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Alice Bachini-Smith and Stephen Davies on the remoralisation of society

Everything I have heard and read tells me that this kind of thing used to be true in Britain.

I live in a very small street with only eight houses, but delivery vans come down here at least twice a day. Fed Ex and that other company. People have a lot of parcels delivered by not the Post Office these days. The internet brings us gifts every day.

They bash on the door a few times, then put the parcel down and walk off. One time, a delivery man hid the parcel under our doormat. I guess he thought it was more valuable-looking than usual (true- it was Lego/s). Nobody expects parcels to be stolen from doorsteps. Everywhere I’ve lived in England, that would be insane. I never minded about crime when I lived in the UK, but that was before experiencing life in a place that feels this safe. It’s wonderful.

I heard a story from my brother-in-law about Nottingham in the thirties. Apparently, in a very poor part of town and at a very poor time, as was the practice in such places in those times, a man used to come round with a big leather bag, collecting rent, in cash. This man was not liked. People went hungry to ensure that he got his cash. But it never occurred to him or to anyone that this was a stupid thing for him to do, because it was not stupid. Anyway, one day, he left his bag in the middle of the street for some reason, full of cash, unattended. A while later he came back and collected it, untouched, all the money still there. Those were the rules.

But stories like that about long-ago Nottingham are far easier to dismiss than the contrast that Alice Bachini-Smith describes from her own direct and hugely contrasting experiences. To tell me that I am wrong about 1930s Nottingham only involves saying that the story has become exaggerated over the years, as maybe it has. To tell Alice that she is wrong means telling her that she is wrong about her own experiences. It means calling her a liar, pretty much.

As to why things worked like this in most or even all of Britain in the past and still do work like this in the more law abiding parts of America, well, that is another argument. The reasons are quite complicated, I would say. (For instance, I have long believed architectural design to be part of the story.)

I recall publishing an interesting piece for the Libertarian Alliance by the historian Stephen Davies entitled Towards the Remoralisation of Society about these kinds of arguments. This was published in 1991 but since then the story in Britain has surely changed rather little and if anything has got somewhat worse. (Here and here are some more recent writings by the same author, the former being a book that you have to buy, but the latter being a blog posting that you can actually read.)

38 comments to Alice Bachini-Smith and Stephen Davies on the remoralisation of society

  • (For instance, I have long believed architectural design to be part of the story.)

    I wonder if there is any correlation between bad architectural design and State largesse? Maybe then the architecture is just symbolic of the underlying issue.

  • ian

    I’m not disputing Alices’s observations, but generalising from a sample of one is always dangerous.

    For example one person directly known to me has been murdered in my 60 years of life. That person happened to be living in the US in a small mid-western town. In the (UK) village in which I now live I don’t believe there has been a burglary in at least 10 years. I can’t really draw a useful conclusion from either fact though.

  • Ian, your example is irrelevant. Alice’s observation has to do with local customs (which are identical to the ones I have observed in a small town in Missouri). Yours is not an observation of customs, but a report of a single tragic incident.

    I can’t really draw a useful conclusion from either fact though. Yes you can. You can conclude that in Alice’s town people do not touch what is not theirs, even if it is left unattended in plain view, and even if the chance they might be caught is very low, and this, IMO, says volumes about the morality of the local residents. However, I cannot conclude much from your observation on the lack of burglaries in your village, since this can be attributed to various reasons, not all of them having to do with morality. Of course I am not saying that your neighbors are less moral than Alice’s, but I just cannot tell from you observation.

  • Ian, I have lived in both countries for large chunks of my life and I would say that whereas certain high crime inner cities are very dangerous indeed in the USA if you are unwary (i.e. there is a small but present risk of getting shot at), the overall sense I get is that the risk of violence is much greater in almost any UK town centre, particularly after chucking-out time and doubly so on a Friday night (i.e. there is a not so small and very present risk of a kick in the bollocks or a bottle over the head). Experience has shown me that thuggishness is simply much more common in the UK. Of course that is not to say there are not various agreeable ‘islands of civility’ in the UK, such as where I live at the moment for example.

