People inclined to steal if others breaking rules
If you saw $10 in an envelope sticking out of a mailbox, would you steal the money, or pop the envelope in the mail?
If there is graffiti all over the mailbox or lots of litter on the ground, you’d be twice as likely to take the cash, according to a provocative study that taps into a shady side of human behaviour. It also lends support to the controversial “broken windows” theory behind crime and anti-graffiti prevention programs from Vancouver to Rome.
The study, published online Thursday by the journal Science, found people are more inclined to litter and steal when it seems other people have been breaking the rules. “The mere presence of graffiti more than doubled the number of people littering and stealing,” it says.
This study actually adds very little to what is already known about human behaviour and honesty, but it will be (and has been) jumped on by those who promote the mindless “zero tolerance” approach to crime. What happens then is that resources are diverted to the prosecution of petty crimes, and much greater injustices can be allowed to slide away unnoticed. It should not need repeating, but I will have to, is that crime has been falling steadily for years. It is also the case that the United States locks up a greater percentage of its citizens than most other countries (with the exception of a few of the worst tyrannies it supposedly condemns) but has on the whole much higher crime rates.
Very few people are absolutely honest. Just as very few people are completely without any moral standards at all (though we do seem to be adept at allowing them to hold some of the top jobs in our society). Most people when faced with the opportunity to take something that is not theirs, or enjoy a service without paying for it will do so if they think there are no consequences. So the “if others breaking the rules” also applies to a general perception that not only can you get soemthing for nothing, but so is everyone else, and they do not seem to suffer for it.
This is as true of speeding, not paying for a transit ride or parking in a place designated for those with disabilities. And the more we talk about the impunity of law breakers, the worse the problem gets. The best that any policy can do is hold down the amount of “non compliance” to a tolerable level. Most people will not shop lift if the store has visible deterrents. But if they see people walking through the doors, with the alarms ringing and nothing happening, they will begin to speculate on how easy it would be to get away with something. Most Canadians making day trips to the US bring back stuff they do not declare. The border agents are probably well aware of that, but also well aware of the time and trouble searching every vehicle would take, and the consequences of delaying everyone for the sake of a few pairs of sneakers.
For a long time in this region we have been subject to a vociferous campaign about fare evasion. It is my sincere belief – though I have no data to support it – that as a result of that constant harping on about “nobody pays the fare” that the general perception of the risks and penalties of getting caught has changed and that in itself has increased the level of evasion. The now famous unpaid ticket of Vancouver’s new Mayor has added to that. For what most people now know is that very few of these fines ever gets paid.
In London in the 1970s the enforcement of parking fines collapsed. The courts simply did not have time to deal with unpaid penalty notices. Once this was widely known, the percentage of people overstaying a meter or parking on yellow lines increased rapidly. Some of the worst offenders were the journalists who were reporting on the issue. Wheel clamping was a vast over reaction to a minor offence – but necessary to restore some semblance of order on the streets. It would have been much more efficient to have concentrated efforts on those vehicles that had more than ten tickets outstanding, but that would have involved a computer database. And it was that that was seen as the “assault on civil liberties” not the gross overreaction to someone not getting back to their meter in time of having to wait for hours to get unclamped.
Zero tolerance simply means that law enforcement suddenly becomes mindless. And minor offences occupy all the time and major crimes go uninvestigated. The biggest crime wave that has been running counter to the general improvement in compliance has been fraud. But the investigation of fraud is usually very time consuming and requiring considerable expertise and knowledge. Not only that but accountant are paid much more to keep people out of jail rather than get them their just desserts. It is even hard to get convictions because fraud cases are so long and complicated and juries are easily bamboozled by good defense lawyers. Dealing with this issue puts prominent people at risk – people who have friends in high places. Conrad Black, for example, is probably confident that his friend George will now come to his aid – all other avenues having been exhausted. It is not coincidental that the media conglomerate owners like to keep attention focussed on issues like fare evasion. And not the much more damaging activities of the wealthy who like to ensure they pay as little tax as possible.
Do you know anyone who thinks it is wrong to find a way to declare less income to the tax authorities? Yet the uproar over people of welfare who get caught up in that systems complexities is out of all proportion to the size of the offences, when much bigger and more succesful cheats get away with it all the time and are praised for their business acumen.