Letters to the Editor

Meathead and Burke

Wednesday, October 31, 2012    

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Dear Editor,

I was surprised to see my online persona, "Meathead", criticised in the Jamaica Observer column, "As Einstein defined insanity ..." The author, Michael Burke, objected to my disparagement of his hypothesis that the root causes of crime were the lack of values taught in our schools, and the absence of "societal insistence" on a healthy family life.

Inexplicably, Mr Burke seems to believe these prescriptions are new, but the reality is they are a rehash of centuries-old religious teachings, which simplistically attribute societal setbacks to a decline in values, or religious devotion. This, after all, is the core message in the Pentateuch.

Over the ages, societies have generally ignored these teachings because they are either too vague to be actionable, or they are demonstrably wrong. Take, for example, the suggestion that criminals "lack values" because teaching is failing. Who believes that? What is interesting is our legal system is predicated on precisely the opposite; criminals know our values, and are aware their actions deviate.

As for the rhetorical gymnastics, where Mr Burke pretends to blame criminals, while attributing the cause of their behaviour to schools and society, I suggest a different alternative, based on economic theory. I am referring to an idea, first proposed by Gary Becker in a 1968 paper, "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," in the Journal of Political Economy. The idea was crime is an individual choice, which is influenced by perceived consequences, just like all other important decisions that we make.

When we apply this idea to Jamaica, it is easy to see why crime is out of control. Criminals see wrongdoing as mostly upside, with little to no downside, because our justice system is inadequate and ineffective. They know that as they rise in the criminal hierarchy, they have the freedom to operate openly, and may even receive government protection to avoid extradition. Finally, they know that if they are arrested, there is only an infinitesimal chance of conviction and punishment.

Therefore, instead of wasting time and effort introducing values children already have, or launching quixotic quests to cure indefinable ills like "societal insistence", I believe it would be far more useful to strengthen our laws and reform our justice system. The goal should be to achieve the efficiencies and effectiveness seen in countries with low crime rates.

A functioning justice system with robust laws would upset the crime decision calculation, limiting the rewards, while raising the risk and severity of punishment. And if there is doubt regarding this deterrence effect, one need only recall the crime-rate reduction, which followed the state of emergency, and our muscular response to the Tivoli criminal rebellion.

That said, I do acknowledge that social circumstances play a part. Poor individuals, lacking viable prospects, are more likely to see crime as an alternative. But since only a few become criminals, we know that eliminating poverty is not a prerequisite. Indeed, the opposite is true; crime reduction is necessary to achieve economic growth.

Fifty years ago, we inherited a flawed justice system, optimised for our colonial master. Yet, after decades of failing to deliver, we have yet to take meaningful corrective action. What are we waiting for, the complete collapse of the state into Somali-style anarchy?

Patrick E White, PhD

meat_head1@me.com

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