    That I can recall, I have once been threatened with violence in the USA. I have lost count how many times I have found myself in a ‘situation’ in the UK. I am sure the US murder rate is higher but I would be very surprised indeed (as in ‘I would not believe otherwise regardless of whatever the official statistics say’) if overall the level of violence in the UK is not quite substantially higher than in the USA.

  • Paul Marks

    A lot of people tend to snear when someone does not live up to the standards they claim to live by – for exampe when a clergyman is found to be a child abuser.

    But it is worse when people do not have standards at all.

    Nottingham in the 1930′s may not have been “Christian” (in the sense of most of the poor people going to Church every Sunday – although they must likely would have done before the First World War), but most people (including most poor people) would either have claimed to be Christian (and not in some lose sense – they would have claimed to believe in the actual principles of the Christian faith and would have known what they were) or (if they were athieists) to strongly believe in “right” and “wrong” (which were held to be objective standards – not whims)

    Of course there were criminals in the 1930′s (my father crossed swords with some of them in the East End of London) and there were also “good and evil are but cheer and boo words” type “intellectuals” – but such people were freaks.

    Today many people (perhaps most people) in Britain (at least in many areas) have no clear sense of right and wrong – they have no standards to fail to meet.

    For all its faults this is less true in the United States.

  • I’ll second Alice’s experience. When we left semi-rural Texas for Wisconsin we had to call a locksmith to cut new keys for the house. We’d lived there for three years and had lost the keys to the doors – we’d gotten out of the habit of locking the doors while we were away.

    We do the same thing in small-town Wisconsin. There is an implicit trust here – we get packages left on our doorstep by UPS and FedEx all the time.

  • The Dude

    When I used to live in Arizona I never felt unsafe, now that back in the UK near a town center I have lost count of the number of punch ups I have seen.

  • I have a theory about where this lack of morality comes from. We, as a populace, have abdicated any responsibility for our actions and behaviour. Its always either our parent’s fault, society’s fault, a deprived childhood, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, educational inequality, institutional racism, the list goes on. It is never the fault of those in the wrong. In my opinion this is as valid an excuse as saying ‘The Devil made me do it’. The state has merrily gone along with such excuses because it wants to be seen to be doing something to combat crime, its supposed causes, and ‘anti-social behaviour’, as a side effect this also seems to give it carte blanch to attempt to regulate ever facet of our lives with apparent impunity. Instead of saying to those concerned ‘You did this, you take the consequences.’ be they the many symptoms of prolonged drug or alcohol abuse (no NHS treatment for related illnesses for example), or a vengeful society exacting their own retribution upon the perpetrators. (for an example see here. Entirely appropriate in my opinion.)
    We, as a society, have been stripped of the ability to regulate our own behaviour. We don’t look out for each other any more. We are led to be suspicious of our neighbours, fearful of those less fortunate than us and reliant on the state to protect us from each other.

  • Mandrill: yes, but there are other reasons, not all of them having to do with the nanny state:-) One of the reasons I see is the increased mobility, both physical, and socioeconomic, leading to societies that are much less homogeneous than they used to be in the past (yes, immigration is part of it, and that may be one of the factors that can account for the difference between the US and Europe). This is much stronger manifested in big cities than in small towns and villages, which can probably explain higher crime rates in bigger cities.

  • lucklucky

    For Architecture related Human behaviour:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proxemics

  • Michiganny

    TimC,

    I am intrigued by the role of architecture in all this. Would you be willing to expand on that thought?

    Second, it was surprising for me to discover that suburbanites in Birmingham, just seven miles from the ground zero that is Detroit, routinely fail to close their garage doors–with all manner of loot ready to be taken each night. But it is not taken.

