Archives for category: Criminology

fingerpointing

Atheists: Suppose there is a zero chance of being caught—why wouldn’t you cheat or steal if the Abrahamic God can’t judge you?

…the title question answered (by Yours Truly) on Quora*:

Ask a different question: suppose there is zero chance of State government from catching you or even noticing you, why wouldn’t you cheat or steal?

Utilitarians and criminologists have long known that for a punishment to work as a deterrent, what counts is not the severity of punishment, but the swiftness and certainty of punishment. And yet each one of us has hundreds, thousands of situations each year to cheat and steal without being noticed, yet few of us commit the worst acts. Why not?

Is it the Abrahamic deity?

There are an amazing number of believers in prison. Why did they commit their crimes?

If any Deity exists, His/Her/Its punishment be obviously neither swift nor certain. Similarly, the State is a mere instrument of fallible man, and is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. And yet most folks don’t commit much substantive crime.** Why is this?

One possible answer: Because we live by a variety of enticements as well as by threats. Among those enticements are rewards accruing to those who practice the habits of sociality and morality. Further, the rewards of long-term thinking and broad-wise (social) consideration are many, especially in a society where the dominant form of coöperation is voluntary, as trade is. Besides, we simply do not have the brainpower to choose to be good in some situations and bad in those (few?) situations where we could get away with it. Finally, we empathize with each other, and this empathy broadens our sphere of consideration, directly dissuading us from harming others, and even nudging us to imagine our and others’ future selves. So, even sans direct punishment by the State, or punishment by a deity, we tend to do right by others.

Indeed, criminals usually fall into two of the following three categories:

  1. young male
  2. low inteligence
  3. poor education/few work skills

The first indicates high testesterone, which is associated with risk-taking and violence. The more testosterone, the more your passions are likely to work against empathy and long-term self-interest. The second and third predicaments limit one’s ability to gain through coöperation with others, thus tempting a person to get ahead by cheating or stealing.

Were the Abrahamic Deity to wish us to be less criminal, He might have made us all smarter and regulated our hormones better.

But, the truth seems to be that we are products of evolution; we stumble on as best we can. Which, it turns out, is surprisingly well, considering our strange heritage and all our psychological and somatic disadvantages.

When you start looking at the facts, and at more complicated networks of incentives and disincentives, you should not be surprised to learn that atheists tend to be smarter and less criminal than most other of what one pollster calls “the seven faith tribes.” They even can boast of longer marriages . . . that is, fewer divorces than believers.

They are, perhaps, the True Blesséd of the Deity. It might behoove believers to emulate them.

Another question to ask is Why do believers in an Abrahamic Deity do so many horrid things? Or: why would they act so badly if they believe eternal punishment is a necessary factor in making people better?

twv

* Minor edits have been made from this answer’s original publication on Quora.

** We all commit infractions under the current manner of governance, of course. Why? Well, there is so much regulation, such a proliferation of laws — but that is another story.

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Interesting. The National Review excoriates American media avoidance of an obvious truth, the Islamic roots of today’s terrorism. Or, more exactly, last year’s Pulse nightclub shooting. In “Why can’t people face the fact that the killer was an Islamic extremist?,” the august conservative magazine’s editorial intern Tiana Lowe makes a clear case:

One year ago yesterday, Omar Mateen went into a gay nightclub in Orlando and murdered 49 people. While on the phone with a 911 operator, Mateen made his motive clear: “Yo, the air strike that killed Abu [Waheeb] a few weeks ago – that’s what triggered it. They should have not bombed and killed Abu [Waheeb].”

There we have it. A radicalized jihadist self-identified as “Mujahideen” and an “Islamic soldier,” American born and raised, committed the deadliest mass shooting in American history, directly targeting the LGBTQ+ community in the name of a murdered Islamic State militant.

After briefly relating the results of official investigations, which disproved convenient “homophobia” explanation, Lowe goes on to identify a pattern of media avoidance, fantasy and prevarification on the subject. “With only an ‘Islamophobic’ narrative remaining after those pesky facts, the media have decided to pay tribute to the barbaric murder of 49 infidels with a ‘senseless violence’ narrative.”

