It's standard practice to attack Polly Toynbee for her ignorance of economic principles. The reactionary snob, then, deserves congratulating for taking the opposite line. He lays into her for understanding economics.
We liberal commentators point as usual to overwhelming evidence that crime and violence thrive most in the most unequal societies. If 30,000 left school this summer with no GCSEs and 1.2 million unemployable youths have gone missing altogether from education or work, what do you expect?
The RS asks whatever happened to personal responsibility? We shouldn't, he says, excuse criminals "by saying 'well, he
didn't have any GCSEs, he didn't get to go to Center Parcs, half his
classes were taught in portakabins'. It is his responsibility."
True. Crime is the responsibility of the criminal. But this is entirely consistent with Polly's claim that inequality contributes to crime, which in turn is consistent with the standard economic view of crime, as described by David Friedman:
Economists approach the analysis of crime with one simple assumption—that criminals are rational people. A mugger is a mugger for the same reason I am an economist—because it is the most attractive alternative available to him. The decision to commit a crime, like any other economic decision, can be analyzed as a choice among alternative combinations of costs and benefits.
Now, if people are leaving school with no skills, crime pays for them - it's a rational choice because the benefits outweigh the costs.
In this sense, unequal societies are likely to be crime-ridden - because they have some people for whom crime is an attractive career options, and others who have stuff worth nicking. The "overwhelming evidence" Polly refers to can be found here here (pdf) here (pdf) here (pdf) here (pdf) and here (pdf) , among other places, but is questioned here (pdf).
To assert a link between inequality and crime does not mean we deny any role for personal responsibility. Exactly the opposite. The link exists precisely because people can choose their own actions - this is what it means to respond to incentives.
Nor does such a link rule out tough sentences. Quite the opposite. because people respond to incentives, it's possible that long sentences will cut crime effectively.
Indeed, it's perfectly consistent to argue that although inequality causes crime, it's more cost-effective to impose tough sentences rather than reduce inequality. Whether this is actually true, however, is an empirical question requiring research. It can't be answered by bleating from either liberals or the right.