Colm O'Doherty: According to Dan O'Brien there is no relationship between inequality and law breaking (Irish Times 24/08/12). This bogus statement is grounded in the same kind of statistical modelling which economists relied upon to predict ‘soft landings’ for economies with sound ‘fundamentals’ . The predictive capability of economics here is based on a positivism which seeks generalizations which are independent of culture. For Dan O’Brien and other neo-liberal commentators the hubris of positivism is manifested as a fetishism of numbers, an illusion of precision and the donning of the status shield of science. As we now know the so called pragmatism of economics as trumpeted by a large technocratic mainstream was nothing more than a policy driven skate on the thin ice of casino capitalism.
There is more than a whiff of this neo-liberal policy agenda in Dan O'Brien’s promotion of a mechanistic relationship between objective conditions and human behaviour. There is no natural science of society, and of crime in particular. The perspective on social order which is espoused in this article is well known to us all : it is the ‘orthodox’, the ‘conventional’ the ‘taken for granted ‘ world carried by mass media and the establishment. Namely that society is a fundamentally rational and consensual arrangement where deviance and crime is seen as a marginal and minority category. The deviants and criminals are seen as different from the ‘ normal’ population and there is generalised agreement on what constitutes criminal behaviour.
However, in reality, during the boom years, when inequality between the bankers, speculators and property developers and the rest of the population spiralled, particular types of criminal behaviour flourished. Consider anti-social behaviour. The concept of anti-social behaviour which has been disseminated by the media and the establishment in recent years is focused on a whole range of behaviours such as begging, neighbourhood disturbance/nuisance, public drunkenness etc. It is fair to say that poor and socially excluded populations are portrayed as the culprits here and that cracking down on anti-social behaviours is viewed as an exercise in the creation of social order in such neighbourhoods. If we examine anti-social behaviour using an interpretative rather than a mechanistic and positivistic orthodoxy lens we will see that the fallout from the anti-social behaviour of the bankers, speculators and developers has major repercussions for everybody. Our health services are in crisis, our education system is under stress and the vulnerable are abandoned. So the figures and statistics used to advance the arguments in the piece are concealing the reality that as inequality has increased in the US, the UK here and in other highly marketised economies so has the incidence of serious white collar crime. During the boom years poverty decreased but the crimes of the wealthy – as we are now discovering- increased. Crime statistics do not reflect this increase.
Apart from the conceptual limitations of his arguments Dan O’Brien also takes some liberties with the available statistics. There is a large body of evidence showing a clear relationship between greater inequality and higher homicide rates –see Heisch and Pugh’s (1993) review and Wilkinson and Pickett’s (2006) review.