“Pulse gunman’s motive: Plenty of theories, but few answers,” read an Orlando Sentinel headline.

The Washington Post referred to the night 49 people “died” as having been “upended by gun violence.”

The New York Times equated the terrorist attack with “a year of racism,” with the insinuation that Donald Trump spearheaded the latter.

It didn’t matter that Mateen intentionally targeted the Pulse Nightclub as an attack on liberal values; his true crime was gun violence. An uptick of fear of Wahhabism and non-Westernized Islam is not a product of observation and inference; it’s irrational, a blanket Islamophobia.

The truth is just an inconvenient narrative.

While nothing in Tiana Lowe’s argument strikes me as obviously untrue, as near as I can make out, she veers off the truth by doing what she accuses others of doing.

That is, while arguing that others miss the primary and plainly true story, our author herself misses the primary and plainly true story: the terrorist terrorized as retaliation against a bombing strike by the United States military and allied forces.

What we make of this may surely be debated. But cannot we agree that, by not emphasizing or interrogating at any length the act identified by the terrorist himself as the inspiration for his retaliatory strike — instead identifying his behavior as merely an example of “Islamic extremism” — a crucial element of terrorism has been elided?

Note what, precisely, is missing. This fact: The United States is at war. Innocent civilians routinely pay the price, in their very lives, in the cause of that war.

And not just “over there” — here too.

Ignoring this aspect of the conflict surely dissuades us from consideration of the concept of blowback, and insulates our military adventures from criticism on the grounds of unintended consequences.

twv

One of the more interesting arguments for socialism is the argument from sectoral successes, that is, with particular socialistic enterprises, the prime example being roads. As libertarian economist Walter Block chided Milton Friedman once, Friedman’s support for public roads amounted to a “road socialism.” And most folks, upon hearing that, would raise an eyebrow and pull out of the driveway and say, “if this be socialism, make the most of it.” That is why socialists bring up the roads as an example of how all-sector socialism could work. 

And they have a point: our road system is awfully socialistic. Of the main features of socialism, it has all but two*: the economic good, road access, is not now provided on an egalitarian or needs basis, but instead (1) to all permitted drivers as much as they want, (2) funded by a fairly efficient set of use taxes, on fuel and licensing, etc.

Now, Professor Block has done important work showing not only that private roads do work and have worked, here and there, and could work if universalized. But, let us admit it, his (and similar) writings notwithstanding, road socialism has not been a complete disaster, and is widely popular, unquestioned.

Does road socialism provide a good blueprint for generalized, all-sector socialism? No. But instead of providing the many usual reasons given, I will suggest another way to look at it.

Road socialism in America is an excellent example of how we tend to “regulate a commons”: ruthlessly and with special attention to prosecution (and overburdening) of the poor.

Have you ever been to a traffic court? It is apparent: every unwanted or slightly dangerous behavior is criminalized. The cops are oppressive. The rules are numerous. And the system is exploitative, often nothing more than a shake-down operation. Pleading before the court, the general run of those who challenge the system tend to be abject in their petitions. And the general theme of oppression stinks up these venues, as the states and municipalities nickel-and-dime the least successful in our society.

Think of that system writ large!

On the private roads, there is a perceptible tendency for road owners to provide help, not deliver beat-downs and stick-ups. Road service is more useful than cops, in most cases. Suggestions and highway engineering that encourage safe driving have been found to be more effective than patrolling, but our commons regulators insist upon tickets, property confiscations, and even prison terms.

So there you have it. Road socialism provides a blueprint for social tyranny.

For the good of society at large, the roads should be privatized, just to make life more peaceful and less deadening. Driving need not be regulated by fear. The fact that our most socialistic sector of society is run along  authoritarian and exploitative lines should indicate what a bad idea imitating public roads would be for yet more sectors of society.

