did you choose to do a physics degree?”

    “Because I decided to do a physics degree”.

    Not much help is it, that answer?

  48. There is a view that crime is caused by criminals and criminals ought to be put in prison and that should be the end of it. Melanie Philips is a well-known holder of this view. Boris Johnson seems to be another.

    There is another view that there are things that correlate with crime rates. Some things are strong predictors and others are weak predictors. Which is not to deny agency or the free choice of the person or that criminals should be imprisoned, but to observe that people (not a particular individual) in particular circumstances may be more or less likely to commit crime than people living in different circumstances – statistics. Now, this is clearly more complex just in outline than the simple etiology stated above, let alone in detail, and might lead one to conclude that perhaps putting criminals in prison isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of reducing crime rates. That all prison does is incapacitate and maybe there is more we should consider.

    But the likes of Philips and Johnson will simply say to people with this view that they are denying agency and are soft on criminals. Then we have a big old hoo-ha instead of doing anything about the problem we profess to want to do something about.

    - how the media works pt 94.

  49. Prison works? Depends what is meant by ‘works’.

    If ‘rehabilitation’ is meant then, no, it doesn’t particularly, at least not as applied by current sentencing practice.

    If ‘preventing a menace from being a menace’ is what is meant then, yes, it’s pretty effective (but could be more so, see for example those cases of early released murderers who went on to murder again during the currency of their licence periods).

    Personally I consider rehabilitation to be somewhat theocratic.

  50. I’ve read that in his Bullingdon Club days Johnson committed acts which would be considered criminal if perpetrated by the lower orders. But I suppose in the latter case daddy would not pay for the damage, so that’s quite different.

  51. Edward, we can’t have that discussion because anything that isn’t simple prison or hanging is tantamount to being soft on crime = Bad.

    People say they are concerned about crime rates. More people should be locked up. OK. What about recidivism? What if simply locking people up does not reduce the likelihood of them committing crimes on release? Lock them up for longer!

    If anyone says they have a proposal that will reduce crime rates that doesn’t involve prison or hanging, they are soft on crime. It doesn’t matter if the proposal would actually work. If I could wave a magic wand today and there would be no crime from that point on, I would be soft on crime and therefore in the wrong and anything I say is suspect.

    Maybe corporation tax is an analogy. In a small scientific study (i.e. setting the world to rights in a pub), I asked people of various political persuasions and none if, in abolishing corporation tax and all else being equal that we would be better off, whether we should abolish corporation tax. Of course we shouldn’t, came the reply, they have a moral obligation to pay. But the scenario is that we would all be better off if we did! It doesn’t matter. No-one thought we should abolish corporation tax and I was evil for even suggesting it.

    Crime is one of those issues where intelligent people have a surprisingly simplistic view.

  52. PaulB, I’ve undoubtedly committed acts which are, and which would be considered, criminal.

    But I haven’t yet offended against the 11th Commandment.

  53. UKLiberty, but we are having that discussion, you and I, right now.

    Or does my claim that locking up a menace at least prevents him being a menace during the period of his incarceration constitute too simplistic a view?

    Actually, that’s rhetorical. Of course it’s simplistic. But, unless it’s untrue, what of it?

  54. Luis Enrique – “It doesn’t really matter, there are countless potential reasons why poverty and related factors may cause crime, even if the lead thing is true.”

    Sure but the point of this correlation is that it is claimed to be strong. Stronger than many others. If so, it looks like those other factors may not be so significant.

    “Crime is obviously correlated with socio-economic status, and you have to bend over backwards to explain that correlation by other factors that are only correlated with poverty but not to do with poverty itself.”

    Not really. A lot of things are correlated with poverty. Stupidity for instance. A lack of decent values. An inability to plan for the long time. A lack of viable career alternatives. An inability to form a stable family without hitting the big time. Being Black.

    There is no need to bend over backwards at all but to just look at the situation. We can see things like moral values count because Hindu immigrants were poor but their children are not much prone to crime. And now most of them are not poor.

    “Do you really think that being born into a wealthy family in Hampshire of a poor family on a Tyneside council estate has nothing to do with how your life is going to turn out, including how likely crime is to feature? Of course you don’t.”

