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A weak government cannot fight crime

RONNIE SUTHERLAND

Sunday, February 16, 2014    

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The newly reported statistics on cold homicide cases raise new concerns about the effectiveness of the State's strategies in its fight against crime and violence.

It was startling to learn that more than 40,000 homicides have been committed in Jamaica since 1970 and that more than a third of these cases have gone "cold".

By any analysis, the statistics are clearly indicating that we are losing the fight against crime. The case, however, could also be made that the State is losing its fight against several other ills in the society, such as the national debt at 140 per cent of GDP, 40 per cent unemployment among the youth population, a deteriorating health service, and a sputtering education system -- so why single out the fight against crime?

We do because it is historically accepted that the primary purpose of government is to prevent crime and any related dangers to domestic human security. In other words, government is irrelevant if it cannot protect its citizens.

If we accept that domestic human security is the prime purpose of government, then we must conclude that given our perilously high homicide rate over the last 30 years the Jamaican Government has been a major let-down to its citizens. In business, when a firm involved in several endeavours senses that it is failing at its core functions, it is generally expected to retreat from non-core activities in favour of defending its core business.

While a country is not a company, common sense would suggest that government adopt the same generic approach. That would mean retreating from most of the things that government routinely funds and focusing on getting law and order right.

This raises the contentious and highly debated matter of what is the most pressing issue facing the Government at any point in time. Quite often the discussions are misguided, with the debaters confusing cause and effect issues. We then end up with recommendations for solutions that involve tackling the effects, but the causes are left unattended.

This outcome is commonplace in Jamaica as we are notorious for not thinking things through. When I was a child, my grandmother always warned that I should be careful that I was not shooting a bullseye on the wrong target. I will posit here that the biggest problem facing the country is crime and violence and the cause is a weak government.

To contextualise the point, let us examine a real socio-economic issue that has bedevilled our country for many years — that of high unemployment. Local businesses seem neither willing nor able to invest at the level required to significantly impact this problem. It would appear therefore that investment capital must come predominantly from abroad by way of foreign direct investment (FDI) to achieve any meaningful improvement.

What is the likelihood, however, of that inflow of capital taking place when the country is known to be crime-ridden? The simple answer is little to none. This means we are "moving up the down escalator" in our attempt to achieve economic growth and development under circumstances of high crime rates.

The economic effects of secure property rights and a well-functioning legal system are clear. Since people are, to a considerable degree, self-interested, they tend to undertake hard work and investments only if they have a reasonable probability of enjoying the fruits of their efforts.

Thus, if property rights are insecure because of high crime rates, people tend to work and invest much less. Additionally, business activity also benefits from a legal system that allows contracts to be clearly specified and enforced. A creaking legal system with the chronic backlog of over 40,000 cases in our courts offers no such assurance. The further question therefore is, what will it take to solve this obvious problem?

The first step in our effort to tackle our crime problem is a strong government. A weak government cannot fortify a justice system and solve crime. How comfortable would you feel if your designated protector is weaker than the entity against whom you are being protected?

By any assessment, Jamaica's present crisis is the consequence of a weak government. Its performance in the fight against crime is the clearest example of its weakness. The sad fact is that we arrived at this state through ignorance and/or a total misunderstanding of government's role and purpose.

Watching our government operatives at work reminds me of my childhood days playing house. We mimicked everything our parents did, but had very little understanding why they did what they were doing. If ever our parents didn't return from work or the market, the house that we were playing would eventually crumble. I am convinced that we are 'playing country'.

When I hear our Government ministers, including the prime minister, repeatedly attributing responsibility to the citizens to fight crime it convinces me that they don't get it. The citizens of the country will be reluctant to discharge their civic duty in any fight against crime as long as they believe that the Government is weak, relative to the criminals.

In countries where governments demonstrate overwhelming force and ability relative to criminals, citizens have no problem turning up at courts as witnesses to testify in criminal cases. They do so being confident that the Government can protect them from the criminals.

A strong government accepts the fact that it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force. It is intolerant of any competing agent or entity in the society that is inclined to challenge that monopoly status. It develops and regularly exhibits its might with the dual purpose of assuring law-abiding citizens while repelling and discouraging criminals.

Regular evidence of government's successes in its fight to prevent or minimise crime will reinforce citizen assurance. When the citizens are so assured, they will go enthusiastically about their business to work hard and accumulate wealth. This is what growth and development look like in their early stages.

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