Britain's descent, from tough to tolerant

August 24, 2006|By Thomas Sowell

The general mind-set of the political left is similar from country to country and even from century to century.

The softness toward dangerous criminals found in such 18th-century writers as William Godwin and Condorcet has its echo today among those who hold protest vigils at the executions of murderers and who complain that we are not being nice enough to the cutthroats imprisoned at Guantanamo.

The specific issues change from place to place and from time to time, but the mind-set remains remarkably similar. What is also different from country to country and from one era to another is the amount of resistance encountered by the left, which determines how far it can go in practice.

The United States has always been more resistant to the left than most European countries have been. Often we can see where the American left is headed by seeing where the European left has arrived.

A new book on crime in Britain shows what happens when the mind-set of the left prevails throughout the criminal justice system. That book is A Land Fit for Criminals by David Fraser.

Within living memory, Britain was one of the most law-abiding nations on earth. When Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew visited London right after World War II, he was so impressed with the honesty of the British and their respect for law and order that he returned home determined to make Singapore the same way.

Today it is Singapore that is one of the most law-abiding nations in the world, while Britain's crime rate has risen to the point where, for the first time, it exceeds the crime rate in the United States.

What happened in the intervening years was the rise of the British left's dogmas about crime, which have completely dominated the country's legal system and political and media elites.

Today, a burglar caught in the act by British police is almost certain to get a warning. If he has previous burglary convictions, he may get a sterner warning. But he is unlikely to face anything so draconian as being put behind bars.

Burglary has been described as a "minor" offense by leaders of both the Conservative and Labor parties in Britain. Rare cases where burglars are put in prison are criticized by the media.

The left's ideology on crime, including its disdain for property crimes, has spread across the political spectrum to all who wish to be considered up to date. That ideology is essentially the same on both sides of the Atlantic, but in Britain it has achieved far greater unchallenged dominance.

Among the dogmas of the left is that putting people in prison fails to reduce crime, that the social "root causes" of crime must be dealt with to prevent it, and that "rehabilitation" through programs "in the community" are more effective than locking up criminals.

None of this is new, and the rationales for it go back at least two centuries. What is remarkable is how mountains of hard evidence to the contrary have been ignored, evaded or simply lied about on both sides of the Atlantic.

A Land Fit for Criminals examines that evidence at length and exposes the fraudulence of the claims used to try to justify continuing leniency toward criminals as crime rates have soared in Britain.

There are similar mountains of evidence against the left's crime dogmas in the United States, and this evidence is similarly ignored, evaded or lied about by those on the left. It is just that the left faces stronger opposition here, so it has not achieved the pervasive dominance that it has in Britain - yet.

In both countries, ideologues have the support of "practical" politicians and bureaucrats who simply do not want to spend the money needed to build and maintain enough prisons to put career criminals away for many years.

Those weighing costs and benefits define "costs" as government expenditures. The costs paid by the public, just in economic terms, vastly exceed the cost of more prisons. But that does not count for either ideologues or "practical" politicians and criminal-justice bureaucrats.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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