    But that does not mean poverty is the cause. Look, America did some nice experiments for us. Black Americans, for instance, used to be kept down under a grossly unfair legal system. In the 1960s they rioted in protest. Did they riot where they were poorest and most put down? No of course they didn’t. They rioted in cities with liberal policing policies that had turned to appeasement. It wasn’t the poverty or the oppression. It was the punishment. And again, New York suffered two major black outs. The first in the 1960s was before Black Power. Everyone behaved nicely. The second was in the 1970s when Black yoof had been told that White people were all evil. There was mass looting. Values and punishment matter. Poverty less so.

  55. ukliberty – “Edward, we can’t have that discussion because anything that isn’t simple prison or hanging is tantamount to being soft on crime = Bad.”

    Because it is. Locking people up works. We have tried everything else. None of it works. Therefore people who are opposed to locking people up want more crime.

    “What about recidivism? What if simply locking people up does not reduce the likelihood of them committing crimes on release? Lock them up for longer!”

    Sure. Why not? Rehabilitation is a joke and we shouldn’t be doing it even if we could. People have a right to their own intellectual integrity even if it is wrong. But now we know why – they are poisoned with lead. In childhood. Crime is caused some two dozen years later. The damage was done a generation ago. There is nothing we can do for them now. Except lock them up forever.

    “If anyone says they have a proposal that will reduce crime rates that doesn’t involve prison or hanging, they are soft on crime. It doesn’t matter if the proposal would actually work.”

    That is begging the question because there are no proposals that will work. We have been there, we tried that. It didn’t work. If you disagree, by all means, feel free to propose a damn thing that might work. What all the alternatives to prison amount to is a desire to see more criminals on the streets. That is, being soft on crime. Although if you suggested sterilising criminals – which would do a lot for crime rates twenty years down the track – I doubt anyone would call you soft on crime.

    “If I could wave a magic wand today and there would be no crime from that point on, I would be soft on crime and therefore in the wrong and anything I say is suspect.”

    Because you can’t. It is your fantasy. Whereas what you want to do is put more criminals on the streets so the rest of us can be brutalised. No such wand exists. Anyone who pretends it does, is by definition being soft on crime.

    People have simplistic answers because it is a surprisingly simplistic issue. More punishment means less crime. Intellectuals tie themselves in knots because they cannot face the idea of punishing anyone.

  56. Ian Reid – “I once watched an episode of QI where the question was who the man responsible for killing the most humans was. Stalin and Mao both triggered the klaxon or whatever sound effect it is that is used. We were then treated to the smug bastards smug bastard Stephen Fry revealing the answer was Thomas Midgley Jr, who invented lead additives for petrol and CFCs as you mention. I would certainly pay a lot of money to see a lead additive being applied to Stephen Fry, preferably at high velocity.”

    I would have thought Rachael Carson was a more likely culprit.

  57. JamesV – “Or kick 100,000 junkies out of the prisons we currently have and put criminals in there instead.”

    We don’t have 100,00 junkies in prison. In fact it is next to impossible to get sent to prison for a drug offense. Even a serious one. It is said that more people are put in prison for not paying their TV licence than for possession of Class A drugs.

    And junkies, by definition, are criminals. They are people who put their own self pleasures ahead of untold suffering in the Third World, to their families and to the victims of the thousands of crimes they commit to pay for their drugs. They are sociopaths. Millions of people alive today have been giving opiates in hospitals. Probably most people here in fact. Roughly speaking, none of them became criminals. It is not the drugs, it is the criminal state of mind. The drugs just tell us who should be in prison.

  58. Edward, we certainly are having that discussion but I was talking about ‘the media’ generally – the public debate.

    Or does my claim that locking up a menace at least prevents him being a menace during the period of his incarceration constitute too simplistic a view?

    Actually, that’s rhetorical. Of course it’s simplistic. But, unless it’s untrue, what of it?

    Some people are interested only in punishment of crime – I have nothing against them. And wanting to incapacitate criminals is fair enough. But others will say, “I am genuinely interested in reducing crime rates,” but in fact they are interested only in punishment of crime and paint anything more complex as being ‘soft’ on crime. Or blacks.

