Machiavelli, James Q. Wilson, and the paradoxes of crime control

Punishment requires injury. Reformation requires improvement. People are not improved by injury.

This week Pepperdine University will hold a conference on the thought of James Q. Wilson, and I will present a paper called “Wilson’s Machiavellian Cruelty”. The first half of the paper argues that Wilson’s failure to acknowledge that punishment is cruel led him – and those of us who followed him – into avoidable errors. The second half tries to construct a crime control strategy to keep crime rates moving down while reversing the disastrous move toward mass incarceration.

A central problem is the paradox of punishment pointed out by Plato and (more pithily) by George Bernard Shaw:

Punishment requires injury.
Reformation requires improvement.
Injury does not improve.

I would appreciate comments from those with expert knowledge on the relevant topics.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

10 thoughts on “Machiavelli, James Q. Wilson, and the paradoxes of crime control”

  1. This certainly isn't my wheelhouse. But I'll throw out a hypothesis to see if its at all helpful in spurring thought on the part of those more informed on these matters:

    A) There are two vectors on which we can classify the consequences that we deal out to criminals: 1) Whether it is mostly punitive or mostly reformative and 2) Whether it is mostly lenient or mostly harsh.

    B) Political conservatives generally prefer treatments that are punitive and harsh. Political liberals generally prefer treatments that are reformative and lenient.

    C) These preferences crowd out potential solutions that are punitive and lenient or reformative and harsh. This perhaps unnaturally constrains the creativity of our responses to crime. Specifically – there may in some cases be room for punitive and lenient treatments. For example, some 21st century equivalent of public shaming in the stockade may in some cases be the right response to crime as they may reinforce society's legitimate interest in punishing wrongdoers publicly and clearly, while not burdening the wrongdoer with a burden that will derail his or her otherwise productive and law abiding life. Similarly, there may in some cases be room for reformative and harsh treatments. For example, some sort of hard and long lasting work-based and austerity-based program of rehabilitation for wrongdoers who really are "broken" in some fundamental moral, emotional or psychological sense but who are thus broken because of extraordinary burdens they have been made to bear by a difficult life.

  2. I read Mark's comprehensive and thought provoking.paper. I am no expert, but of all the crime statistics that leap off the page and fuel America's over six times the incarceration rate of Canada per capita ,is that in addition to the heavier sentences, is the hold that gangs have on American youth, particulary hispanic and african-american, outside and even inside prisons.. I have read that gang members or gang activity accounts for some 80% of the gun homicides in the U:S (hard to believe ) and 47% of the violent crime, and it is not decreasing. I have no answers nor does it seem many others do.

  3. Regarding the Plato/Shaw paradox, isn't it avoided by noting that ostensibly it is the deterrence effect of punishment i.e. to avoid further punishment for future offenses, which leads to improvement.

  4. They both lived in intellectual milieux characterized by a sort of high-minded soft-heartedness that tended to shy from necessary unpleasantness by denying the harsh realities that make it necessary.

    Wilson, while insisting with Machiavelli that anyone unwilling to punish when punishment is necessary is, to that extent, unfit to rule, was too good-hearted to accept that he was endorsing cruelty.

    There's a charming tension there.

    The level of disapproval – both as expressed socially and as internalized in the form of guilt and shame – is among the important background conditions that determine the level of offending.

    And here is a point on which you might note a perverse effect of drug policy: While society may disapprove, what is internalized in the average drug user is, I suspect, not guilt or shame, but fear and resentment. Consider this in relation to the crayon experiment.

    What remains in my mind, and which has puzzled me for some time, is that people could have ever thought that punishment was anything but cruel. The entire system, from police to court to prison, is violent, yet it's often aimed at non-violent offenders. Sometimes that's going to be unavoidable–Bernie Madoff comes to mind as an extreme example–and the state is of course by definition uniquely licensed to commit non-consensual violence. Yet hardly anyone, expert or layperson alike, seems to think about it that way.

    P.S. Added after the fact: How did this comment get such a quick +1? I just submitted it.

    1. It's just that good a comment, John.

      Isn't it true that when we look at punishment systems before the 19th Century in the West (and still in much of the world even today) that there wasn't much attention paid to matters of cruelty? Certainly the law of the old testament is retribution, and the other extant codes I'm aware of aren't too different.

      Finally, I'll take issue with the State being "uniquely licensed" — isn't it more a matter of the State insisting that it reserves that right to itself? (Of course, Louis' claim that he is the State is rather different from our insistence that We, the People are the State. But in both cases, the right to non-consensual violence is seized rather than licensed.)

  5. Mark,

    FYI, there are a few typos in your essay (easily fixed via running speck-check, since all or nearly all I saw had Word's squiggely red line under them). I found it interesting. Thanks.

    Regarding your thought about moving school hours later in the day, not only would having workers & students coming home during the evening rush hour annoy them/their parents, it would also likely increase the # of accidents. To decrease burglaries but increase accidents might not be a win.

    I have another thought about the experiment where a promise was broken. The kids in that experiment were subsequently less willing to delay gratification. Grab it now became more attractive after they were denied a promised reward. Taking this back into real life, I think there may be more going on than that. In addition to the impact of living in an unstable/uncertain environment, if people routinely see powerful people get away with blatantly unethical (if not actually illegal) behavior, does this have a corrosive effect? Tie that back into Machiavelli's idea about making some examples. Nailing Madoff, I'd submit, isn't enough.

  6. Mark cites magnetometers as a promising example of an unexplored technological approach to crime prevention, by enabling easier detection of firearms. The distributed intelligence revolution about to hit us – the "internet of things" in which myriads of everyday objects can identify themselves and communicate data about their state – allows for more ambition. Guns, TVs, cars, front doors, cases of beer, can all be made self-reporting. There is a little way to go in technology before this vision is realized – energy harvesting, allowing microdevices to operate without batteries, is not quite there yet, Still, ARM's licensees have shipped their 50 billionth processor, and the company is expected to announce its roadmap for 100 billion: ten for every human inhabitant of the planet. Its smallest 32-bit processor, the M0+, has an area of 0.02mm2 on a 40 nm process; a speck of dust.

    There are obviously privacy issues in mass surveillance of objects, but they are surely more tractable than those raised by mass surveillance of individuals and their communications. We do need to start thinking about a world in which it's entirely possible for law enforcement to track single banknotes.

    1. I want the popcorn concession if this proposal ever makes it to a legislative body.

      The NRA went batstuff crazy over the proposal of tagging propellants. What will they do if a proposal to tag the firearms themselves gets out there.

      Don't misunderstand me: I like the idea. If it were enacted, there would be no such thing as concealed carry any more. Maybe we could even leave our shoes on at the TSA screening line…

    2. "Guns, TVs, cars, front doors, cases of beer, can all be made self-reporting."

      In the case of Guns, the NRA and the gun nuts will fight tooth and nail against that.

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