A Conversation About Crime
A: We need to do something about our rotten criminal justice system.
B: Absolutely. We need major reform - police reform, sentencing reform, reform of our jails and prisons, robust programs for rehabilitation and reintegration.
A: No, we need to tear it all down. Defund the police, abolish prisons, and end the carceral state.
B: You know, if I thought that the Water & Sewer department was terribly corrupt, violent, and racist, I’d be very invested in Water & Sewer reform. I’d find Water & Sewer reform to be a moral necessity. I’d advocate for major Water & Sewer reform. But I wouldn’t say “Water & Sewer can’t be reformed, we need to let shit flow through the streets.” It seems like a major and unjustified leap in logic.
A: Sorry. Reform won’t do. Defund, disarm, decarcerate! No police!
B: Won’t that lead to a lot of crime and much lower living standards?
A: Not if we address need. Poverty is the ultimate cause of all crime.
B: Of all crime?
B: But the vast majority of poor people aren’t committing crimes.
A: Crime is complex and multivariate.
B: If poverty is the ultimate cause of all crime, how is crime complex or multivariate?
A: … because.
B: How do you account for the fact that two people can share an exact income or wealth band, grow up in the same neighborhood, go to the same schools, and overall have remarkably similar environments, and yet one can be a career violent criminal and the other can go their whole life without committing a crime?
A: Chance and circumstance.
B: So if two people have the same environments, chance, and circumstance, they will always commit crimes at the same rates?
B: The individual plays no role in decision to commit a crime? None at all? Does the poverty take over their brain like a hypnotist?
A: That's right.
B: How then can we praise the person who doesn’t commit crime and create an incentive structure that makes it beneficial to not commit crime?
A: I’m not sure we should be doing that at all. Sounds racist.
B: Creating social structures that discourage crime is racist?
A: That's what I'm going with.
B: ...I see. You said that poverty is the cause of crime.
A: Of course.
B: So rich people don’t commit crime.
A: Of course rich people commit crime.
B: You just said poverty is the cause of crime. Rich people aren’t in poverty.
B: That doesn’t make sense.
A: Crime is complex and multivariate.
B: So poverty isn’t the cause of all crime, then.
A: Obviously, poverty can’t cause rich people to commit crimes!
B: So if crime is complex and multivariate, isn’t it necessarily the case that sometimes poor people commit crimes for reasons other than poverty?
A: … no.
A: Just because.
B: So poor people are never responsible for the crimes they commit, but rich people always are?
A: … yes.
B: What is the magical income level after which responsibility for crime falls on the individual rather than on poverty? Like, $50k?
A: It’s actually not about income, it’s about inequality.
B: OK, what is the magical income percentile where responsibility for crimes falls on the individual rather than on poverty?
A: It’s a gradation.
B: So, you mean, the further down the income spectrum you fall, the less responsibility you bear for crime?
A: That’s right.
B: So, to be clear, a person who makes $15,000 a year bears half as much responsibility as someone who makes $30,000 a year?
A: Let’s not get bogged down in numbers.
B: You get that India is a vastly poorer country than the United States but has about the same crime rate, right?
A: I said it’s about inequality!
B: You get that Papua New Guinea has a lower Gini coefficient than the United States but has a vastly higher crime rate, right?
A: I said let’s not get bogged down in numbers!
B: OK. So, how about rape?
A: Excuse me?
B: Rape. Is poverty to blame for rape?
A: Uh, no, of course not!
B: So people who commit sex crimes get a carveout.
A: Absolutely. Sex crimes are different.
B: And sex criminals should be punished, but not regular violent criminals.
B: So if a man rapes a woman, he’s to blame for it, but if he punches her in the face and breaks her jaw, poverty did it?
A: How much does he make?
B: Let’s say he’s the poorest man on earth.
A: Then yes, poverty did the punching.
B: But not the raping.
A: No, not the raping. He did the raping.
B: What if it’s his wife? Is poverty the cause of domestic violence?
A: Uh, no, of course not!
B: So it should be legal to punch a woman you don’t know, but not your wife?
A: I didn’t say it should be legal.
B: But you think that it shouldn’t be enforced, just like you think that laws against carjackings and shoplifting and arson shouldn’t be enforced. What’s the difference between refusing to enforce laws and actively legalizing the behaviors?
A: It’s just different.
B: If you say something like shoplifting is illegal, but you also think nothing should be done to stop it or punish people for it, how is that different from just making it legal?
A: One’s legalization, the other is decriminalization.
B: In terms of incentives for committing crimes, there’s no difference, though.
A: On the contrary. “Decriminalization” polls much better.
B: So if we say that it’s immoral to ever try to stop someone who’s shoplifting or punish them from doing so, how do stores work? Won’t they all just get closed down?
