In Steven F. Messner and Richard Rosenfeld’s book Crime and the American Dream, a case is made for the existence of societies that are actually organized more effectively for chaos and crime than organization and law. Numerous examples are cited from modern American society to support this statement, ranging from overt violence to covert expressions of corporate and private scandal. Out of these pages, however, a hope emerges. There is also evidence of the possibility for organizing societies in a positively manifesting way. Such a society would possess characteristics of three subject areas to accomplish this.
They are cultural, structural, and institutional features that, working together, would ensure a low crime rate, as well as allowing other positive features within the society. They key detriment to a peaceful society rests upon its culture. According to the authors there is an “anything goes mentality [that] results in a volume of criminal violence in the United States that is truly remarkable” (3). This refers freedom of expression found in American culture. In general, Americans are free to live a life of liberty – ostensibly a good thing.
The natural response to this is outrage, when one’s liberty is infringed upon. This includes crimes of any nature. Herein lies the problem, however. Emotional reactions common to the culture of the American society often brings about personal, violent outrage. In this situation a crime of violence, for example, is immediately punished with a similar act of violence. A common type of this cultural issue is the prevalence of road rage related violence in which one driver provokes the incident, but the other driver aggravates and escalates the violence. It is a cultural phenomenon that has to do with personal outrage.
The solution to this in the hypothetical society is found in the elimination of defined, excused violence. A cultural predicament arises when the by any means necessary movement is immediately justified through legal rulings of ‘justifiable homicide’ and ‘crimes of passion’. Not that the above example would be excused, but similar, violent crimes often are. This leads to a perpetuation of personal violence to suppress crimes. If there were no possibility of this, then the act itself would be removed from society. The culture would change and a low crime rate would exist. The structure of American society also encourages a high crime rate.
Since the country’s inception, and in fact over a hundred years prior to the formalizing of the United States as an independent nation, a hierarchical structure of white dominance has been in place. This structural element creates an equity issue that ensures a relatively high crime rate of violence. It is vital to note that all of these issues are inextricably related. A discussion of the structure of prejudice and its effect upon crime rate is also the discussion of culture. The inequality of race is often responded to with a criminal solution to the problem that is based upon the ‘any means necessary’ cultural value.
Given the need for freedom and freedom of expression, it is not unexpected that the structural violation of this agreement would result in an upheaval and violence. A hypothetical society that would effectively lower its crime rate would have to fight back against this structural inequality. The society either could not have been founded upon the backs of others in an owner, owned relationship. Either that or the eventual treatment of this behavior would have to become so abhorrent to the nation that it would be quickly removed from the common experience. It is hard to imagine that but there are proposals to be considered.
One part of the hypothetical society could heavily litigate any violations of this bias. All forms of it would be criminalized, with severe punishment and necessary jail time and restitution. The second aspect the society could explore is the promotion of the value of inclusion through heavy media exposure. Over time the structure of the country would not be one that accepts prejudice as a common experience. The structure would allow advancement and equality – two things that would lead to a much lower crime rate as there would be fewer instances and opportunities to fight back against the structural expression of the system.
Clearly related to the above is the institutional feature of the American society as contrasted with a hypothetical society with an extremely low crime rate. As related by Messner and Rodriguez very early on in the book, the ‘above the law’ mentality of institutions in America function to create crime and criminals (4). The best example is found directly in the opening of Crime and the American Dream. Michael Milken used his place in the economic institution of America to defraud the country out of millions of dollars. This seems bad enough, and it is.
However, what is worse is that he eventually was excused for his actions based upon the expectations of institutions to ride a fine line of influence and success. This value of the institution works against an ordered and peaceful society. The society seeking to have a very low crime rate would have to account for this. The feature of institution would have to be vastly different. Again the ‘any means necessary’ setting that is the umbrella for the criminalized society exposes the institutional problem both in the up and down sense.
In the up sense, at its highest levels of institution, businesses and individuals are nearly encouraged to make money over all other considerations. The result is the down sense. The awareness of this ethical dysfunction by the common citizen leads them to believe that they, too, should not be held accountable in similar situations such as the federal tax codes. From top to bottom of society, the structural features of society encourage a high crime rate, though not one of violence in this case. The society possessing a very low crime rate would have to litigate it out, as in the examples of culture and structure.
If the very top of the institutional world would be severely punished for violations of public trust and government codes, and this were public knowledge, then the lower institutions, from business to individual would respond by reducing their crime. This would take place because of a combination of these situations: 1) The knowledge of the punishment of institutional crime would create an awareness of unacceptable behavior that will be punished, thus lowering the occurrences of institutional crime, and/or 2) The knowledge of the punishment of institutional crime would reduce the need for an emotional response of ‘any means necessary’.
There would also be other benefits beyond merely reducing the crime rate of the society. These could be termed socio-emotional. The first component of this is that fear of crime would begin to ebb. The authors express this natural response to a violent society as a ‘not surprising’ result of violence. They cite the astounding statistic that “Over 40 percent of the adult population – and nearly half of black American adults – are afraid to walk alone at night in their own neighborhoods” (4).
A reduction in the crime rate itself would begin to create a society in which fear wasn’t the norm, and confidence in daily life would rise. The second element would be a perceptible rise in moral standards across the board. Where criminal violations were punished out of societal expectation there would be fewer acceptances of these violent behaviors. By any means necessary would not be the norm, as individuals and institutions would not feel that it were possible, or required. Ethical standards could fill that vacuum.
The hypothetical society that possesses a low crime rate would have to be vastly different from the current American example. Culture, structure and institution would have to change in order to reduce the overall crime rate. As a consequence, this would also bring about key positive changes in reducing the fears of citizens, and raising the ethical standards under which they live. ? References Messner, Steven, and Richard Rosenfeld. Crime and the American Dream. 3rd ed. New York: Wadsworth, 2006. Print.