    Even reward/punishment schemes in prison are soft – prisoners must have no access to PlayStation, even if such a scheme had a positive effect.

    It’s that kind of thing I find objectionable – simple prison as the be-all-and-end-all.

    I am not by the way accusing you of any of this. Now that it’s arrived in the thread, So Much For Subtlety will inevitably provide a demonstration.

  59. So buying drugs produced in the Third World causes untold suffering there? Whereas buying electronic goods made in sweatshops there is a boon to all.

  60. SMFS,

    “If I could wave a magic wand today and there would be no crime from that point on, I would be soft on crime and therefore in the wrong and anything I say is suspect.”

    … No such wand exists.

    O RLY?

  61. ukliberty – “Some people are interested only in punishment of crime – I have nothing against them.”

    I am inclined to think you do. It would be helpful if you were more honest.

    “But others will say, “I am genuinely interested in reducing crime rates,” but in fact they are interested only in punishment of crime and paint anything more complex as being ‘soft’ on crime. Or blacks.”

    Which is interesting but you continue to ignore the point. We have tried the more complex. We have had a fifty year experiment in the more complex. Nothing has worked. Nowhere in the world is there a rehabilitation programme that actually works (in the only meaningful sense that it takes a randomly selected group of criminals and achieves a measurable decrease in their reoffending rate).

    But by all means, if you have a clue what might work, mention it. If you have evidence I will totally support you. Although I am opposed to rehabilitation on ethical grounds. The fact is you don’t which is why your argument consists entirely of ad homs aimed at people who point this little fact out to you.

    “Even reward/punishment schemes in prison are soft – prisoners must have no access to PlayStation, even if such a scheme had a positive effect.”

    Define a positive effect. It is true that giving prisoners all the mod cons they don’t have at home makes the job of being a guard a lot easier. So does turning a blind eye to drugs. But prisons are not there to make life easy for the warders are they? Does the presence of Playstations reduce the re-offending rate? I know of no evidence, but it seems that it does not. The harsher prisons are, the less people go on to re-0ffend. Thus it is being soft on crime as well as soft on criminals.

    Compare this to something that may work – giving them a pet. As it looks like it does work, I am all for it. Although there is probably some self selection. But Playstations? Produce the evidence.

    “It’s that kind of thing I find objectionable – simple prison as the be-all-and-end-all.”

    Good for you. I notice you continue to fail to provide any alternative. We have tried every other option and none of them have worked. So in fact in the real world prison is the be-all and end-all until we can come up with something else.

    “I am not by the way accusing you of any of this. Now that it’s arrived in the thread, So Much For Subtlety will inevitably provide a demonstration.”

    Indeed I will. And you will continue to sneer because you have no evidence and can’t produce a decent argument otherwise.

    69 PaulB – “So buying drugs produced in the Third World causes untold suffering there? Whereas buying electronic goods made in sweatshops there is a boon to all.”

    Pretty much. Because Foxxcon does not fund the Taliban. Nike does not pay for Mexican drug cartels. Samsung does not come around and break your legs if you don’t pay your phone bill. You know, little things like that.

  62. ukliberty – “O RLY?”

    Impressive. People like Melanie Phillips have jobs producing some of the worst argued journalism in the UK because people like you can’t do better than this. Lift your game son.

  63. SMFS,

    And you will continue to sneer because you have no evidence and can’t produce a decent argument otherwise.

    You and I have ‘discussed’ this topic before, a number of times – it is more than evident you are not interested in anything other than your own view, which you repeat ad nauseam, you scoff at research without reading it, and you invent my opinions. I have learned there is no point in attempting to discuss it with you – if I do respond to your points, it’s to (1) persuade other readers or (2) for a laugh.

    But thank you for supporting, in your own way, my point @60.

  64. ukliberty – “You and I have ‘discussed’ this topic before, a number of times – it is more than evident you are not interested in anything other than your own view, which you repeat ad nauseam, you scoff at research without reading it, and you invent my opinions. I have learned there is no point in attempting to discuss it with you – if I do respond to your points, it’s to (1) persuade other readers or (2) for a laugh.”