A: Well, not everyone’s going to shoplift. I wouldn’t shoplift.
A: I’m financially secure. I hold myself to a higher standard.
B: So you think poor people are incapable of reaching the moral standard you reach yourself?
A: This sounds like a trap. Remember, poverty -
B: … causes shoplifting, I know. Despite the fact that lots of rich white girls shoplift. Despite the fact that Winona Ryder, a multimillionaire, got caught shoplifting. Despite the fact that a lot of dirt-poor people don’t shoplift.
A: I feel like we’re going in circles.
B: Agreed. You want leniency even for murder, right?
A: Right, absolutely.
B: But not for rape.
A: No, not for rape.
B: Doesn’t that lead to a perverse perspective where a woman is better off dead than raped?
A: I didn’t say that.
B: Weren’t you calling for a “zero Covid” policy and restrictive lockdowns like yesterday?
A: Absolutely. Covid is not over!
B: OK, but if we defund the police, who enforces the lockdowns?
A: …the people.
B: OK let’s set that aside for a moment. To be clear, it’s legitimate to restrict the free movement and free behavior of everyone because they might engage in socially unhealthy or undesirable behaviors.
A: Of course.
B: But it’s not OK to restrict the movement and free behavior of any individual because they have already engaged in socially unhealthy or undesirable behavior.
A: Of course not.
B: That’s hard to figure.
A: It’s not my job to educate you.
B: Don’t you work for a political education nonprofit? Isn’t “activist” in your title? Isn’t advocating for your beliefs the same exact thing as educating? If it’s not your job to educate people, whose job is it, exactly?
A: I said what I said.
B: Should we ban guns?
A: I’m waiting for the results of my Twitter poll before I answer that question.
B: How about assault rifles?
A: Well, to be frank, it depends on who's carrying them.
B: I appreciate your candor. Weren’t you really supportive of the FBI when they were going after Trump? Aren’t they literally the cops?
A: I’ve evolved. #respectmyjourney
B: What happens if there’s a school shooting?
A: We gotta stop it.
B: Who’s we?
A: The people.
B: Like, what, a posse? Just regular folks?
A: You and me! We keep us safe!
B: There is no one less equipped to prevent violent behavior than me.
A: OK, well, you know what I mean. The community protects itself.
B: Against people with assault rifles and body armor? What do we use against them, pots and pans? Aren’t there situations that require a specialized set of skills for dealing with violent situations?
A: Well, we’ll have a volunteer force that sometimes keeps order and prevents violence. We call them violence interrupters.
B: Violence interrupters.
A: That’s right. They’re designated by society to maintain the peace.
B: How do they stop the school shooter? Throw copies of White Fragility at him?
A: No, we have guns for them. We keep them locked up in a closet. And then when there’s a school shooting or something, we unlock the closet and they can take the guns.
B: And we give them special permission to use violence when they have to.
A: That’s right.
B: So you’ve designated a special corps of people explicitly empowered by the community to establish public order, armed them, and given them a monopoly on the use of violence.
B: You realize that you’ve just reinvented the police, right?
A: I refuse to realize that. Anyway, they wouldn’t usually carry guns.
B: That sounds like potentially a good idea to me. But then shouldn’t your slogan be “disarm the police” instead of “defund the police”? Isn’t that a much more workable, politically-plausible goal, to make it so that police only carry guns in certain special situations, as is common in some other countries?
A: That’s reform. Reform bad. Abolition good. Only abolition.
B: I see. You want to pass anti-hate speech legislation, right? Make it a criminal offense to use racial slurs?
A: I can predict your question: it’s enforced by the violence interrupters.
B: So to be clear, I can just walk up to a guy and punch him in the face, just absolutely clean his clock, and I should face minimal organized punishment, including no time in the jails that we’ve abolished, but if I say a racial slur to him beforehand, I should get exiled to Elba? Does that make sense?
A: [steam begins pouring out of ears]
B: Remember when that MLB pitcher’s old tweets resurfaced recently?
A: Yes. That damn racist.
B: Well, I get why copying and pasting rap lyrics with the n-word in them and tweeting it is offensive. I don’t condone it. But he was a teenager when he sent those tweets, and you were saying that he should lose all of his endorsement deals. And you also thought that an actor who was caught on camera calling someone a “slut” should never work again.
A: That’s right. We’re trying to build an accountability culture here.
B: So you’re a minimalist when it comes to punishing actual crimes, but when it comes to handing down social punishment, you’re a maximalist.
