What causes crime? The classical environmental “root cause” theories suffer from two crippling defects. First, whatever root cause you choose — poverty, unemployment, peer pressure, parental abuse, parental indulgence — the vast majority of people who are exposed to it do not become criminals. Give us your poor, your jobless, your inadequately-brought-up yearning to breathe free to their therapists, and you will find that the vast majority, in all cases, are law-abiding. Whoever thinks that prisons breed criminals might ask himself who winds up in prison in the first place. Prisons incarcerate criminals. Not a great deal of breeding goes on in jail.
The criminals who have never faced your pet root cause, who grow up well-fixed, with loving parents, in law-abiding neighborhoods, also remain to be accounted for. People save most of their hand-wringing for crimes committed by these types, not because the crimes are especially brutal, but because none of the conventional explanations seem to fit. He was only a lad, he had everything, why would he do a thing like that? The shock comes from ideas smacking into reality.
If crime, metaphorically, is a disease, and its “root cause” is a virus, you can be exposed to the virus without catching the disease, and you can catch the disease without being exposed to the virus. This violates both tenets of Koch’s First Postulate straightaway. Aristotle wouldn’t be too happy either.
All this is not to disparage the sociologists, who presumably are doing their best. Multifactorial phenomena like crime defeat hard scientists as well; witness the struggles of medicine with cancer or physics with the Three-Body Problem. Humans seem not to be very well-wired to analyze more than one cause at a time; in fact the very concept of “cause” implies singularity.
According to Stanton Samenow, criminals cause crime. More precisely, criminal thinking causes crime. By trade Samenow is a clinical psychologist who specializes in criminals, and he came to his views, he writes in Inside the Criminal Mind, with some reluctance. Under his mentor, Samuel Yochelson, with whom he authored a three-volume study of the criminal personality, Samenow began to come around. He found Yochelson’s methods especially convincing:
Dr. Yochelson first had contact with these men… when things were going badly for them. They were about to be sentenced by the court, were already locked up, or had been faced with the loss of something valuable to them such as a family or career. In his initial interview, Yochelson asked few questions of the criminal but instead presented him with so accurate a picture of himself that the criminal could do nothing but agree.
Hey, with a shrink like that I might go myself! Yochelson could do this, Samenow says, because all criminals think alike. It starts early: most criminals have developed their habits of thought long before adolescence. Samenow begins with what most of us could figure out if we thought about it. Criminals all fancy themselves special, more intelligent than straight people. They treat everyone, including their family and closest friends, as pawns to be moved around for the chessboard for their personal gratification. They lie, not just like most of us when they’re in a tough spot, but all the time. They hate work because it’s, well, work. They are impatient and seek quick rewards.
He proceeds to become disquietingly shrewd and well-informed. On the sudden flashes of interest the delinquent shows in school:
The criminal child appears to have a short attention span for most classroom assignments. However, to his teacher’s astonishment, his lethargy is transformed into a burst of concentrated activity once he finds an interest… One teenager recalled that whatever academic interests he had disappeared as soon as someone provided direction, tested his knowledge, or imposed a deadline. He said, “The interest would turn into a conflict when something had to be produced like a paper or a test.” His “conflict” was that he objected to others’ telling him what to do, whether at school or anywhere else… He reflected, “Grading systems always bothered me, because I just disagree with them totally. If there’s anything I’m interested in, I can do it.” … The parts of the curriculum that interest [criminal children] are those appealing to their sense of adventure and thirst for excitement, such as a detailed account of a bloody battle or a dramatic science experiment.
On pleading insanity and getting over in the nuthouse:
To the criminal, the hospital is a permissive prison. Because he is considered sick, his crimes of the past and violations of the present are treated therapeutically, not punitively. He figures, often correctly, that he can do as he pleases as long as he shows remorse and psychological insight later. If he uses illicit drugs, he can explain it as his seeking relief from overwhelming anxiety. If he tries to escape, he can relate it to intense depression. Sometimes he gets away with such psychological rationalizations and may even be praised for them.
Memo to Judith Rich Harris, who has made quite a name for herself by arguing that peers have more influence over children than their parents do: which peers would those be, exactly?
Every secondary school has groups with different names — preppies, jocks, sweathogs [I guess: the book was published in 1984], freaks, and so forth. Snarled one 14 year old, “Preppies, I hate ’em. They think they’re so neat with their alligator shirts.” He chose to associate with the “freaks,” who skipped school, used drugs, and went on shoplifting binges. One father said of his son, “If Guy saw a group of neatly dressed students holding their books and talking about girls, cars, and sports, and he saw a scraggly bunch of boys swaggering around, drinking, and cursing, he would always choose the second group.”
One might argue that Samenow has only pushed the question back. Sure, criminals think a certain way, but why? Nature? Nurture?
Neither. Asking why someone commits a crime is like asking why Caesar crossed the Rubicon. It is the individual, irreducible act of will, what Ludwig von Mises calls “ultimate data.” In the absence of Laplace’s mathematical demon, choice is as low as we can go.
My copy of Inside the Criminal Mind, borrowed from a friend (like Anatole France, I never return a book or get one back, and my library consists entirely of other people’s books), is heavily annotated, mostly with proper names. I recommend my friend’s approach, so long as you don’t write your own name too often. Next to a passage about criminals who cry discrimination to shift attention from their own wrongdoing he writes “Clinton” in the margin. Another about criminal sentimentality and sensitivity to art and music has “Mom” (Mom?) written next to it. Many pages bear the names of our mutual friends, and yes, it’s true, and no, you don’t want to know them.
(Update: Mark Wickens comments, briefly but trenchantly.)
(Further: Michaela Cooper takes me to task, first, quite properly, for my bad manners, for which I hope she accepts my apology, and then for my content. Essentially she makes two points. One is that with criminality we are dealing with “risk factors,” not causation. The jobless commit crimes at a higher rate than the employed; therefore if the government finds everyone a job crime will decline. Not so fast. When sociologists say that X is a risk factor for Y, they mean that X and Y occur together more often than one would expect by chance. Since it is effectively impossible to control for variables in these studies, causal inferences are just-so stories. Joblessness might be a risk factor for crime; but one could also say, with equal logic and considerably more anecdotal evidence, that crime is a risk factor for joblessness.
Michaela also convicts me and Samenow of circularity:
What is a “criminal” anyway? It can’t be just someone who’s been convicted of a crime, since obviously zillions of people convicted of crimes (drug possession, involuntary manslaughter, isolated thefts of opportunity [Dreiser’s Hurstwood], not to mention those wrongfully convicted) don’t fit Samenow’s stereotype. Presumably, for Samenow, a “criminal” must have committed several crimes. How many? And what of those whose recidivism is driven by compulsion rather than sociopathic calculation — kleptomaniacs, flashers, peeping Toms? What about the ordinarily kind and loving alcoholic who assaults people when he’s really drunk? Must they all be crowbarred into Samenow’s singular criminal-mind box?
Surely many, many, many people incarcerated have few, if any, of the characteristics Samenow trots out! So, then, which prisoners do have them? Why the criminals!
I’ve never known a “kind and loving alcoholic who assaults people when he’s really drunk,” although I’ve known several violent alcoholics. I don’t believe in “compulsion,” and I don’t believe in Hurstwood either. Why can kleptomaniacs and flashers manage not to steal or expose themselves when the cop is watching?
Samenow claims that everyone who habitually commits crimes against people and property thinks this way. This is the vast majority of the prison population, including the ones who happen to be locked up for drug offenses, as any criminal lawyer will inform you. Now Samenow may be wrong, but his position, logically, is impregnable.)