Trust And Crime

Given that Fox News blares out constant fear-based programming, this seems troubling (boldface mine):

My research has found that declining trust in our institutions, our social structures and one another leads to more lethal violence, including mass murder. As abstract as these sentiments may seem, they predispose certain people to kill. In fact, they explain homicide rates better than any other factor, including unemployment, guns, drugs or a permissive justice system.

Everyday murderers don’t stop to cite distrust of government or their fellow citizens as a reason they killed. Few homicides are motivated directly by political conflict or political feelings, anyway. But the link between trust in government and homicide rates is evident everywhere, across centuries

The murder rate since World War II has tracked almost perfectly, as criminologist Gary LaFree has observed, with the proportion of Americans who say they “trust the government in Washington to do what is right ” most of the time and who believe that most public officials are honest. The rate also rises and falls along with answers to surveys asking about the level of trust we have in our neighbors, how safe we feel walking around at night near our homes and how heavily armed we think we need to be…

The homicide rate peaked for African Americans during the Nixon administration, at 43 per 100,000 persons per year, when their trust in government was at its lowest and their feelings of alienation were highest. And it peaked for white Americans in 1980, at 7 per 100,000 persons annually, when accumulated anger over busing, welfare, affirmative action, defeat in Vietnam and humiliation in Iran boiled over into the Reagan revolution. If we had sustained the high rates that prevailed nationally from the 1970s to the mid-1990s (9 to 10 per 100,000 per year), 1 in every 142 Americans would have been killed, including 1 of every 27 black males. And if we maintain our current, lower rate (5.5 per 100,000 annually), 1 in every 231 Americans will be killed, including 1 of every 38 black males.

…before the 2008 election, my colleague Michael Maltz and I forecast that if Barack Obama secured the nomination and won the presidency, the homicide rate in America’s cities would drop because of what his candidacy would mean to African Americans and other minorities, who live disproportionately in urban areas. We also worried that the homicide rate would rise in the areas of the country most resistant to the idea of an African American president. The subsequent divergence in the nation’s homicide rates appeared to bear this out. Counties that were more heavily urban and minority saw their homicide rates decline. But the rates increased sharply in the predominantly white counties concentrated in the upper South — from West Virginia to Arkansas and Oklahoma — that gave less support to Obama than historical voting records and national voting trends would have suggested and that would go on to become the heart of the birther movement.

While this might be overselling the relationship: the political system often does respond to people’s needs, albeit imperfectly, it seems trust does matter. Trump will be an interesting test of this hypothesis. It’s pretty clear he won’t materially help many of the people who supported him; however, he still might be very popular among his white base, including those he will not help (though arguably the same could be said about Obama and black Americans).

But the larger question then becomes: what can we do to restore trust in public institutions? In that light, some of the supposedly internecine conflict within the Democratic Party might turn out to be a good thing–provided the assholes don’t win. In a more general sense, we need to restore and improve our institutions of governance (governance includes things like private companies.

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2 Responses to Trust And Crime

  1. Unfortunately, the assholes almost always win, and when they don’t, it’s because the “good guys”, if only temporarily, started acting like assholes.

  2. A. U. Contraire says:

    There was a peak in the murder rate in the early 90’s that was almost certainly due to the crack cocaine epidemic. Until the last two years it had steadily dropped ever since, including large drops after the financial crisis. I find it difficult to believe that 1991 – 2014 was a period of monotonically increasing trust in our institutions and social structures that could explain the drop in murder rate.

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