Go to traffic court, and come to your senses: no more of this! No more socialism. Please.

twv


* Not counting sector limitations, of course.

The newly sworn-in President of the United States has been saying quite a few idiotic things, and doing some interesting things, as well. I wish to look at only one of the things he has said: “Torture absolutely works.”

“Does torture work? . . . Absolutely I feel it works.”

In his favor, he had asked “people at the highest level of intelligence” whether torture works, and that was their answer, “Yes.”

And Sen. Rand Paul responded with a resounding “No,” citing more specific studies.

Now, to me the question is irrelevant. Whether torture gives us good information or misinformation or even poisoned disinformation, torture is an abridgment of human rights. Furthermore, it has a long history of harming innocents; as Rand Paul noted, recent torture procedures in rendition zones turned out to have harmed quite a number of innocent — misidentified or set up — suspects. Our whole system of jurisprudence developed around the idea of protecting innocents from incorrect punishment and outrageous moral horrors. And the method of torture is not just using pain and damage and fear to gain information, the method is also one of secret proceedings apart from normal judicial processes.

When we say torture abridges human rights, we are not merely expressing a preference, or establishing some arbitrary cultural norms. There is a reason for our rights-imputation to counter torture. For we find that not only does torture harm innocents, it abuses the guilty and — more obviously than anything else — it empowers government personnel to take license rather than uphold justice. Torture corrupts.

And one of the grounds of universal human rights is to prevent the corruption of that most dangerous of institutions, the State. To give government functionaries the lattitude to torture foreigners or citizens gives them way too much power, power that we know very well cannot be handled by frail humanity.

So, when POTUS Trump — or even Rand Paul — pretends that “does torture work?” is a relevant question, we should be very concerned. Torture should be opposed even if it does give government functionaries “reliable information.”

Further, the language of Trump is, obviously and characteristically, sloppy in the extreme. Who cares if he “feels” torture works? On important matters we must demand higher epistemic standards than “feels.”

And there is no way that this contentious issue can be responded to with an “Absolutely.” There have to be some points of contention here. Nothing I have read in the literature surrounding torture gives me enough confidence to use the word “absolute,” in adverbial form or otherwise.

Thankfully, Sen. Rand Paul expresses a reasonable desire to extend more oversight over the federal government’s intelligence community. If “people at the highest level” of this community have a hankering to torture — as their confident answer seems to suggest — we must indeed keep a close watch on them .

twv

Taxation is a form of expropriation. Libertarians like to say it is theft.

I have been pretty iffy about that statement. Taxation is an odd form of theft, if it be theft indeed, in that it is not mere confiscation, not ad hoc or makeshift, and is almost always announced in advance. Taxation is expropriation by the state according to some rate or rule. And the fact that it is widely considered just or necessary seems to have some bearing on the advisability (or accuracy) of the “theft” charge.

My “iffiness” was perhaps most forcefully expressed on my old blog:

Taxation is the expropriation of private property according to an established rate, as put into law by an established state.

Robbery and other forms of theft are illegal kinds of expropriation, and piecemeal at that. Taxation is a legal kind of expropriation.

To many libertarians, this distinction is not much of a distinction at all. They have pretty much thrown out the distinctions between legal and illegal, and are in a continual revolutionary mode of thinking, ready at a moment’s notice to throw out whole chunks of the rule of law and state practice.

So of course they equate all kinds of expropriation.

Well, not all, since libertarians do support some forms of expropriation. They have no trouble expropriating the loot of thieves from thieves, after court adjudication. And they have no trouble expropriating from a person found liable, in court, to a tort claim.

They just don’t support taxation.

My Contention: The main reason radical libertarians will not get anywhere is their complete lack of understanding of the normal mindset, which is not constantly in revolutionary mode. Radical libertarians who trot out slogans such as “taxation is theft” do not address the respect a non-revolutionary has for the rule of law.

Indeed, because of this revolutionary stance — and I’m not talking about physical, bloody revolution so much as a particular stance regarding ideas and consent — these libertarians cannot deal with normal folk.