    If you fail to produce a rational argument it is neither my fault nor proof of my refusal to listen. It is the inanity of your argument and the lack of any evidence to support your view. Put the blame where it belongs.

    But I agree that reasons 1. and 2. are worthwhile goals in themselves. So by all means, try to convince anyone else here. Even have a laugh if you like. You won’t because you can’t. We have tried this experiment. We have tried every liberal alternative to prison known to mankind. There is a wealth of evidence from such programmes. Especially from American programmes. They do not work. Prison does.

    And now we know one of the reasons why – people poisoned in childhood seem to go on to commit crime when they grow up.

    “But thank you for supporting, in your own way, my point @60.”

    My pleasure.

    By the way, can I recommend to everyone Harriet Sargeant’s Among the Hoods (or something like it). If anything shows the huge problem we have, the enormous complexity of the damage done to poor Black families and our complete inability to do anything short of the Taliban taking over this country, this book does. Although that was probably not her intention.

  65. SMFS: if we made it legal to produce and export heroin, criminal gangs would be no more involved than in any other commodity. It’s not the users who are responsible.

    And btw, Harriet Sergeant makes stuff up.

  66. So, for practical purposes, there are two alternatives in dealing with a hardened menace:

    1) x years’ playstations/pets/improving texts and anger management courses under the tutelage and pastoral care of a probation officer, or;

    2) x years’ deprivation of liberty to be a menace.

    Putting to one side for a moment the moral content of either course of action, is it not clear that 2) will, during the currency of x, have the greater effect in reducing the h.m.’s ability to be an h.m.?

    Short, that is, of lobotomising or brainwashing him?

  67. SMFS, you rightly demand evidence. But do you remember this conversation of ours about predictors of crime rates? Quote:

    Me: An ‘interesting’ assertion, given that the literature says otherwise.

    You: The literature, to put it politely, is full of sh!t. But I am pretty sure it does not say this.

    You damn all the evidence I (and anyone else) could potentially provide! What then is the point in me making any effort with you?

    You sneered at the idea of experimenting with incentives for learning in prison – you scoffed at the idea of trying to improve literacy and numeracy. You think it’s a waste of time looking at other countries to see if they are better off, whether they do things that we could do here. You oppose at tedious length anything different from your opinion that “The core reason for crime is criminals. That is the only thing science tells us. … It is time to return to what we know works – punishment. Harsher, longer and above all more certain”. Nothing else makes a difference, says you, someone who has not bothered to entertain any thought to the contrary.

    You are not interested in genuine discussion. Have the last word; say something about blacks, or invent what I think, or something.

  68. Edward @77 I don’t have a problem with putting criminals in prison. I have a problem with people instantly dismissing the idea of “x years’ playstations/pets/improving texts and anger management courses” in prison because it is ‘soft on crime’.

  69. Where in all of this are the measurements of lead in the human body.
    It is not that difficult to measure.
    And has been the source of legal attention quite often in the past.

  70. But, ukliberty, if my proposition 2) @ 77 has the greater effect in reducing the hardened menace’s ability to be a hardened menace than 1), then applying 1) is ‘soft’ on crime, isn’t it? (assuming ‘soft’ on crime’ means ‘sentencing which facilitates more crime’).

    FWIW, I’m only marginally more interested in punishment than I am in the word rehabilitation.

    Incidentally, in my professional experience most criminals prefer anything but prison, which tells us I think something about what is most likely to interfere with their chosen lifestyles.

  71. Hmmm, okay, my 4p worth.

    We have violent crime and acquisitive crime (the latter sometimes involving violence.) You are going to have serious problems rehabilitating people with short tempers and quick fists (or knives). Never mind sociopaths or people whose moral code tells them that women / children / people of different religion / people of different colour are there to be abused. Nicer people than me will want to give it a try and it is probably worth funding to some extent.

