Britain is experiencing a crime wave, and the headlines are shocking. London has for the first time ever passed New York in the number of murders so far this year. The Evening Standard has just reported that “London gangs including the Mali Boys are becoming more ‘organised, ruthless and driven by drugs profits’”. There has just been a horrible stabbing in Liverpool Street station. And there are now some 60 moped raids a day, which, according to the BBC, is 30 times more than five years ago.
It is not just London. Rising crime in Greater Manchester means that people in the Northwest are more likely to be crime victims than anywhere else in England and Wales. There has been a surge in crime in Birmingham, and the home secretary is meeting West Midlands MPs to discuss the spate of murders and stabbings in the region. What’s happening?
There has been the usual string of explanations, including cuts in police numbers, an out-of-touch judiciary, immigration from high-crime countries, closure of youth clubs, rising middle-class drug use, and so on. I don’t think it is very helpful to add to this litany here.
What needs to happen – and will happen, because this is intolerable – is to go through the evidence and calmly develop effective counter strategies. Meanwhile we should all hold in our thoughts the victims of violent crime. As the poet John Donne wrote 400 years ago: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
However horrible this crime wave is, however, it should be set against a long-term decline in almost all violent crime in almost all developed countries, and in much of the emerging world too. That we use the word “wave” suggests that this is something that comes and goes. The long-term trend is for crime to go down, and down massively.
The best discussion about this that I have seen comes in a book published earlier this year. It is Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker. I heard him in London a couple of months ago talking about it with Stephen Fry, and he was rather wonderful. The message – really a development of themes established in his earlier work, The Better Angels of Our Nature – is about the values of the Enlightenment, in particular the triumph of reason. As a result “our lives have become longer, healthier, safer, happier, more peaceful, more stimulating and more prosperous – not just in the West, but worldwide”.
Some people find this quite hard to accept and there was a bit of pushback during his talk. Some of the writers he criticised have also attacked back. But the section on crime is really worth reading for anyone depressed by the goings-on right now.
The basic story is this. On a very long view, crime, and in particular violent crime, is in steady decline. Since the Middle Ages, murder rates in Europe have plunged. They are much lower now in the US than they were in New England in the 1600s, and in the southwest US in the late 1800s. (If you want an example of how prominent Americans killed each other for the most trivial of reasons, go to smash-hit musical Hamilton.)
What is true is that there was a surge in homicides in the US and many other developed countries in the 1960s onwards, which then reversed from the 1990s – very sharply in New York. In some places murder rates are still very high (Latin America has 8 per cent of the world’s population but 33 per cent of all its murders.) But violent crime is, Pinker argues, a solvable problem. Actually some cities in Latin America have recently seen dramatic drops in murder rates – and he points to some principles to guide the authorities on how to do so.
Why, if the long-term trend of crime is downwards, do many people think the reverse? Here, the best explanations I have seen come from another new book, Factfulness, by Hans Rosling (who sadly died last year) and his son and daughter-in-law Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. His book, and I would urge you to buy it, is about facts that show the world is getting better, and the negative bias we have towards those facts. The better-educated people are, the greater the bias, and as a result the worse their answers to questions about life expectancy, access to electricity, women’s education and so on. The elite at Davos were particularly poor at answering some of his questions. People are also bad at accepting that crime is falling.
Rosling attributes the negativity bias to a number of things. They include the media’s selective reporting (sorry about that), “feeling” rather than thinking about the past (it wasn’t so great), an lack of awareness in the West of the progress being made in the developing world, and difficulty in understanding orders of magnitude. Pinker adds intellectual fashion (to be positive is dismissed as heartless or Panglossian, whereas to be pessimistic is to be sage). I would add the work of some pressure groups: they have to say things are terrible to raise enough money to keep themselves going.
None of this, none of this at all, should diminish the awfulness of what is going on in our land right now. There is a crime wave. It is dreadful. It needs to be tackled. But we can do things to tackle it, and we will.
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