The following are the conventional arguments as to why the US is a violent society:
- – Widespread gun ownership, and lax gun control laws, enables more violent crime. While it is true that private gun ownership is much wider in the US than in other countries, and while it is true that there is generally more crime in the US than in other first world countries, this is a correlation, not a causation. And crime has fallen in the last generation while gun ownership has remained legal in most states and gun ownership has remained widespread.
- – A media culture – everything from movies to video games – that glorifies violence. As psychologist Nathaniel Branden has said: “our so-called art and entertainment…celebrates depravity, cruelty, and mindless violence”. Yet again, violence has fallen even as the media culture has remained violent. If anything, violence is more common in the media than it has ever been, yet crime rates in the US continue to fall.
- – America has a wide gap between the rich and the poor; much wider than, say, Japan, which has much lower crime rates. This sort of argument implies that criminals are in some sense victims of society, forced to earn an illegal living through no fault of their own. The main problem with this argument is that it doesn’t conform to reality. Income inequality in the US has been rising during the last generation, while crime rates have been falling. Countries with widespread poverty, such as India, have much lower crime rates than the US. And it ignores the fact that the vast majority of the poor, both in the US and around the world, don’t choose to resort to crime.
- – A tradition of violence deeply rooted in the culture, which might be called the cowboy complex. From early battles with Native Americans, to the Revolutionary War, to the gunslingers of the Wild West, Prohibition Era gangsterism, and a series of 20th century military conflicts around the world, America is a country that seems to have a deep tradition of violent conflict. Yet while violence in American culture has remained constant, crime rates have varied dramatically in time and place in America. In 2013 the US was trying to extricate itself from the longest running wars in American history in Iran and Afghanistan, yet violence within the US was at a generational low.
We think the real explanations are more complex:
America is a free country, or at least freer than most.
This is true both from a formal legal perspective, but also, just as importantly, culturally. Americans glorify individuality, taking sides, and taking action. This is generally a great thing, and leads to America being the world leader in entrepreneurial business ventures, technology, media, entertainment, science and many other fields requiring creative thought and a bias towards action. But if you allow people to be free, some people will make the wrong choices. Success and failure require an environment where experimentation is allowed, freedom allows for both great accomplishment and great evil. If you are an innovative, risk taking society there will be both bad and good results.
As author and immigrant Ayaan Hirsi Ali has written:
“It is a wonderful truth about America – one of its powerful attractions for immigrants like me – that you may think and say whatever you wish as long as you do not act on your beliefs in a way that harms others”
That is as good a capsule of the American ideal as possible. But we quote Hirsi here not only because she is herself an immigrant with experience of Islamic oppression, but because she is writing in the Wall Street Journal about one of the most heinous acts to have occurred; the Boston Marathon bombing, which killed 3 people and maimed or injured hundreds. The same freedom to immigrate that allowed Hirsi to come to America as a productive citizen and devote her life to fighting what she calls “political Islam” is the freedom that allowed the two Boston bombers to come to America and inflict misery on hundreds of victims and their families.
America is a land of extremes
America is the biggest and the best in so many fields. But it is not a land where restraint is valued. The rich have huge houses; restaurant meals advertise their gut busting size; the biggest salaries are a constant item of report and gossip, as if bigger always meant better. Lawsuit judgments are bigger, even the obese people in America are more obese than elsewhere. In a land where extremes are prized, and restraint is not, you can expect that the lack of restraint will find its way into action, both good and bad. Without restraint, many people seek money however they can get it, sex with or without consent, the expression of anger in violent outbursts.
Compare American to Japan, a land of very low crime rates, as well as lower obesity rates, a land were personal restraint, but not creativity, is highly prized. Japan is a place where tiny things are often treasured; a land that gave us the beautiful and delicate, restrained gestures of the tea ceremony. For better and for worse, Japanese people are restrained in their dealings with others. On the other hand there is Jamaica, with its high crime rate; the capitol, Kingston, has one of the highest murder rates in the world. It’s a land where the people are friendly, outgoing, and impetuous; and often violent.
America is the teenager of the world. Growing fast (but in spurts), unwieldy, insecure, but full of life, hope, and optimism, lacking in discipline. The cultural values of restraint and discipline are linked. Americans can’t seem to stop eating, and hence are the fattest people in the world, despite having plenty of money for gyms, exotic diets, spas and all the rest. Too much is never enough. Every problem finds some pharmaceutical solution, because everyone wants a quick and easy fix, the very opposite of disciplined restraint. Like teenagers, Americans get into a lot of trouble due to their lack of discipline. An enraged jealous husband kills a wife. An ambitious young CEO cooks the books. A drug dealer fights for his corner space. And, in fact, it is younger people who are more likely to commit crimes, which is why the maturing of the baby boomers may explain much of the decrease in American crime. But, in general, Americans are an undisciplined people, unused to restraint, the idea of just saying no, and thus more likely to commit crimes.
