Analysis: America the crime-free, Part 2

By IAIN MURRAY  |  March 20, 2003 at 3:59 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) -- This is the second part of a three-part look at crime rates in the United States.


Comparing crime rates from different countries is often an exercise in folly. Definitions of offenses differ, even between countries with similar legal codes, which means they are often not directly comparable.

In addition, there are differences between the way in which police record crime (in one country, for instance, a homicide might be listed as a murder before there is any investigation as to whether it was justifiable or excusable, while in another it might enter the statistics only after exhaustive investigations prove it was a murder). Crime surveys, on the other hand, which are often used to assess the true extent of crime, including crimes not reported to the police, often suffer in comparability because of differences in the way the questions are asked.

There is, however, one measure of crime internationally that avoids these problems. The International Crime Victims Survey is conducted about every other year. It asks a representative sample of the population in many countries the same questions about their experience with crime.

There have been four international "sweeps" of the ICVS since 1989, the most recent in 2000, giving us a good idea of the direction crime has taken over the past decade. While the actual figures might be unreliable as indications of actual crime levels in a country, they nevertheless provide us with a very good tool for comparing the levels of crime in different countries.

It should come as no surprise that the United States fared worst for crime overall in 1989, when the latest American crime wave was nearing its peak. But it might be surprising that America recorded below-average crime in the most recent sweep of the survey.

Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, England and Wales, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Scotland and Sweden -- among the developed nations -- all registered a higher prevalence of crime than the United States. The figures are based around a composite of 11 crimes, including such things as bicycle theft (a major problem in the Netherlands), but the relative position generally holds for other crimes like auto theft, burglary and assault.

It's noticeable that the non-American "Anglosphere" countries suffer from high rates of assault and robbery. In both Britain and Australia, more than 6 percent of the population reported being the victim of a personal assault or threatened assault within the last year, double the American rate; 5 percent of Canadians gave the same response.

Nevertheless, high assault and robbery rates are not an English-speaking phenomenon. For example, 4 percent of French and Swedish respondents were victims of assault, and the French robbery rate was equal to the Australian and English, at just over 1 percent of the population (the U.S. figure was 0.6 percent).

As for property crime, a difference between the "Anglosphere" countries and the rest of the developed world once again seems visible. For burglaries and thefts, Britain and Australia once more lead the way, along with Poland, with the United States taking a middle position before France, Belgium, the Netherlands and similar countries.

It is interesting that countries with the most property crime are also those where individual property rights have been established the longest, suggesting perhaps that theft is more likely to be considered when there is less likelihood of state intervention to address perceived imbalances.

There is no evidence that theft is spurred by the envy of an established class structure; the United States had much higher rates of burglary and theft than England in the earlier sweeps of the survey.

Yet there is another category of crime that is often forgotten about in the United States, in which America and the other "Anglosphere" countries perform very well by comparison: corruption. Although it is a rare crime in most parts of the developed world these days, English-speaking countries suffer from it less than others do.

Only one Briton and two Americans said they had experienced corruption from a government official during the time period of the 2000 survey sweep. These figures are substantially smaller than the 13 Frenchmen, 11 Austrians, nine Belgians and eight Dutchmen who had experienced corruption, most often from customs officials.

As we shall see when we examine crime in the developing world, this is a major category of crime that Americans tend to forget about -- but it is still surprisingly prevalent in much of the developed world.

When compared with the rest of the developed world, America's non-murder crime rate appears strikingly good. Americans suffer crime far less than residents of most European states and significantly less than other English-speaking peoples do. That goes for all types of crime, property and violence.

America's reputation as a country overrun by crime might have been deserved in 1989, but now it's a misconception. The United States is quite simply one of the safest places to live in the developed world.


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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