War on crime? Or war on the poor?
By Scott Sumner
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!)