    Considering that in Detroit physicians refuse to obey traffic lights on their way to work to dodge carjackers and ambulance drivers wear body armor because they take fire en route, it becomes obvious that “One nation…” is as much goal as reality.

  • I agree entirely Alisa, the nanny state (a tamer name for something so insidious and vile I’ve never heard) is not the only reason. The media has a big part to play as does increased mobility and immigration. Unfortunately, well meaning people seem to think that the answer to the problems caused by these things is more and more regulation, legislation and bureaucracy.
    The sad thing is we’re no better than those well meaning people. We still say ‘Something should be done’ we only differ in what we think that thing should be and we still want someone else to do it.

  • veryretired

    Anonimity.

    Tribalism.

    Ambiguous moral teaching.

  • Paul Marks

    If “one nation” was ever created it would, in the brief time it existed, be like Detroit.

  • Midwesterner

    The big contributor to the problem in the UK is you have successfully eliminated citizen involvement in public safety.

    No good neighbors watching out for each other. They wouldn’t dare.

  • RAB

    We now live in Hotel Uk.
    I used to live in community Britain.
    Where doors were open, not because we didn’t have anything to steal, but because we were socialised to such an extent that everyone knew each other.
    To steal in such a society would mean having to move to another.Such would the moral and physical disapproval be.
    Such stigma and disapproval seems to be a thing of the past, as people dont know or care for their fellows anymore.
    My front door is open at this minute. Well I have an old and incontinent dog that needs the access, and I have no trouble with this. Sometimes it’s open for hours, though I’m not daft enough to leave it open all night.
    The police might get in!
    Maybe it’s best to live in neighbourhoods like Perry’s and mine.
    We all did once.
    Rich or poor.

  • The big contributor to the problem in the UK is you have successfully eliminated citizen involvement in public safety. No good neighbors watching out for each other. They wouldn’t dare.

    Exactly correct. Private morality has been nationalised and social interaction replaced with politically derived forced backed intermediating formulae.

  • They bash on the door a few times, then put the parcel down and walk off.

    In the UK, they don’t actually deliver parcels. Instead they deliver notes telling you that you were out when they tried to deliver it and that you have to come and collect it yourself.

  • Mauri Ahlaja

    I have a summer cottage in a small southern finnish coastal village. The local farmers set up shacks by the roadside to put their produce for sale.There’s potatos , onions , strawberries etc.Nobody is minding the shacks ,it’s 100 % self-service , you take what you want and put money in a box according to a pricelist on the wall.Anyone could steel all the goods and the money but as far as I know it’s never happened.Very convenient way to buy great quality fresh veggies.

  • llamas

    I think that one can learn some more about Alice’s point by comparing what happens in the countryside.

    As I understand, the rural areas of the UK have some of the highest property-crime problems, and isolated homes and farmhouses far from town are some of the most attractive targets for burglars. I well recall returning for the first time in 25 years to a tiny village outside Cambridge, where I used to live – when I left, it was typically rural, with open doors and very little security to speak about. When I returned, each and every cottage sported a huge alarm cabinet on the wall, and bars and locks abounded.

    Rural areas of the US, by contrast, have generally the lowest property-crime rates, and this is reflected in the general practices that one will still find there – house doors left unlocked, keys left in the ignition, ASF. Property crime in the country tends to be very specific, like the theft of anhydrous ammonia (used to make methamphetamines) or fuel from farm tanks. The UPS parcel left on the stoop, or inside the barn door, unmolested, is an icon of the countryside, as is the roadside produce stand that runs on the honour system, with a Folgers-can of cash for the register.

    llater,

    llamas

  • llamas

    PS – I live in the ex-urbs of Detroit. I had a pair of pricey custom-made boots delivered by UPS yesterday. The UPS driver left them in a plastic bag (it was snowing), and they sat on the step all day, with the famous maker’s name proudly beaming out through the polythene bag. I knew they were delivered, and I would have been stunned – stunned – to drive up my driveway and find them not there.

