Analysis: America the crime-free, Part 1

By IAIN MURRAY   |   March 20, 2003 at 12:04 PM

WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) -- How does America rate when it comes to crime? The global stereotype remains that America is a largely lawless country, where death stalks the streets of New York every day and where casual visitors are likely to be gunned down by paranoid neighbors or policemen.

Yet this stereotype does not reflect reality, for a variety of reasons. This series of articles will look at America's relative position in terms of homicide in comparison with the developed world, and finally in comparison with the rest of the world. The picture of America that emerges from a careful review of the evidence is one of a relatively crime-free society, one that should perhaps be proud of rather than apologetic for its crime rate.

America has, as everyone knows, the worst murder rate in the developed word. Yet this does not necessarily mean that America is the world's crime capital. Murder is, in itself, not a particularly good indicator of overall crime levels. Some of the nation's demographic characteristics are also unique among industrialized countries and may account for a great deal of the difference. Once these factors are borne in mind, the use of the headline murder rate to distinguish America from other countries in terms of crime seems less appropriate.

Murder rates are normally expressed in numbers of crimes per 100,000 people. This should immediately make apparent the rarity of the crime. Murder is by far the least common serious crime and needs to be understood in that context. In Western Europe, the murder rate is around 1-2 per 100,000. In Spain, in Eastern European countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and in what are sometimes termed the "Anglosphere" countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the murder rate is normally between 2 and 3 per 100,000. America, by contrast, has a widely varying murder rate, ranging from just over 10 per 100,000 in 1991 to the current level of around five per 100,000.

Various reasons have been suggested for America's large homicide rate, from the high rate of firearms use in crime, through the effects of the war on drugs, to the after-effects of slavery on the urban African-American community. All of these may indeed be factors in the height of the murder rate, but none of them provides a single overwhelming answer that explains it all.

The simple truth is that America has a great deal of unique characteristics that affect one or more factors in the murder rate. It should be noted, for instance, that most countries of British descent have a higher murder rate than Western Europe (the exception being England itself, although the rate there has been rising over recent years). This is probably due to the more liberal political atmospheres in these countries, descending from a belief in individual liberty that has the unfortunate side effect of allowing the less law-abiding members of society more leeway to commit crimes. America obviously shares this trait.

We also need to bear in mind the presence in America of a community that has no direct parallel in any other Western nation. The African-American community has a massive homicide rate, 25.8 in 2000, but reaching as high as 50.4 in 1991. These numbers, similar to or higher than Russia's enormous homicide rate (19.9 in 1997), contribute much of America's murder rate. The "white" community in America, which includes most Hispanics, comparatively has a much lower homicide rate at around three per 100,000 in 2000. This number is not particularly out of line for Anglosphere countries, although it is definitely on the higher end.

Many reasons have been given for the high homicide rate among African-Americans, but it is probably a combination of two predominant factors. First, the depredations of the drug trade, most notably during the crack cocaine boom in the early-mid 90s (the homicide rate seems to have fallen in line with a transition to marijuana "blunts" as the drug of choice in the community). Second, the legacy of slavery, as Professor James Q. Wilson of Pepperdine has argued, has made family structure and community solidarity much less pronounced among African Americans, which has led to problems with fatherlessness and family breakdown that in turn lead to greater disrespect for the law and a male youth culture based around aggression.

Despite the prominence of the American murder rate, however, it does not by itself signify that America is that much more lawless a country than others with smaller homicide rates. We know that it is not because other comparative studies show America to be much less subject to crime than other developed countries, as we shall see in the next part of this series.

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Iain Murray, a writer based in Alexandria, Va., is a Visiting Fellow of the British think tank Civitas, The Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

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