B: Does that make sense? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to have a conception of forgiveness and accountability that applies to both the public and private domains? Like, “we should be more forgiving towards people who commit crimes AND people who violate identity norms” makes sense to me. “We should be less forgiving to people who commit crimes AND people who violate identity norms” makes sense to me. But “we should be an absurdly punitive culture when it comes to violating social prohibitions, but effectively anarchists when it comes to violating legal prohibitions” seems bizarre and unworkable to me.
B: Well, I think the basic reality of human life is that we’re fallible. We don’t do the right thing, often. So we need society to create incentives and punishments to urge people towards the right kind of behavior. In the kind of society you’re envisioning, we aren’t creating those incentives and punishments to encourage lawful behavior, and so people will break the law. I don’t believe that people are essentially self-policing; I don’t believe that all people are basically good. I think most people are basically good, but some very much are not, and the ones who aren’t will prey on those who are if we don’t do anything. It’s sad but it’s a fact of life. You ever see the show Deadwood? There’s no police force in Deadwood. The result isn’t a utopia of people being good to each other; it’s a vicious place where the strong do whatever they want and the weak suffer. That's what life was like before state-imposed order, the most powerful warlord took whatever he wanted and everyone else suffered. That's reality. In a state of nature, human beings rob and rape and kill. So you have to have some sort of formal system of crime and punishment. That’s why I’m not a libertarian or anarchist. And I find it very weird that a lot of ostensible leftists have essentially adapted right-wing libertarian visions of law and order. But it’s really weird that those same people are also so eager to basically unperson those who say offensive things! Of course there should be social prohibitions against racism and similar types of offense, but it feels like the left is impossibly sensitive to those social mores and totally insensitive to the costs of having someone stick a gun in your face and take your car. If a woman goes on Twitter and says, “my boss just called me sexy,” people there will do everything they can to cost that man his job. If that same exact woman says, “I just got carjacked,” people with hammers and sickles in their bios will laugh at her and tell her that crime is just something you have to accept, and anyway she was rich enough to own a car so she’s privileged. It’s so bizarre. I just don’t get the consistent principles at play here. It all seems so fickle and arbitrary.
A: Look, I’m gonna level with you here. Like the vast majority of leftists who have been minted since Occupy Wall Street, my principles, values, and policy preferences don’t stem from a coherent set of moral values, developed into an ideology, which then suggests preferred policies. At all. That requires a lot of reading and I’m busy organizing black tie fundraisers at work and bringing Kayleigh and Dakota to fencing practice. I just don’t have the time. So my politics have been bolted together in a horribly awkward process of absorbing which opinions are least likely to get me screamed at by an online activist or mocked by a podcaster. My politics are therefore really a kind of self-defensive pastiche, an odd Frankensteining of traditional leftist rhetoric and vocabulary from Ivy League humanities departments I don’t understand. I quote Marx, but I got the quote from Tumblr. I cite Gloria Anzaldua, but only because someone on TikTok did it first. I support defunding the police because in 2020, when the social and professional consequences for appearing not to accept social justice norms were enormous, that was the safest place for me to hide. I maintain a vague attachment to police and prison abolition because that still appears to be the safest place for me to hide. I vote Democrat but/and call myself a socialist because that is the safest place for me to hide. I’m not a bad person; I want freedom and equality. I want good things for everyone. But politics scare and confuse me. I just can’t stand to lose face, so I have to present all of my terribly confused ideals with maximum superficial confidence. If you probe any of my specific beliefs with minimal force, they will collapse, as those “beliefs” are simply instruments of social manipulation. I can’t take my kid to the Prospect Park carousel and tell the other parents that I don’t support police abolition. It would damage my brand and I can’t have that. And that contradiction you detected, where I support maximum forgiveness for crime but no forgiveness at all for being offensive? For me, that’s no contradiction at all. Those beliefs are not part of a functioning and internally-consistent political system but a potpourri of deracinated slogans that protect me from headaches I don’t need. I never wanted to be a leftist. I just wanted to take my justifiable but inchoate feelings of dissatisfaction with the way things are and wrap them up into part of the narrative that I tell other people about myself, the narrative that I’m a kind good worthwhile enlightened person. And hey, in college that even got me popularity/a scholarship/pussy! Now I’m an adult and I have things to protect, and well-meaning but fundamentally unserious activists have created an incentive structure that mandates that I pretend to a) understand what “social justice” means and b) have the slightest interest in working to get it. I just want to chip away at my student loan debt and not get my company’s Slack turned against me. I need my job/I need my reputation/I need to not have potential Bumble dates see anything controversial when they Google me. Can you throw me a bone? Neither I nor 99% of the self-identified socialists in this country believe that there is any chance whatsoever that we’ll ever take power, and honestly, you’re harshing our vibe. So can you please fuck off and let us hide behind the BLM signs that have been yellowing in our windows for three years?
B: Honesty at last.