Crime is big business in the U.S. It is bigger than the billions of dollars that are made in the drug traffic every year and the astronomical revenues from prostitution, gambling, and armed robbery. (Robbers alone are estimated to cost us $355 thousand a day.) Even honest citizens gel a piece of the action: law enforcement professionals, judges and lawyers, criminologists, and building contractors eager to satisfy the demand for new prison construction—where would they all be if we all suddenly started behaving ourselves?
Even after they retire from business, some criminals continue to profit from their career. The Chicago Tribune recently disclosed that Aladena Fratianno has received more than $662,000 from the Federal government as reimbursement for testimony against his former colleagues. Last year, he had the effrontery to complain that he had lost money on the deal, but Fratianno has already recouped his losses by coauthoring a best-seller on—what else?—organized crime. As Dryden observed in a somewhat different con text, “Successful crimes alone are justified.”
Until recently, the only class getting nothing out of the business were the ordinary Americans who are the victims of crime. In the past few years, however, 35 states have established victims’ compensation programs. Most of them provide some form of reimbursement for medical expenses or lost property. Several have followed New York’s lead in passing so-called Son of Sam laws. Named in honor of serial murderer David Berkowitz, who signed his notes “Son of Sam,” these statutes make it impossible for criminals to make money on books or movies describing their illegal activities. Such laws are endorsed by the President’s task force on victims of crime.
It is hard not to sympathize with the plight of crime victims, especially since the poor are the most frequent targets of violent crimes. But before we commit ourselves as a nation to the general principle of victims’ compensation, we ought to be clear about where we are headed.
One question almost no one seems to be asking is, Who’s going to pay? If a criminal is caught and convicted, he ought to be made to shoulder the burden—if he can. But few muggers or rapists are members of the New York Stock Exchange. Crimes of violence are not only committed against the poor, they are committed by the poor, the uneducated, and the unemployed. In some cases it is possible to set up a work-release program in which a convicted felon surrenders part of his earnings to his victim—or rather victims, since street criminals are rarely one-time offenders. But it is unreasonable to suppose that more than a tiny fraction of victims will ever benefit from such a program.
In fact, it is the taxpayers who will end up underwriting the costs of any compensation program. Like anything the government does undertake, it will end up costing far more than the money actually paid out to victims. As Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighbor hood Enterprise, has shown, most of the Federal money allocated for victims’ restitution ends up in the pockets of professionals in the form of salaries and expenses. Like many worthy ideas, victims’ compensation will require costly programs. Few state legislatures are currently disposed to mandate new programs that will result in higher taxes. Predictably, there has been a call for Federal subsidy to the states. But if Vermonters and Nebraskans are rejecting higher taxes at the state level, why do we imagine they are willing to swallow higher Federal income taxes? Even congressmen have begun to realize they can’t fool all of the people all of the time, however hard they try.
The Son of Sam laws have the virtue of costing next to nothing. If a criminal does write a successful book, then the proceeds will go to the victims. But there is a serious danger in these laws. Traditionally, an author has held “intellectual properly rights” in his creation. If a book makes money, he is entitled to a share of the profits. In our desire to punish the guilty, we should not let animosity blind us to the serious constitutional question at stake. The idea of private property is far older than our Constitution, older even than the common law tradition that underlies the American legal system. Are we ready to declare that there are some classes of citizens who can be deprived of fundamental rights?
Convicted criminals do give up certain rights when they enter prison, but once they have “paid their debt to society,” they are free to enjoy the full rights of American citizenship. How can we impose a permanent disability on any citizen, and if we do, who can be entrusted with such power? What is an even more serious question, where do we draw the line? Some criminal activities involve politics. Perhaps we should include members and former members of the Communist Party and the Ku Klux Klan, the Watergate burglars, and anyone who burned a flag in 1968.
If communities want to ban the publication and distribution of books they find offensive, that is one thing. It’s called censorship, and it is something we have always done and, perhaps, ought to do more of. But we don’t have the stomach for that, or so it seems. Instead we want to go around to the back door and undermine a basic foundation of our civil liberties, all because of our deep sympathy for the victims. Our response to violent crime is symptomatic of a mentality that can be traced at best to the beginning of this century. We have it in our heads that crime and vice and sin are “social problems,” demanding solution. But before the problems can be solved, they must first be studied—scientifically, no less—by psychologists, sociologists, criminologists, and urbanologists. We used to be told there was something called a criminal personality. Psychologists termed him psychopath, sociologists preferred sociopath. In any event, it was reassuring to know the experts had a handle on things. All they had to do was administer the right therapy—or lock him away from decent people—and we would be all right.
It took a later generation to discover the real root causes of crime. It wasn’t the old Adam in us or Hobbes’s state of nature; it wasn’t even a low forehead or deviant genes: it was poverty, discrimination, indifference; it was, in a word, society. We could hardly expect to control the criminal elements until we had figured out a way of reforming the whole of society. Recently, the pendulum has swung back in the direction of psychology. James O. Wilson is reviving the old notion of a criminal personality. To his credit, Wilson no longer believes that criminals can be “cured” in rehabilitation centers, but neither he nor anyone else in the business is willing to give up writing articles which contribute to the illusion that social problems can be cured by professionals.
