Criminal Optimism

The blogs are a-twitter (see: here and here) on the subject of historical US crime rates. Here’s the money graph:

From these stats, Caplan and Tabarrok find reason to wallow in optimism. Things aren’t so bad, you see. 1950-1990 is a blip! A blip I say!

But here’s my pessimist Tory rebuttal. First, some quibbles with the data.

Using homicides per 100K distorts the actual effectiveness of our government at controlling crime, because it ignores the contribution made by demographics. How would this graph look if we scaled it to homicides per 100k males age 18-25? Quite a bit flatter, I imagine. Also, as Tabarrok generously offers, advances in medical technology have resulted in progressively more assaults and fewer homicides. Take these two factors into account, and I think you’ll see a trend of fairly consistent levels of the American government’s success at stifling criminality.

More importantly, making a straight apples-to-apples comparison of 17th-19th and 21st century homicide rates is setting the bar too low. Given the amount of technological and economic progress over the past 200 years, we should fully expected violent crime to have dropped to near-zero level.

The United States of centuries past was a vast frontierland, much of which was beyond the limes of formal civilization. It was full of ambitious, risk-loving young men itching to conquer a world as yet undiscovered by law and order. Politics was characterized by mob violence in the major cities. We were, at different times, leading up to and recovering from a brutal civil war. Today, we have technology, wealth and peace that our ancestors could barely dream of. The United States before the 20th century was a violent place, true. But imagine traveling back in time, telling our great-great-grandfathers about the resources our modern criminal justice system has available to it, and then bragging to them that crime has (perhaps) moderately declined.

Now imagine telling them and that large areas of every major city are still extremely dangerous to civilized people, that murderers frequently walk free after <10 years in prison, that our prisons release convicted felons en masse because of overcrowding. Imagine telling them that no one can leave their car or bike unlocked, women can’t jog through urban parks at night, and that our cities are covered in unsightly graffiti. I think Gramps would conclude that our government has completely abandoned its core sovereign duty to keep its citizens safe from internal disorder.

The optimism of Caplan, Tabarrok and others like them comes from their accurate observation that technology and economic growth have made the lives of average Americans (and most others) safer, easier, and more comfortable. I readily concede that the poor of the 21st century have the edge over the middle classes of the 19th in material wealth, life expectancy, access to culture and education, and in many other respects. But though we revel in bread, circuses and iPads, we have also experienced a monotonic decline in the quality of our government. Caplan and Tabarrok should embrace this, rather than gloss over the abject failure of the US government’s criminal justice policy by pointing out that we compare slightly favorably to the wild west.