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February 18, 2007



More accurately, these days one's neighbours sting less.

Ain't no-one used to go to their corner shop/ butchers/ pub and enjoy being looked down on as a crim or the parent of a crim.

The people at your out of town superstore or chain pub won't do that, they don't know you.


Presumably, the more common crime is, the lower the stigma against committing it, simply because criminals are more common. So culture should act as a positive feedback mechanism, exaggerating any other changes. If you could cut the crime rate by other means eg higher probability of punishment peoples consciences should sting them more. And this would cut the crime rate further.


I would say that higher probabilty of being caught is the key, before you start worrying about the severity of the punishment. If people don't think that they are going to get caught, they aren't likely to evaluate the consequences of being caught (ie, the resulting punishment).


I believe it is a mistake to separate the laws/penalties from the culture. Many of the laws that we have discarded in the various states represent a change from a Judeo-Christian culture to a more secularist culture. The repeal or change in laws on sodomy/homosexual behavior, drug use/possession and even Sunday sales reflect an initial change in culture prior to the legal change. One can argue the value or detriment of these changes, but the one preceeded the other. Legal change without cultural backup (i.e. Prohibition, Speed Limits) are doomed to be circumvented and ignored by the populace at large.


We live in a culture that glorifies and rewards many forms of antisocial behavior. No one should be surprised that we are getting more of it.


Woah, I may have left the UK three years ago, but has it become a culture that glorifies and rewards that sort of stuff since? I mean, sure, you can see elements of glorification but if there's a societal attitude to it as a whole, I'd say that it's being irritated with it.

Laban Tall

"One cost of committing crime - the biggest for many of us - is that our conscience will sting us if we do so."

I think taking stuff like the sting of conscience into economic theory means you're pulling every other social science plus literature and culture in - things which lend themselves to being quantified much less than the sort of thing economic theory more usually deals with.

From where we are now, though culture is dominant in the long term, it's not an either-culture/or-costandbenefit-approach choice. Each impacts upon the other, reinforcing or weakening.

For example, the incapacitation effect of increased levels of incarceration reduces crime, and there's a (difficult to quantify) deterrence effect. Both cost-benefit (non-cultural) effects at work.

But there'll also be a cultural, moral component which will, given politics, have been a driver towards the adoption of the policy (increased imprisonment) and which will be reinforced by its adoption (i.e. us hangers and floggers will cheer and say 'told you' when crime falls).

It's true that prison - that punishment - alone is not enough. What is necessary is the cultural drive to condemn crime and criminals the way we can condemn smokers and racists. The two things - attitudes to criminals and their punishment - react on and reinforce (or weaken) each other.

Take Saudi Arabia, where murder is punished by beheading and robbery by amputation. Were we to introduce such punishments to the UK, crime would fall, but not to anywhere near Saudi levels. The existence of such draconian punishment is a reflection of a culture that has no time for thieves and murderers. It's the culture that makes the crime rate low - the punishment reflects and reinforces the culture.


It seems to me that if you were 90% certain that you'd get caught, say, prospective beheading on conviction would be a really serious disincentive. However, we are good at convincing ourselves that the worst won't happen, and when combined with relatively low conviction rates for crime, that's a recipe for people not being that scared of the penalties. Why bother if you don't think that you'll get caught anyhow?


So, in the sense of 'costs' so far as the judicial system is concerned, you'd multiply punishment by perceived chance of getting caught.


...If a man's been run over by a bus, you don't restore him to health by merely reversing the bus...

What sort of an analogy is this? It has absolutely nothing to do with human moral fibre.


James, I believe that the point was merely to demonstrate the representativeness bias, not act as a catch all analogy for a crisis in "human moral fibre".

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