Social scientists may well have important things to say about the causes and the prevention of crime. It is not entirely their fault if the public and the public’s servants are eager lo make the leap from theoretical studies to government policies. The sciences, including the so-called social sciences, are generally considered to be ethically neutral. They tell us how we live, not how we ought to live. A criminologist in the service of the Saudi government might make law enforcement officers more effective in catching the right villains to decapitate or to mutilate. Only an ethical philosopher or theologian can speak with any authority on whether possession of Jim Beam should be a capital offense. But the vision of the social sciences has never been ethically or politically neutral. Whether we look at the precursors like Auguste Comte and Karl Marx or the founders like Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Sigmund Freud or the most celebrated social scientists of recent time—B.F. Skinner, Talcott Parsons, and Margaret Mead—they all had social and political agendas up their sleeves. Most of them couldn’t wait to tell us how, with a little help from the experts, we could make our lives oh so much richer, more peaceful, more fulfilling.
By and large, we listened respectfully. Margaret Mead, despite a scandalous personal life, was treated as an authority on marriage and the family, second only to the divorced advice counselors who write for the daily papers. Parsons, on the other hand, worked to establish the bourgeois family on a firm foundation, while Skinner was constructing a utopian paradise in Walden II—a world made out of Platonist political theory and Stalinist science.
Scientists are citizens and have a right to their opinion, it is true. Geneticist G.B.S. Haldane was a Marxist, zoologist Konrad Lorenz was right wing. But despite their frequent faults, zoologists and physicists usually make some effort lo keep their science distinct from their politics. With many social scientists, it is just the opposite: their science is their politics and vice versa. There is an outstanding exception that proves the rule: Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s leftist politics are revolting and perhaps not entirely uncorrupted (although he does not deserve the level of abuse he has received), but here’s the rub—his linguistic theories fly in the face of Marxist doctrine. While doctrinaire Marxists like Jean-Paul Sartre stick to the Party line that man has no nature that determines the quality of human social life, Chomsky’s chief contribution to linguistics has been the idea that our mental life is organized according to “deep structures” that constitute a universal grammar.
Why does Chomsky prove the rule? Because linguistics—at the level of theory—is more like a “hard” science than it is like a social science. Unfortunately, once Chomsky’s linguistic theories trickled down to high school (and elementary) English departments, it became a thoroughly social science whose mission was the destruction of standard English. Students in the 60’s and 70’s no longer learned to speak and write literate English. Instead, they were taught the theory of transformational grammar. All possible English sentences were treated alike; slang was elevated to the level of dialect and dialect to language. Anyone who resisted was branded as a snob or a reactionary. The result was a whole generation of Americans who have trouble reading anything—even a soup label—written before 1960. Chomsky himself had not set out to destroy English literacy but as soon as his theories were “socialized” they were used as tools to overthrow the existing order.
What the social sciences offer to teachers and state officials is the illusion of power. While human life is in fact rich, complex, and unpredictable, the modern state desires order and control. In their search for a philosopher’s stone that will transmute the base metal of humanity into the gold on which utopias are constructed, governments have turned inevitably to theories which claim to explain the mysteries of human experience. Whether the subject is crime, literacy, or poverty, the most popular theory will not be the most descriptive but the one that offers the greatest promise of control. Only the libido dominandi can explain the influence of behaviorism and Keynesian economics long after experience and common sense had discredited much of their theoretical assumptions.
What does any or all of this have to do with compensating the victims of violent crimes? Very simply this: we have turned over our most ancient and fundamental human privilege—self-defense—to a loosely organized conspiracy of experts and professionals who refuse to make the common distinction between normal and abnormal, right and wrong. Now that the “professionals” have demonstrated their utter incapacity to control the criminal classes, we are ready to surrender to them even more power, the power to make restitution. We do this, we say, out of compassion. If we really wanted to prevent lunatic killers like David Berkowitz or Charles Manson from capitalizing on their brutality, we would have done to them what any other society in the history of the world would have done: execute them. If we really cared about the sufferings of innocent people in America, we would not for one moment consider turning loose the swarm of rapists, child molestors, and armed robbers who infest our city streets. Here is a particle of truth in the Marquis of Halifax’s observation that, “Men are not hang’d for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen,” although it is dangerous to base execution solely on deterrence—as opposed to punishment. But Halifax redeems his reputation for political wisdom by going on to add, “Whenever a knave is not punished, an honest man is laughed at.” For every murderer we execute, we save an estimated eight lives—the sum of his potential victims plus murders deterred by execution. The number would probably go much higher for rapists. Our continued refusal to do the right thing can only be the result of cowardice and a callous indifference to what happens to the victims of crime. By turning over the entire business to criminologists, social workers, and psychologists, we think we have dis charged our responsibility, when all we have actually done is wash our hands. No amount of restitution or professional counseling will be enough to purge our collective guilt.