They offend normal folk; libertarians often (and with good reason) strike normal citizens as lunatics, perhaps dangerous lunatics.

This is one reason why I choose my words more carefully — or at least differently — than radical libertarians. I wish to address normal folk in normal language. I believe it is incumbent upon me to make every step towards a revolutionary mindset clear. I wish to pull no wool over any eye. I believe we have to approach greater liberty with complete honesty. No rhetorical trickery.

And I regard slogans such as “taxation is theft” as something close to rhetorical trickery.

Whatever else we may say of it, however, taxation cannot be univocally defined as a good thing. Every tax taken diminishes the wealth and wherewith of the mark, er, taxpayer.

So, two things are obvious:

1. we have, other things being equal, good reasons to wish to diminish taxation as much as possible; and

2. we should inquire deeply into the proposals of those who suggest, or insist, that we reconstruct society to provide the necessities of civilization without the inconvenience and horrendous burden (not to mention moral horror) of taxation.

But we see a lot of pushback against the idea of low-tax or no-tax society.

Unfortunately, most of this online discussion is witless. I argue against one typical instance here:

NOTE: In this video, I mistakenly refer to Peter T. Leeson as “Peter Levin”; sorry, Professor Leeson.

I greatly enjoyed Leeson’s book on pirates. Getting his name wrong is unfortunate. (Leeson is Professor of Economics and BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at George Mason University.) His book, in the image at top, is required reading on the subject of a tax-free society that still can sport an industrial, market order.

 Related to the issue at hand, but on a more subtle level, is the Hume essay I wrote a foreword to, for Laissez Faire Books. It can be found on Amazon as a Kindle book, or on iBooks, or on LFB.org. From the same publisher, I also recommend the fascinating Instead of a Book. A great book, despite the name. And, unlike my video, but like most of the books shown at top (all recommended), that book does not eschew the “A word,” anarchy.

More on that, anon.

In a show of solidarity, President Barack Obama says he will put 5 percent of his paycheck back into the Treasury. Times are tough. He wants to show that he can take cuts, too. So he’ll whack $20K from his annual take. In effect, “give it back.”

Now, it’s often said that our leaders should take cuts along with the rest of us. They should be first, so to speak. “Feel our pain” by taking similar pains. And since, by law, neither the president nor Congress can actually cut their own salaries — requiring this gesture to be a personal matter, a “gift,” so to speak — the president’s move is right on the money.

And why not give the Prez a nod? Well done.

However. (You knew there’d be a “however,” didn’t you?) Look at those with whom he’s linked his arms.

It’s not the American people, who’ve lost jobs enough to make the real unemployment rate to soar way, way higher than a mere 5 percent. (Taking into account workers who’ve given up on the job search, actual unemployment is over 20 percent.) Many Americans have taken wage cuts, or de facto rate cuts, say by working fewer hours. Profits in small businesses are not exactly booming, either, so the middle class has taken huge hits, too.

No, it’s not for We, the People, that Obama shakes out his loose change.

It’s to federal government employees, especially those hit by the automatic “sequester” cuts that he, himself, helped put in place last year.

Interesting. In classical liberal analysis — as developed by James Mill, Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer — real class warfare takes place between peaceful, productive, co-operative citizens, on the one hand, and the taker class, on the other . . . which breaks down into two distinct groups: criminals and government employees, both relying on expropriation to survive.

At least Obama isn’t siding with the criminals.

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We civilized folks have as many varieties of murder as the Inuit do of snow.

Lawyers and legislators have Murder One, Murder Two, Manslaughter, etc.

Before those niceties, there were “crimes of passion” distinguished from “cold-blooded murder.”

We regularly make distinctions worthy of a Benthamic criminologist, carefully separating spree murderers from serial killers from mass murderers.

And then there are the synthetic constructions, worthy of Polonius. My favorite is “serial mass murderer.”

That applies to U.S. presidents, especially the current one.