A Civilized Context


I think of people as basically good. Most folks treat me well enough. I can navigate my neighborhood at night; I can go to an ATM unmolested in most cities I visit; often, I get smiles — and it isn’t because of my extraordinary good looks (alone).

But evil is all around us. Some folks harbor deep resentments, and worse. Garett Jones, writing at EconLog, notes that “a lot of people are actually just awful. . . .

In a series of studies of male college students in the 1980’s, Malamuth found that about 35% of these students in the U.S. and Canada said they’d consider committing a rape if they knew they wouldn’t get caught; 20% would seriously consider it. . . . And these studies are just detecting those students who are willing to state their proclivities in a survey; the true number is surely higher.

We are, all of us, constantly surrounded by such people.

Jones draws a startling moral: “I suspect that if people were more aware of the awfulness of their neighbors, support for the welfare state would decline.”

He may be right, but contemplating crime is different than committing it. The move from wish to action often depends on “context.”

Studies have shown this. Clean up your neighborhood, replace broken windows: crime goes down.

Some social engineers argue that the welfare state is more than mere window-dressing, it’s a swap: The dole buys off potential criminals.

I suspect the opposite is true: It funds criminals, supporting their bad habits, and serves as a trap for everyone else, preventing the vast majority from climbing out of the velvet cage.

We should work for better contexts.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

3 Comments so far ↓

  1. Oct

    It does not just fund criminals, it trains them, covering basic needs while requiring no commitments, activities, responsibilities, and enforcing no consequences. It trains and reinforces the idea that people are due a free lunch, just for existing, and the corollary that someone else owes them the labor to supply it. And if they are owed free stuff, then it is of small consequence whether the government supplies it by seizing it from someone else or if they seize it themselves if the opportunity presents. It is still operating on the premise that they are due things from others independent of that other person’s wishes.

  2. Oct
    James Rolph Edwards

    Paul: I always enjoy Common Sense. For evidence on your subject today, you should see my paper, “Compulsory Income Redistribution and Social Conflict,” International Journal of Economics and Management Sciences, 1 no. 8 (2012): 49-55. The IJEM is an online journal and you should have no trouble finding it and reading or downloading the paper. Keep up the good work.

  3. Oct
    Paulina West

    if they knew they wouldn’t get caught

    Yes, many people do what they do because of fear of what others will think, or for the reward of a good reputation. That is precisely why our mutually agreed societal restraints are important. And to remove these outward constraints brings a tsunami of unintended consequences, side effects, and even worse disorders and detriments to society.

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