    Where people commit acquisitive crime, it is often either through addiction or lack of an alternative source of income. Both of these are susceptible to treatment to some extent – whether as part of a custodial sentence or independently. But some people are merely lazy or greedy …

  72. We could also cut ‘crime’ by abolishing most ‘crimes’, SE. All that stuff on the statute books concerning itself with what people choose to ingest, for example. And it’d have a significant effect on the Legal Aid bill, which would be electorally popular. Focus on actual crimes, stuff that causes or is intended to cause harm, not elite disapproved-of conduct, I’m all in favour.

  73. As a self-proclaimed libertarian, you didn’t expect me to disagree?

    We need a ‘bonfire of the statute books’ – but despite the rhetoric about the “Great Repeal Bill’, the current bunch of zoo-monkeys are as statist as you’d expect from the so-called “Liberal Democrats” and the “nanny knows best, dear” tendency within the Tories.

  74. On the subject of poverty causes crime. Venezuela has managed to demonstrate that you can reduce poverty and make the murder rate quadruple.

  75. But, ukliberty, if my proposition 2) @ 77 has the greater effect in reducing the hardened menace’s ability to be a hardened menace than 1), then applying 1) is ‘soft’ on crime, isn’t it? (assuming ‘soft’ on crime’ means ‘sentencing which facilitates more crime’).

    Yes.

    I think I have indicated at least three times in this thread I don’t have a problem with incapacitating criminals by putting them in prison. I am commenting on the nature of the discussion about what happens when they are in there, and what might be done in attempt to prevent crime in the first place.

    We could also cut ‘crime’ by abolishing most ‘crimes’, SE. All that stuff on the statute books concerning itself with what people choose to ingest, for example.

    You are soft on crime! You want people to take drugs! You want people in the Third World to die!

    That’s the nature of the discussion.

  76. Edward Lud – “We could also cut ‘crime’ by abolishing most ‘crimes’, SE. All that stuff on the statute books concerning itself with what people choose to ingest, for example. And it’d have a significant effect on the Legal Aid bill, which would be electorally popular. Focus on actual crimes, stuff that causes or is intended to cause harm, not elite disapproved-of conduct, I’m all in favour.”

    It is very hard to get put in prison in Britain. You have to work at it. And be very stupid. As can be seen by the fact that house breakers commit some 140 odd offenses in the year prior to their incarceration. In the real world, drug laws have almost no effect on prison numbers or on crime rates. You will not get sent to prison for a drugs offense unless you really really try.

    People in prison are actually there for real crimes. Crimes that even you would call crimes, except perhaps for some smugglers and large scale dealers. Changing the law would have almost no impact at all.

  77. PaulB – “if we made it legal to produce and export heroin, criminal gangs would be no more involved than in any other commodity. It’s not the users who are responsible.”

    Sure. But they would still be gangs. They would still be the sort of psychopaths who think nothing of stuffing corpses of babies with drugs to smuggle into the country. People who regularly commit all sorts of atrocities. They are not going to become accountants if suddenly they can’t sell drugs. Drugs don’t make them do it. Their personalities do. They will find some other outlet. We will have exactly the same problem.

    As for users, it may be possible to produce some sort of theoretical “fair trade” cocaine. But users use what we have, not what could be. And what we have is the product of a long and brutal supply chain with plenty of dead bodies along the way. And they know it. They use anyway. They are entirely responsible for their use. They know they are funding murder but they fund it anyway.

    “And btw, Harriet Sergeant makes stuff up.”

    Evidence?

    78 ukliberty – “you rightly demand evidence. But do you remember this conversation of ours about predictors of crime rates? Quote: … You: The literature, to put it politely, is full of sh!t. But I am pretty sure it does not say this.”

    “You damn all the evidence I (and anyone else) could potentially provide! What then is the point in me making any effort with you?”

    You misunderstand that comment. I have looked at the evidence. It is actually full of sh!t. That is a measured learned response. But it doesn’t mean I have read it all or that I am not open to some that isn’t sh!t. It just so happens that what there is, that I have seen, is so abysmal it is flattering to call it sh!t.

    So what is the point? None I think. Because you don’t have one. Not because the field is distinguished. It isn’t. Not because I will refuse to listen. I never have. But because you have a basically theological position and won’t shift. And when I say I am pretty sure, it is actually an invitation to prove me wrong.

    “You sneered at the idea of experimenting with incentives for learning in prison – you scoffed at the idea of trying to improve literacy and numeracy.”

