Crime pays, or why people suck

Two days ago, a woman was mugged at 6pm about 50 yards from my front door. My friend and I were walking up the hill from dinner when we heard a commotion up ahead – about half a block up, two black men ran across the street and jumped in a car, chased by a woman. The car pulled away, and they were gone. They had apparently shoved her to the ground, pulled her bag over her head, and taken off. There were at least five witnesses, but none of us had been close enough to do anything, and none of us got a good look at the men or the car in the couple seconds before they disappeared, except to note that the car had no license plate. One of the other witnesses called 911, and a patrol car was sent around, but we couldn’t really offer anything useful.

It was disturbing. It may be an indication of my sheltered life, but it was the first crime I’d witnessed. It was also scary how easy it was. There’s pretty much no chance of them getting caught – we were all caught reacting too slowly. The really annoying part is that I’d seen two men get into that same car at the bottom of the hill, and then it had driven off, and I didn’t think anything more of it. If I’d been paying more attention beforehand, I could have made a difference. But I wasn’t.

I like to think that I pay attention to my surroundings, but this incident made it clear that I don’t. At the same time, it’s unreasonable for me to live in a state of hypervigilance on the off chance that a crime might occur. I tend to go with the assumption that things will work out and life will be okay, and most of the time that assumption is proven out. But at the same time, other people can take advantage of that assumption. And they do. Because they individually profit from it. Like those two guys, who gained the bag, with virtually no chance of repercussions.

But the community as a whole suffers. If everybody retreats into bunkers, afraid of their fellow man, we can’t function as a society. One of the things that separates the human race from animals is that we can see beyond our immediate self-interest and make sacrifices (like laws sacrificing our freedom of behavior and taxes sacrificing our economic self-interest and specialization of labor sacrificing our independence) for the greater community. When we treat everybody as possible enemies in a fight-or-flight world, we are regressing to an animal state. And, yes, the comparison to America’s current response to terrorism and national security is intended.

The thing that bugs me is I don’t really see a way to avoid unscrupulous people taking advantage of people’s trust and committing crimes or terrorist acts. It’s in their self-interest to do so. Just like people who cheat on their taxes to avoid their share of the burden of running a society. Mancur Olson’s Power and Prosperity gives several examples of these sorts of breakdowns where individuals take advantage of the group’s willingness to provide.

It’s a tough problem. One of the questions I’ve been thinking about blogging about for a while is how we as a society can provide a genuine helping hand to those who need it, without turning into a society of entitlement. And it’s the same problem – how do we treat people in a generous and trusting way without being taken advantage of?

It also makes me wonder how and where these community-oriented values come from. I mean, I think we’re all told as children that we have to do things that aren’t immediately gratifying for our own good. Why does it take with some people and not with others? Why do I feel such a revulsion towards cheating? What can we do to convince people that society is not a zero-sum game, that one person winning does not mean another losing, and that by participating in such finite games, we are only damaging ourselves?

I don’t know the answers. If I did, I’d go start a cult or something. But it’s been on my mind for the last couple days, so I figured I’d share. Let me know what you think.

6 thoughts on “Crime pays, or why people suck

  1. The way to avoid unscrupulous people taking advantage of society is: don’t have any unscrupulous people.

    Kind of an obvious point, yeah. Add “prog” meme to cover most of the territory with regard to how you run a society such that unscrupulousness is not incentivized in any way. The only thing left is figuring out how to detect the people that are unscrupulous not because they see no benefit in playing by the rules, or because they don’t know how else to get by, but because they’re broken on the inside and get off on it in some way, and removing them from society, and there you go.

    Back in high school I had this realization: you can run your justicie system in one of two ways, depending on whether you want to get revenge and punish wrongdoers, or whether you want to prevent the crime from happening again. Because much of the time, those two goals are incompatible. The former seems very “con” to me, and the latter very “prog”.

    You can fill in the details.

  2. Yes, there’s some finite nonzero amount of unscrupulous opportunism. Some of it is by muggers, some of it is by executives, some of it is by everyone else. Some of it is motivated by need, some by ignorance, some by psychosis. Some of it is treatable, some isn’t.

    But they aren’t the ones hiding in bunkers.

    It’d be nice if they weren’t there. But maybe “getting rid of them” is the wrong problem to be concentrating on. Maybe, as a society, we can afford them.

  3. I think I agree with Beemer in that the way to go is to help people see the benefits of playing by the rules, and to help find ways for them to participate in the society that is created by those rules. Certainly that applies with what little I know of terrorism – it is an extreme that people turn to when they have no other way of being included in the discussion. Man. I really really need to write up some of this Latour book I’m struggling through, because it’s totally influencing how I’m thinking about this.

    But I disagree with Beemer in that I think that it may be impossible to run a society such that it doesn’t benefit one to be unscrupulous. At least not one that’s worth living in. Part of what makes society powerful is the trust factor, that we can use cash or credit and not be dependent on finding a barter equivalent, that we do not have to check out the credentials of every single person we are transacting with. As long as there’s a trust factor, there are ways to abuse that trust.

    But Dave makes a good point. Certainly in the case of terrorism, I feel that the marginal benefits of trying to eradicate the last bit of terrorism are not worth the sacrifices in civil liberties and the like. And I would rather live in a free and open society with a bit of crime than in a police state with none. Unfortunately, with our current value system, it’s impossible to even have that discussion – of deciding what is an “acceptable” level of crime or drug usage or terrorism. Argh. Okay. Tomorrow, I’m writing up this Latour book, because I think it will help clarify where I’m coming from.

  4. I don’t think I’m in disagreement with Dave. I was just saying that if there’s too much unscrupulousness, the way to get rid of it is to poke around until you find the root causes, and deal with those. On the other hand, if the problem is that its existence is causing people to freak out, then we should poke at the root causes of that reaction. Is it that there’s too much crime/terrorism/whatever, or that people are reacting badly to it? In reality, it’s probably some of both, so we should work both angles.

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