The “Natural” Level of Crime

It’s my unscientific belief that most people are basically good and trustworthy. It also seems unarguable that there is a small percentage of people that are basically not good. But the question that has bugged me for a long time is how many people are like that when the world is at its best. What is the natural percentage of those who are naturally bad, and how would you find out?

There are all kinds of problems in any such investigation. For one, it seems natural that virtually nobody can afford to be totally virtuous if he is starving (not to mention that it’s virtually impossible to be totally virtuous anyway). But one assumes that such a person would return to the virtuous path in better times.

Most people are basically good.
How many are basically bad?

A digression. I was once told of a guy who traveled a lot and seemed to get mugged wherever he went. He was accosted in a southern Asian city by a very skinny man wielding a butter knife and demanding money. Our guy could count every one of this man’s ribs, and was immediately sympathetic to this robber with a butter knife. So he whipped out his wallet and presented all his money to the man, who refused it. Some argument ensued, after which the man reluctantly accepted half the money, and, we assume, was at least able to keep his family alive a few more weeks.

Obviously, this was an honorable man who became a robber only under the duress of extreme poverty and starvation. But there seem to be plenty of others who choose to be a bad guy for no particular reason. Why? Why are there people who believe that their real fault was that they got caught, not that they have done something that is universally condemned?

Why are there people who believe
that their real fault was that they got caught.

There also seem to be a few people who suffer from abnormal brain development or from a mental illness that prevents them from feeling empathy. They do atrociously cruel things to others simply because they are incapable of empathy. That’s not unlike children who pull the legs or wings off of insects, when you think about it.

Consider the worst of the worst, the violent career criminal, the serial murderer. Those who have studied these monsters say that every such person without exception suffered a truly horrible childhood. They were treated cruelly beyond belief by the parents who were supposed to nurture them. Usually their parents were criminals and addicts, and they abused their children in many ways, including regular beatings and constantly belittling them as worthless to the extreme. Yet even such extreme abuse does not lead inexorably to a life of violent crime.

Violent career criminals without exception
suffered a truly horrible childhood.

If even one person steps up to make such a kid understand that he has value, his life can be saved, and there will be no future victims. The big if is that this must happen before it’s too late. There seems to be a threshold moment, after which such a person is lost. The cusp probably occurs in middle or late adolescence. If a young person is helped before that point, he can be saved. There are many teachers and others who have assumed this role, and the world is a far better place for it.

If a child grows up with abuse, and without guidance, the likelihood is high that he will be exactly the kind of parent his parents were, carrying the abuse to the next generation, and the one after that. The good news is that both he and the next generation can be saved by wise teachers, counselors, religious leaders, and other relatives who teach a young person about ideals, if only by example.

The good news is that both the mistreated teen
and the next generation can be saved.

We should also remember that environmental lead is such a powerful poison for babies and toddlers that environmental exposure to it can cripple their brain development at a crucial stage, which often shows up as bad behavior and criminal activity two decades later. This is our failure, not the child’s.

Another complication in my study is that there is no clear-cut correlation between crime and the level of poverty or inequality. For instance, shootings in the US peaked in the 1970s, and have fallen steadily since, while inequality has grown steadily worse. At the same time, the number of guns has increased, yet the number of families owning guns has decreased sharply.

In fact, as Steven Pinker shows us in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, the actual level of violence has been steadily falling for centuries. The violence in daily news reporting hides this trend from us, because it is violence that gets reported, not normal life. The sea change we haven’t noticed is our attitude toward others. There are still far too many people whose idea of fun is to hurt someone, or some animal, but it used to be that most people accepted such cruelties as normal. The numbers of people and countries who specifically reject violence and cruelty rises slowly but steadily.

The actual level of violence
has been steadily falling for centuries.

Unfortunately, the necessary task that will never end is to civilize each and every young person in each and every generation directly. To give each one of them moral guidance, and show them how to behave. Boys in particular need to be taught, because they become men in body long before their brains are fully equipped to make sound moral and ethical judgments for themselves. They are capable of violence because they have a man’s strength, but without a man’s judgment. They must be taught to use their strength wisely. The papers are full of reports of young men who have already made bad choices that will stunt their futures, or maybe even trap them into a life of crime. It all points up the importance of direct, personal training for young people, males especially.

So my question—What is the “natural” level of crime?—appears to be unanswerable. What we can say is that, since the long-term trend is down, the “natural” level is lower than it is now. What we can say is that every young person needs guidance to understand right and wrong, and respect for others. That’s encouraging, but it reminds us that we can never, ever, be complacent.


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