The Nature of Crime

My thoughts turn this month to the nature of Crime. In this connection, a couple of articles I have run across this past month are well worth quoting.

One was a very restrained article on the subject of torture in the current issue of the ‘Candle’, magazine of Amnesty International. The last paragraph reads:

“It took thousands of years to bring private violence against defenceless individuals under control, and the control will never be total: murder, rape and robbery are still daily phenomena in every society. But they have been greatly constrained by law and public opinion. We have embarked on an attempt to constrain state violence too, and it will be a very long campaign. Rather than deplore the failure to create instant and perfect solutions, we should celebrate every small step forward. The UN convention against torture is one such step.”

The second item comes from the newsletter of the Edmonton Social Planning Council. It is an analysis of the question of ‘Why Human Organizations Fail’. Why do we get corrections systems that breed crime, schools that product stupidity, theological colleges that generate unbelief, a civil service that is neither civil nor a service, post offices that can’t move mail, etc.? Why should the ad hoc citizen’s organization of Mrs. Airth provide enough and to spare for the needs of tornado victims, while Mr. Getty, on the spot with great promises in front of the TV cameras the day after, still has not come through with his quota several months further on?

John McKnight, of Northwestern University, in a recent address to the Canadian Mental Health Association, points out that in society there are two types of social structure for getting things done. One of these is the institution:

“By institutions, we mean large structures such as corporations, universities and government mental health systems. These structures organize a large group of people so that a few of them will be able to control the rest of them. In this structure there is ultimately room for one leader. It is a structure initially created to produce goods such as steel and automobiles.”

However, as well as the institution, and often quicker, more resourceful and more efficient, is the community:

“It is obvious, upon the briefest reflection, that the typical social policy map is inaccurate because it excludes a major social domain—the community. By community, we mean the social place used by family, friends, neighbours, neighbourhood associations, clubs, civic groups, local government, and local media…

These associations of community represent unique social tools that are unlike the social tool represented by the managed institution. For example, the structure of institutions is a design established to create control of people. On the other hand, the structure of associations is the result of people acting through consent. It is critical that we distinguish between these two motive forces, because there are many goals that can only be fulfilled through consent, and these are often goals that will be impossible to achieve through a production system designed to control.”

McKnight points out that institutions are structured so that things will be done ‘right’. People of (alleged) ability therefore dominate, and there is no place for the fallible. Community structures, however, “tend to proliferate until they create a place for everyone, no matter how fallible.”

  • Associations produce many leaders—organizations only a few.
  • Associations respond quickly, yet do not imprison those receiving aid in permanent ‘systems’.
  • Associations breed creativity. Organizations require ‘channels’.
  • Associations are personal, organizations impersonal.
  • Associations provide care to persons who consent. Organizations provide ‘a service’ to persons regardless of their wishes.
  • Associations are training grounds for citizenship. Institutions, being run from above, by definition cannot act in this manner.

“There is a mistaken notion that our society has a problem in terms of effective human services. Our essential problem is weak communities. While we have reached the limits of institutional problem solving, we are only at the beginning of exploring the possibility of a new vision for community. It is a vision of re-associating the exiled. It is a vision of freeing ourselves from service and advocacy. It is a vision of centering our lives in community.”

Crime, you see, is essentially doing something that is prohibited by the biggest organization of all, Government. This may well be something morally reprehensible by the standards of the community—theft, murder, rape, slander—the sort of thing that governments were set up to prevent. It also includes things that are not in themselves morally wrong, but are needed for the safety and convenience of the community—wearing seat belts, driving on the right side of the road, shovelling snow on the sidewalk, paying taxes. It may very well involve actions that the community as a whole may well support—one thinks of Gandhi’s refusal to pay the salt tax, or the storming of the Bastille: some people would add, practicing Law without being a member of the Law Society. Crime also includes the prohibition of certain acts considered innocuous by many people—bootlegging, gambling, speeding, drugs, communicating with prostitutes, stock market fraud, for example—and does not prohibit certain acts, such as adultery and prostitution, that the community may not like at all. When we come to the UN convention against torture, we are meeting something that looks very like a crime actually committed by government. Does that mean that governments are subject to a ‘higher law’? If so, from where? Amnesty would say ‘from the moral standards of the community’—and encourage you to write letters to those abusing their positions of political power to encourage them to stop it.

Truly, a strange mixture. Crime, says my favourite Crown Prosecutor, is anything done by the people the Government doesn’t like. And government, as we have seen, can be the community’s hidden enemy.

More next month.

– Gemini, November 1987