Genes & Crime

Confronting Crime: An American Challenge

by Elliott Currie
Pantheon, 326 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Like rain on election day, crime is good for the Republicans. Whenever crime seems to be increasing, significant numbers of Americans tend to blame liberal permissiveness and turn to conservative political candidates, partly because they endorse a sterner approach to raising children, policing the streets, and punishing criminals, and partly because they oppose government “giveaways” to the poor, blacks, and other groups that commit a lot of crimes. While orthodox liberals answer that “getting tough” won’t really help and that the way to reduce crime is to make society more just and opportunity more equal, this response to crime has seldom moved the electorate. When crime rates rise, liberals almost always find themselves on the defensive.

The political effect of crime on the public may be the result of an intellectual mistake, but if so it is an understandable one. Modern liberalism is a product of the eighteenth century, and as its name suggests, its most consistent and powerful impulse has been to expand personal liberty, or, as we often say today, “opportunity.” In recent decades American liberalism has been primarily concerned with making sure that minorities, women, the poor, and other disadvantaged groups have the same opportunities as affluent white males, so it has acquired an increasingly egalitarian cast, but its strongest impulse is still to eliminate constraints and provide people with more choices.

Liberals have traditionally hoped that more freedom would lead to more of almost everything else they valued. Many Americans viewed the 1960s and early 1970s as a test of this hypothesis. Restrictions on personal behavior diminished dramatically during this period, altering everything from sexual habits and hair styles to relations with the police and employers. Deference to authority in all its guises also declined, making people feel they had more choices.

Among blacks, the end of de jure segregation and the advent of affirmative action opened even more opportunities. Black college-entrance rates almost doubled between 1960 and 1975, and large numbers of young black adults moved into professional and managerial jobs for the first time. Yet for blacks as for whites, the most important change was probably subjective rather than objective. The influence of both black and white authority figures declined precipitously during this period, leaving young blacks with the feeling that there were no clearly defined limits on the choices open to them. They could become anything—or nothing.

In the early 1960s most liberals had hoped that this kind of liberalization would make us all feel a stronger sense of solidarity (or “fraternity”) with one another. Once our own rights were more fully recognized, we were supposed to become more attentive to the rights of others. Increasing affluence and opportunity were also supposed to give those at the bottom of the social pyramid a stronger feeling that they had something to lose if they broke the law. The liberal innovations of the years from 1960 to 1975 were therefore supposed to reduce the frequency of murder, rape, assault, robbery, and burglary. Instead, all…

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