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Vietnam… On Crime (Part 4)

Black Market... Crime?

In the last few posts on crime, a few ideas were presented that made me “kick the can” around in the empty recesses of my mind. Posing a question on the causes of crime (in the neighborhood of poverty) Mr. Grim felt compelled to comment on “rule breakers,” Tom from Responsibility chimed in with a killer thesis concerning our American heritage, and Jeff provided insight from personal experience in a corrections environment with juveniles. All the discussion topics held a certain resonance for me – simply because elements of each are found in the various theories on crime. It also feeds my curiosity about crime and punishment.

A few of the ideas that meshed and stood out were Tom’s notion of losing trust in democratic institutions and Jeff’s observations that the vast majority of the juvenile offenders he supervises are poor. I think part of the appeal of “cultural criminology” is that it attempts to take into account the past and current cultural milieu. A theory of crime is unconvincing if it fails to function in a broad variety of conditions when it is attempting to explain the same basic phenomenon. I tend toward an eclectic view in theories of crime, but I kept kicking around Tom’s ideas that were centered on a lack of trust in democratic institutions – and changed it to government institutions. How far does the lack of trust have to go before I would commit a crime? Two ways of approaching crime are asking why people commit crime, and of course, why do people NOT commit crime.

Part of what lead my thinking here was establishing that it could be any government and those two questions apply. What if the reason to commit and not to commit a crime were essentially the same, i.e., a concern for self and for my fellow man? The other part of what lead my thinking here was remembering all the black market economies I’ve seen in totalitarian economies. How far does the lack of trust have to go before I would commit a crime? P.J O’Rourke wrote All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty. It’s an excellent book because it actually is funny; however, O’Rourke forces you to walk away thinking much harder about the things he gets you to chuckle over. In fact, sometimes the thinking afterward upsets the stomach as much as the drinking water in Viet Nam. A currently, at least nominally, Marxist country, O’Rourke interviewed several people in government concerning price fixing and central planning and… you get the idea. Here’s one short story:

Next I interviewed Le Dang Doanh, deputy director of the Central Institute for Economic Management. He was even more emphatically against economic management being centralized in things like institutes. He told me a story about a fisherman who was a Communist Party member and the head of local fishing cooperative. The government-set price for fish was less than the cost of catching them. The other fisherman sold their fish on the black market and made a living. But the party member felt the dignity of his office and couldn’t bring himself to break the law. He lost money every time he went to sea. Finally he cut off his thumb so he’d never have to fish again (O’Rourke, 1994).

Part of O’Rourke’s point – his argument for market capitalism and that freedom is almost essential to its correct functioning – is the tension between government and trade and all the trouble in the world. I’d sell my fish on the black market, I am virtually certain, because like Tom said, when it moves from disenchantment to disdain to a complete lack of trust – well, there are many things I’m willing to do to feed my family. And so, a last bit for the persons who commented whether in the comments sections or email:

Money is preferable to politics. It is the difference between being free to be anybody you want and being free to vote for anybody you want. And money is more effective than politics both in solving problems and in providing independence. To rid ourselves of all the trouble in the world we need to make money. And to make money we need to be free. But, oh, the trouble caused by freedom and money.

I’d like to end this book with a clarion call to all the peoples of the earth…. Is a clarion some kind of very large clarinet? I don’t know. And how would clarinet music solve our problems? I’d like to end this book a lot of ways. Except I don’t have any answers. Use your common sense. Be nice. This is the best I can do. All the trouble in the world is human trouble… We can fix it all and we’ll still be human and causing trouble (O’Rourke, 1994).

That’s the best that I can do today, I’m tired and confused.

Cheers All!

  1. Jeff
    January 21st, 2010 at 07:54 | #1

    I believe my point was a bit muddled now that I read it again. I was actually being a bit sarcastic in calling them poor. The kids to which I am referring are not below the poverty level. They just don’t make enough money to live like they wish to so they do illegal things to get the money they want to have. These kids think nothing of blowing $150 on shoes, wear whatever Lil’ Wayne tells them to, and steal what they need for that new set of rims.

    In comparison to the six-figure and more families that populate the county, there is economic disparity. That’s definitely true. But I grew up wearing either hand-me-downs or shopping at K-Mart. Relatives bought our school supplies. I paid for my own college. I grew up poorer by a wide margin than these kids, and I still don’t consider the family of my childhood poor.

    If you can pay for a place to live, food to eat, transportation, and still have enough left for fun spending you’re not poor in my eyes. These ‘locked-up’ kids routinely have their parents bring in the latest edition of Jordan’s sneakers to make sure they’re fresh looking like their locked-up homies. To put it simply – poor people can’t afford $150 shoes. Irresponsible people with a pack-load of excuses can, but poor people can’t.

    Perhaps the sense of entitlement created by liberal-backed social agendas in the non-affluent (rather than poor) urban and minority communities could be looked at? While the economic disparity is apparent in a majority of the kids at the center, the sense of entitlement these kids have is almost without exception. They’re owed whatever they want because they were born… I have a whole separate rant on that one.

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