    Because we have tried this – and I haven’t sneered at all of them. The Army does well with people who can’t read and write. But the prison system cannot do that. However it is certainly true that no effort at improving literacy has worked to reduce re-offending. Again, we have tried, it has failed.

    “You think it’s a waste of time looking at other countries to see if they are better off, whether they do things that we could do here.”

    Given I have specifically mentioned America that is a bizarre accusation. The truth is though that the countries you want to look at are not good comparisons. Sweden is an ethnically and racially homogeneous country. Britain is not. Their policies will not necessarily work here.

    “You oppose at tedious length anything different from your opinion that “The core reason for crime is criminals. That is the only thing science tells us. … It is time to return to what we know works – punishment. Harsher, longer and above all more certain”. Nothing else makes a difference, says you, someone who has not bothered to entertain any thought to the contrary.”

    On the contrary, you are assuming again. I started out closer to your end of the woods. I looked at the evidence. Nothing works except prison. I am still open to convincing otherwise but as we both know, there is no evidence that anything else works.

    “You are not interested in genuine discussion. Have the last word; say something about blacks, or invent what I think, or something.”

    I am sure I will. Because I can. And you can’t because it would mean examining your own prejudices and I expect you won’t like that.

    Even I am not happy about my views. It is not a boast. When I say nothing else works it is a cry of despair. But it is true. Nothing else does. We should be able to offer more. But we can’t.

  78. ukliberty – “You are soft on crime! You want people to take drugs! You want people in the Third World to die! That’s the nature of the discussion.”

    Well in fairness he is definitely soft on drug users and he probably does want more people to take drugs. So there is a valid point there.

  79. SMFS – sure, you have to work hard to get sent to prison in this country, and I’m in favour of sending people down earlier in their criminal careers and then seriously ratcheting up the periods of incarceration for serious offences, but the picture you paint of drugs offenders not going to prison is a very partial one. Simple possession, granted, won’t generally get you any more than a night in the cells. But there are hundreds, and quite likely thousands, of people in prison for supplying, producing, cultivating and importing and an awful lot of money is spent prosecuting and then incarcerating them. Yes, some such people will turn to ordinary criminal activity even if drugs were legal, but for many it is the illegality of drugs which creates the profit which creates the motive for, say, importing. And if you’re a dirt poor Ghanaian offered £500 to act as a mule, that’s a pretty strong incentive. I mean, even if you’re a moral person, I can see how you might readily say to yourself, ‘look, these people want to use the stuff, their choice, all I’m doing is supplying what they want; what’s wrong with that?’

    As to whether people take more or less drugs, it’s none of my business. I literally don’t care, except in the general sense that it is sad to see a life blighted in this way. But it’s the user’s choice, so long as I don’t have to pay their medical bills, then what they do their veins etc. is their concern. FWIW, I suspect that if drugs were legalised, more people would use but fewer people would use them to destruction.

    I repeat, crime, as properly construed, is the decision to cause harm and/or to do harm to a person or property. Criminalisation of drugs doesn’t pass that test.

  80. It’s also worth pointing out, apologies if some one has already done so and I’ve missed it, that prisoners will go to extraordinary lengths to get drugs into prisons. So by the logic of SMFS prisons are encouraging crime and immorality.

  81. SMFS,

    So you’re opposd to rehabilitation on ethical grounds, but favour harsher punishment ? What you have entirely failed to gasp is that ethically they are exactly equivalent. The initial denial f liberty is already a negative punishment, and the subsequent dreadfulness of incarceration you wish to impose is a positive one. That’s half of operant conditioning.

    Rehabillitation provides (or would ideally seek to provide) the other half, with positive and negative reinforcement.

    Now one may take a variety of ethical positions regarding operant conditioning, but yours is entirely illogical, addressing as it does only half of the situation. It isn’t – and cant be – unethical to alter people in one way but just peachy to do it another, it’s one or the other.

    As for the rest of your arguments, please show me a graph of rehab attempts vs recidivism, which you clearly have, because without it, your ‘we tried x and x didn’t work’ argument would be entirely baseless.

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