Friday, December 12, 2014

Trust, But Terrify

Published this over at Freeman.

Have been getting a lot of pushback, questions like, "Can you be specific about what aspects of being poor and black are against the law?"  (And then, presumably, person mentally drops the mic and walks off stage....)

My question is, "Did you even read the article?"

I never claimed that the LAWS oppress the poor.  The POLICE do.  But it's not really the fault of the police, at least not primarily.

We all have a lot of normal, nonviolent daily activity. And a LOT of it is illegal, because we have criminalized everything.

The police, in their defense (and I mean that, sincerely), can't possibly arrest everyone who commits a crime. So they focus, quite sensibly, on people who (1) for reasons of simple prejudice we "all know" commit more crimes and (2) are less likely to be able to defend themselves or make trouble for the police.

Now, it's also likely that there is more actual criminal behavior in poor neighborhoods.

But even if there weren't, overcriminalization forces the police to ration their attention. The difference in "arrest and hassle" rates across race is greater than the difference in criminal proclivity due to poverty.

Race matters because of overcriminalization. It's not just a proxy for poverty.

(A somewhat different, but related, view from Sheldon Richman...)


Trapper_John said...

I think your attribution--that attention is simply rationed--is overly generous. When everything is illegal, it creates an incredible amount of power through individual discretion--do you expect our unicorn government officials to abdicate such power? Rule of law is eroded in favor or a corrupt system of arbitrary (at best) or malicious (at worst) enforcement.

The terrifying thing is that it goes all the way to the top. Obama's immigration reform is a simple refusal to enforce laws he doesn't agree with.

Quick anecdote: I was caught speeding in Virginia a few years ago, doing 81 in a 70. When I pled my case for a warning, the cop responded, "I've dropped you to 79 in a 70; you're just lucky I don't have you arrested and your car impounded, which I can do since you were going above 80." Terrifying on many levels (what if I were DWB? what if I said something he didn't like? what if he didn't like the cut of my jib? etc.). That cop was not the problem; the law was the problem.

Dirty Davey said...

Doesn't this argument boil down to "there should be no such thing as a misdemeanor"?

And as I've pointed out elsewhere, if "nonviolent" is your standard for things that should be legal, then (a) taxes are impossible, because non-payment is non-violent; (b) embezzlement/swindling/etc. cannot be punished; (c) intellectual property cannot be protected; and (d) many other offenses against property rights (e.g. graffiti) should be wiped from the books.

That is, unless you take a definition of "violence" that includes monetary or property "harm"--which is a bit more expansive than the common-sense definition.

And Trapper_John--if you look at the number of illegal immigrants and the budget/capacity for enforcement, the law itself is quite clear that the vast majority of immigrants will not be tracked down and deported. If Congress actually wanted and expected the law to be enforced universally, then they would not have allocated resources an order of magnitude less than would be actually required for universal enforcement. Unless Congress provides explicit instructions for prioritization, it seems obvious that setting the enforcement priorities is well within the normal/expected responsibilities of the executive branch.

I certainly don't agree with Obama universally, and his perpetuation of extralegal ways of dealing with "terrorism threats" is disturbing. But the immigration concerns are pure right-wing hyperbole, and I generally find it hard to get worked up over the government not choosing to treat disadvantaged people more harshly.

Michael said...

there is definitely more crime in poorer neighborhoods, if for no reason other than population density.

Apartments, multi-family dwellings, families sharing houses — compare that to wealthy neighborhoods with maybe four people on a nice-sized lot.

even if poor people are *less* criminally inclined, packing them in works very much against them. Police go where the people are.

Tom said...

Dirty Davey would profit from ceasing to "point out" and starting to justify his four points. It's not that obvious, Davey.

Ethics exits so that people can co-operate. Among the behaviors that inhibit co-operate, two stand out: (a) violence, both in the usage and the threat, and (b) denying others the product of their effort. (I do not abbreviate point b as "theft" because many people use that word so very loosely.) Other behaviors may reduce co-operation, but these two are very much harder to ignore than any others. Hence the Libertarian Law, which I will quote in full: "Don't hurt people and don't take their stuff."

As to the four points, I think it is now needful only to address the first: taxes. Let us put aside the assumption that a federal government need $3T and a state (as NC) needs $50B to operate. Modern, expansive grew because of the easy money in coercive taxes, more than from a true need for violence in keeping order. Say a yearly 600 billion dollars might suffice for defense of our shores and the pursuit of pirates. Say 400 million dollars each year can employ enough police for North Carolina to enforce the two remaining laws. Then taxes can be reduced by a factor of 50. With taxes that low, a sense of duty and a (mild) threat of social ostracism should suffice as a collection method. No, you cannot afford socialism on that budget. No, there won't be money for a legislator's cronies, either.

JWO said...

Yes, I think if police where forced to arrest everyone who they have sufficient evidence committed a crime that the laws would be changed and quick.

Dirty Davey said...

So basically, Tom says that when Munger writes "Decriminalize normal nonviolent daily activity,", the word "nonviolent" excludes a great many things that are not at all violent in the common meaning of the word.

How many legs has a dog if I call a tail a leg?