Crime is down in Canada. Way down. As the Globe & Mail points out, the national crime rate has fallen to 1973 levels, continuing a 20-year decline.
Homicides, attempted murders, serious assaults and robberies were all down last year from the year before. Young people were accused of committing fewer offences. Even property crime was reported less frequently with reductions in both break-ins and car thefts.
I know, I know. As the Harper government ™ has explained, all these statistics indicate is that Canada has a serious crime reporting problem. Indeed, the violence is so bad on the streets of Ontario’s major cities that people are afraid to talk to the police. Hence the decline in crime rates.
See what I did there?
Responding to these new crime statistics, the Justice Minister’s office had this to say:
“We don’t use these statistics as an excuse not to get tough on criminals,” said spokeswoman Pamela Stephens.
Well done, spokeswoman. You tell those reporters where to go with their “statistics.” The Harper government ™ doesn’t worry about the “facts” when there are still criminals left to be punished.
Boring philosophical analysis and foul language is below the fold. You have been warned.
I have to be blunt about this. Are the Conservatives fucking insane?
If we are allocating resources, you and I, and you wish to build prisons and I say “Hold up. We don’t have enough criminals to justify that expenditure!” I’m not excusing criminal behaviour. I’m not claiming, like a rich leftist bubbling over with white guilt, that we should go easy on the poor dears, as they often come from broken homes and blah blah blah.
Rather, I am behaving like a responsible, adult-aged individual — as conservatives like to describe themselves, come to think of it. I am thinking, “If we spend lots of money on prisons we don’t need, that’s less money left for guns, butter, and hookers.” (Assume Skippy is in the room as I say this.)
Now if, after hearing my well-reasoned critique, you responded by saying that I believe in being soft on crime, I would punch you in the throat and then tie you to a tree. Because you would have shown yourself to be, through espousal of such nonsense, an insane person, liable to boil my rabbit the moment I step out of line.
Or, if not insane, a partisan knob. But I repeat myself.
The problem with Conservatives — and this is always a problem with conservatives — is an inability to distinguish “the ethics of conviction” from “the ethics of responsibility,” to borrow terminology from Max Weber.
Hunting down every law-breaker in the land, no matter the cost, and putting each to the sword is a fine plan. Especially if you are Simon Wiesenthal. It is a terrible plan if you are Rob Nicholson, Canada’s Justice Minister. Single-minded pursuit of the conviction that evil-doers must be punished, regardless of the consequences, is expected and laudable behaviour — for Batman.
In a leader within a liberal democratic society, such conviction is at best laughable. At worst, it is frightening. It is always a mark of incompetence.
“Those who break the law must be punished!” Minister Nicholson, whispering this to himself in the shower, echoes the sentiment of a very vocal line of would-be Javerts, the law-and-order conservatives who applaud when non-violent drug users are placed in boxes with murderers and rapists.
I don’t need to invoke doctrinaire libertarianism to illustrate how stupid this sentiment really is.
Imagine two worlds. In the first world, everyone who breaks the law is caught and punished. The prisons bulge with pot-smokers, jay-walkers, tax-evaders, and bread-thieves. On every corner there is a friendly police officer, while the scent of pepper spray wafts acridly through air buzzing with current from a thousand tasers. Here, those who break the law are punished. All of ‘em.
In the second world, sometimes the law-breakers evade the police. There are dark places for criminals to hide, gaps through which sometimes even a violent miscreant can seep. There aren’t enough prison cells, so sometimes convicts are released from their sentences early, the worst amid a blizzard of media-fed public consternation.
People die. Even children. Their bodies stink even worse than the pepper spray.
And yet, the second world is happier, overall, than the first. There is no absurdity in this. While putting a cop on every corner may look reassuring to people, it is also extremely expensive. Opportunity costs, which those in the grip of a conviction rarely consider, loom large. Each additional cop reduces crime by a smaller amount. The pursuit of justice runs aground on the implacable rock of diminishing marginal utility.
In the second world, the budget is balanced. Children are fed and educated. Taxes are relatively low.
But you have a higher chance of being murdered, living in the second world, than you do in the first. You find yourself squirming as evil goes unpunished, as convicted criminals get light sentences from sympathetic judges.
It is not unreasonable to prefer the first world to the second, despite the second being happier overall. There is still a place for the ethics of conviction, as opposed to my crass utilitarianism.
Fine. But we don’t live in the first world I described, nor the second one. In our world, as it turns out, we don’t need to put a cop on every corner to lower the crime rate. We don’t need to choose between dead children and greater overall happiness. The bodies are not piling up on the street.
We apparently live in a world where crime goes down over a twenty year span without us having to do anything. Lucky us!
For those in the grip of conviction, this isn’t enough. There are still criminals who must be punished. There are still judges who hand down light sentences. Above all, there is the voice, the incessant compulsion: “Those who break the law must be punished!”
If you are a Nazi hunter, pursuing Eichmann through South America, then I congratulate your for your conviction. But if you are a politician allocating scarce resources then fuck your conviction. Your job, even as Justice Minister, is not to punish every law-breaker in Canada. The more authority this democracy has given you, the less your convictions, however tempting, ought to play in your decision-making, and the more you ought to use your brain.
Government cannot do everything. But if there are legitimate things it ought to do, then let it do them rationally. The least government can do for us is spend its stolen funds in an efficient way.
We know liberty does not matter (much) to politicians. However, utility ought to matter, at least within constitutional limits. The facts, through which the best means can be chosen to pursue this end, ought to matter. And those facts strongly suggest that the government ought to be building schools instead of prisons.*
My God, Minister Nicholson. You may not care a whit for freedom, as your decision to hand Marc Emery over to the Americans indicates, but must you also be a fool?
* - If the government wants to take half the the revenue it gets from the taxes I pay and build schools and improve general conditions for aboriginal children, I will silence my libertarian tongue for a while. It would be money well spent.