We are living in dangerous times. Among the countries that used to be known as the ‘free world’, America is the leading jailer and the world’s title holder as the country that imprisons the largest fraction of its citizens. The rate of criminalization and incarceration has been quietly mushrooming in the US, and is now at a level that attracts the attention of other countries, most notably our allies. How and why is that?
The 24jul10 issue of the Economist is focused on “Rough Justice: Too many laws, too many prisoners”. Our jails are loaded with about 2.4 million inmates, making one out of every hundred of our adults sit behind bars and one out of 31 adults being under some form of supervision ‘in the justice system’. Per 100,000 population the US has 748 behind bars, Russia is second with 600, in third place Brazil drops down to about 240, and then it goes way down from there. We win. Or do we?
In America you can be thrown into jail for the damndest things as we try to live our lives in an ever-growing spaghetti bowl of regulations. There are over 4,000 federal crimes, and many times more regulations that carry criminal penalties. Every day more human behaviors that were legal yesterday are becoming overnight criminalized. “(O)ver the last 40 years an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives has made criminalization the first line of attack” on most social problems.
And today with trillion dollar deficits, new trillion dollar social legislation, and trillion dollar regulatory injections or ‘stimulus’ packages raining down on our heads, the restrictions on our liberties are accelerating at a pace that makes child’s play of the alphabet soup programs in FDR’s National Recovery Act of the 1930s. In the last 18 months the Obama administration has brought into being five times as many regulation spewing federal agencies than did FDR in the eight years preceding WW2. And as some of us know, at the bottom of every stack of state regulations lies a government gun.
Why do we need so many rules to tell a supposedly free people in their own land how to behave? Why do we need so many pages of legal code that set down myriads of criminal behaviors, and why do these rules need to multiply beyond any sense, comprehension, or reason? Almost all of them are unknown to the people, and almost all of them are such that our natural instincts and cultural traditions are totally useless in advising us whether today this is right and that is wrong. And tomorrow these social tools will be of even less use.
In simpler days societies relied on the traditions and customs of culture to define, direct, and constrain normative behavior. For example, the shame that people then felt when they misbehaved served as an effective constraint on aberrant and socially destructive actions. This allowed some fairly large and complex communities to thrive and grow as nation-states. Visitors and minorities from different cultures knew how to deport themselves within dominant cultures. (My own immigrant family was a typical example of this in the mid-twentieth century.) Their choices ranged from assimilation to isolation into their own enclaves. In no way were these minorities allowed to openly challenge the dominant culture; change was evolutionary not revolutionary.
When two or more cultures in a sovereign nation-state achieve peerage or equal power, then history records very few cases where strife and trouble are not the result. In modern times peace in such polyglot societies has been kept by a strong central government claiming to be culturally neutral and fair to all. Such a strong central government is faced with a situation that can be explained with the help of the figure below.