Like teenagers, Americans of every age seem to be self-focused, completely disregarding the social contract of previous generations. The hordes of American men in fancy restaurants wearing shirts, sneakers and a baseball cap is living testimony to the fact that for an American man, nothing could matter more than personal comfort. The idea, more common in countries like Japan, that you have certain duties of restraint and obligation to your community, even in small things like how you dress, is increasingly foreign to the US.
Acting ethically and legally is most importantly about internalized standards of right and wrong, especially for the best people. But for others, more inclined to crime, acting ethically is about fitting in to the broader community. If there is no sense of cultural restraint, no general rules of behavior, you can expect the morally weakest members of society to follow whatever seems like the easiest short term path to comfort and luxury. Baseball caps in fancy restaurants may seem like a trivial thing but in a society without cultural restraints small things are a sign of bigger troubles; the breakdown of the social contract.
A land without roots
Americans are a rootless people, and by this we don’t mean so much how frequently they move, but rather that even when in one place they are less likely to develop strong communities. Someone who is rooted in their community is more likely to feel a part of it, and less likely to commit crime within it, just as a family member is less likely to steal from other family members. While there certainly are strong, tight knit communities in America, people move more often than in other countries, and America is a diverse country in just about every way; racially, economically, by attitude. High mobility within a diverse country is not a recipe for social cohesion.
A conservative is going to have a harder time fitting into a San Francisco neighborhood than a liberal. A native New Yorker is going to be challenged by the culture of Mississippi, A Vietnamese immigrant is going to have a much easier time finding a sympathetic culture in Arlington, Virginia than in Arlington Texas, just because there is a very large and long standing Vietnamese community in Northern Virginia. Because America is a mobile country with people often moving to change jobs, with adults rarely living in the same area in which they grew up, it’s not as easy to form the kind of multi-generational ties that often occur in other countries with more stable, homogenous citizens. For instance, Japan, has very little immigration and a very homogenous, conformist population, and, not just coincidentally, very low crime rates. In every country, highly transient areas, where people don’t know their neighbors, are generally identified with higher crime rates.
The degree, and type, of crime, is also associated closely with race and culture, and level of economic development. In some ways, the culture of America has become less free in recent decades, as the political correctness movement has constrained what Americans can openly discuss, and anything involving race has become subject to these limitations. But it’s no secret that crime, especially violent crime, is much higher in predominantly black, poor, inner city neighborhoods than in wealthier, predominantly white suburbs. It is a fact that when neighborhoods are “gentrified” with more affluent whites replacing less affluent blacks, crime rates decrease.
As we’ve noted above certain cultures, including subcultures within a nation, prize values like restraint, discipline, honesty, and a long term outlook. This is the basic outlook found in the much denigrated WASP culture. In these politically correct days it’s fine to denigrate everything associated with Anglo Saxon culture; in the movies WASP culture is the land of Caddyshack, of rich white men playing golf and corrupt financiers; in literature, the great WASP writers are referred to as “dead white men”. Conversely, the spontaneity of African American and Hispanic cultures, the lack of restraint, the ebullience of those culture’s music and dance are celebrated. And there is certainly some truth to that. In the words of writer Buzz Bissinger, so many middle aged white men are “sexless saggy sackcloths”’; such people may dress poorly, but they also tend not to kill each other in a fit of passion. On the other hand, the phrase Latin Lover connotes exuberance and passion, but those same values can also lead to sudden outbursts of violence.
Some argue that the reason that African-Americans and Hispanics are arrested more often than whites has nothing to do with culture; the system is slanted against them. In this view, they don’t commit more crime, they are simply arrested and sent to prison more often. The fact that 70% of those in prison are non-white is because white juries are more likely to convict non-whites and harshly sentence them. However, this same sort of reasoning is not used to explain the fact that men are imprisoned at a wildly higher rate than women: One out of 18 American men, but only one in 89 American women is in jail, on probation, or parole.
Here are the statistics from the most recent year available (2012) from the FBI:
- Nearly 74 percent (73.8) of the persons arrested in the nation during 2012 were males. They accounted for 80.1 percent of persons arrested for violent crime and 62.6 percent of persons arrested for property crime.
- In 2012, 69.3 percent of all persons arrested were white, 28.1 percent were black, and the remaining 2.6 percent were of other races.
Thus, far and away more white males were arrested than in any other category. This is for arrests, not convictions, and does not speak to the type of crime.
The ratio of men imprisoned vs. women is far, far higher than the ratio of blacks imprisoned vs. whites. Yet few argue that men are unjustly imprisoned because female jurors or judges carry a bias against them. It is simply accepted that men, through culture, biochemistry or whatever, are more disposed to crime, especially violent crime. And this is true. Just as freedom allows for both the best and the worst of people, the best male inclinations: aggression, ambition, the bias towards action; foster both the daring of the soldiers that stormed Omaha beach to save the world for democracy, and the violence that men do in their own land.