Crime: The false dilemma of Right versus Left still reigns

In this think piece, Terry Arthur explains why the Left and the Right are both wrong about crime and punishment. As he puts it, “All three of the main parties remain incorrigibly statist, and at this rate, almost any action will soon be classed as either banned or compulsory.” 

Libertarians believe that the real political issue is not whether a government is Left or Right but rather whether it is large or small. Freedom is indivisible; it is silly to want free speech without freedom of (peaceful) action. (If A and B meet in the street and agree under free speech that it would be good to swap A’s apples for B’s oranges in a certain ratio, it is silly to forbid them to go ahead with the swap).

So the last 100 years have not been happy for libertarians; under governments of every hue, taxes and other forms of intervention have expanded exponentially with hardly any respite. All three of the main parties remain incorrigibly statist, and at this rate, almost any action will soon be classed as either banned or compulsory.

It is true that under the present coalition there have been some significant crumbs of comfort; for example if the coalition is to be believed, we will soon see the abolition or reduction in the scope of several Labour-induced intrusions, including the identity card scheme, biometric passports, the National Identity Register, CCTV expansion, storage of internet and email records, the weakening of both trial by jury and the DNA database, and various others.

But let’s get real; big government is not going to disappear in a hurry, not even in genuinely downsizing its role. A good example is the issue of crime and imprisonment, where over the past week or two, MPs David Davis and Kenneth Clarke, the press, and think-tanks have argued over one variety of big government for another. In essence the “prison works” camp advocates locking up the perpetrators at swish hotel rates (about £40,000 a year) paid by the taxpayer, whilst the other camp advocates, instead of prison, various types of rehabilitation and/or community services, also paid by the taxpayer. In other words they argue over the fate of the perpetrators, the taxpayers, and the rest of the citizenry, with the “prison works” camp assuming rather blithely that lock-ups will save loads-a-money or its equivalent in crime-reduction – not only whilst criminals are locked up but also after their release as reformed citizens. Yeah, right; exactly how would, or did, such a result come about in the cases of Lester Piggott and Jeffrey Archer? They were no doubt rare cases, but does anybody really believe that most fraudsters and thieves undergo a Damascene conversion whilst spending years amongst their new chums? To me, the idea of locking up non-violent criminals must be counter-productive on almost any count.

“OK, but where is the big government?” you may ask. Two issues stand out here. The first is the proliferation of actions which become “crimes” at the stroke of a pen, and the second is that, as far as I have seen, not one of the matters in the current debate mentions the victims of crime. The word “crime” was introduced a thousand or more years ago to cover offences against the reigning monarch, and even now it is primarily reserved for offences against “the State”. That says it all. Increasingly, new stroke-of-the-pen “crimes” don’t have “victims” apart from the politicians and their anger that somebody should transgress their made-up rules. Two big examples are drug-taking (the banning of which causes true crimes as drug barons take advantage of the resulting high prices) and white collar “crimes” which are increasing as Gung ho regulators like the Financial Services Authority talk openly of “getting a result” almost irrespectively of guilt. (Again, “guilt” is often the breaking of a highly dubious law where victims are hard to find yet punishment consists of both prison and fines). (The USA SEC is even worse; for example the only “crimes” of Kenneth Lay and Martha Stewart were to lie to the authorities.) Contract law is all that is necessary to deal with the “crimes” of insider dealing and “market abuse”.

In most cases, surely the test of criminal behaviour is whether there are specific and identifiable victims? It is outrageous that people go to jail when there are no victims, and when there are victims they are ignored! The victims of true crime, or their families, are the primary sufferers. Yet my only recollection of anything concerning the victim from our politicians was a few years ago when someone had the idea that the victim or his/her representatives should be allowed to have their day in court. Great! Here’s a chance to say your piece. Then go home, lick your wounds and get used to it.

One word seems to be taboo in all of this – compensation. Damages, if you like. Isn’t it rather odd that you can sue for damages except for really serious crimes? Whatever the crime, why not levy fines payable directly to the victims? Granted, not all criminals are well off or even comfortable but surely it is not beyond the wit of lawyers to devise an equivalent to Bankruptcy under which the perpetrator’s capital and income are available as a first call to pay the victim(s) – for as long as it takes to pay it all off at double (say) the assessed loss.

The important principle should be that the perpetrator is recognised as a debtor of the victim rather than of the State. This does not mean that the debt must be paid by either the perpetrator or nobody at all. Where this is not possible, at least not in full, there’s always the £40,000 a year to fall back on!

The other area of big government here is its role in rehabilitation via probation officers and a galaxy of other government employees. It would be far better to allow private charities (with no links whatsoever to government) to take over these functions and also to deal with the welfare of victims, including any shortfalls in restitution. Such charities were (until the State took over) the primary sources of welfare provision. Their biggest advantage is that whilst they would naturally provide succour when needed, in direct contrast to the state welfare industry (which wants to retain its “clients” on the books) their major aim would be that of the great Victorian charities, namely to get their clientsoff their books via reform. Such twin aims are essential, whether for criminals or victims.