    Almost anywhere in the UK, from what I hear and read – not so much.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Anonymous Coward

    Hush, hush, whisper who dares – but there are parts of the UK (mostly not in England) where it’s still like that today.

    Obviously I am not going to say where, which perhaps supports the point of the post.

  • Aaaargh… our car was burgled (smash ‘n grab) the other night just so the thieves could get The Mrs.’s Blackberry.

    Pointless crime (we shut off the service, and the battery was on its last legs, only capable of holding a charge for a few hours).

    I asked the cop how common this was in our neighborhood, and he commented: “First time I’ve had to do this here.”

    I guess I now have to call Plano “low-crime” as opposed to “no-crime”….

  • …but FedEx and UPS packages are still left undisturbed on doorsteps.

  • Midwesterner

    Mauri A, we have a place like that a quarter mile up the road. Walk into their garage, open up up the fridge, make your change in the coffee can (I think it’s actually a food dish) and leave with your eggs or whatever.

    We did have one theft in our neighborhood about twenty years ago that was funny/scary. At one hobby farm, they had hosted a party. (Graduation?) From what I can figure out somebody who was seriously impaired had their keys taken away. Undetected, he walked 1/4 mile or so up the road, attempted to steal a pickup, gave up and stole a farm tractor to drive home. He was so drunk he forget (didn’t know how?) to pick up the loader bucket and for 1/4 to 1/2 a mile it dragged on the road. He also bagged a mailbox or two. He successfully drove the tractor approximately 10 miles and ran out of fuel, abandoned it and walked the rest of the way. I’m glad I wasn’t on the road that night.

    Needless to say the problem was sorted out, the thief punished, and the place that hosted the party caught absolute grief from everywhere. They don’t live here anymore.

    The farmer’s solution, “I should leave the keys in the ignition instead of on the floor. Then he would have taken the (old farm) truck.”

  • Sunfish

    I am sure the US murder rate is higher but I would be very surprised indeed (as in ‘I would not believe otherwise regardless of whatever the official statistics say’) if overall the level of violence in the UK is not quite substantially higher than in the USA.

    The US Department of Justice claims that to be exactly right: According to them, the UK has a substantially higher rate-per-100000 than the US of every violent crime other than murder/manslaughter.

    The last time I was there was some years ago. I managed to end up almost stumbling into two bar fights in one night. I can’t find two fights in one night here, when I’m being paid to look for them.

    I did, however, take a report last year of a FedEx package being stolen off a porch. It was labelled “Adult Signature Required” too. I wonder if that driver’s still employed…

  • Midwesterner

    Quoting one of my comments in this thread. It was in response to people expressing concern that UK (and all) citizens could not be trusted to own guns.

    Robberies in the UK outnumber Wisconsin by almost 2 to 1 but Wisconsin has more rapes by a 4 to 3 margin. Homocide is greater in Wisconsin by a 2 to 1 margin, but assaults went to the UK by almost a 7 to 1 margin. Robberies went to the UK by ~3 to 1 margin. Statistically this plays out to trading 14 homocides for ~23,900 assaults, 840 robberies and 9,522 burglaries. Your terror of violence in the streets seems to be, at the least, exaggerated. Many people would consider exchanging 23,900 assaults, 840 robberies and 9,522 burgluries for 14 murders to be a good swap. Especially considering that virtually 100% of murders are reported and a great many assaults, robberies and burglaries are not reported so the true numbers could be far more extreme.

    Something maybe Sunfish can help me on. What percentage of US murder victims have prior criminal records? What percentage of murder victims have prior serious criminal records? I don’t think that information was available in the sources I used. Do you know a source or have a guess?

  • Midwesterner

    Brian, the link above should have been this one.

    http://www.samizdata.net/blog/archives/2006/11/does_anyone_kno.html

    Thanks.

  • Midwesterner

    Brian, the link above should have been this one.

    http://www.samizdata.net/blog/archives/2006/11/does_anyone_kno.html

    Thanks.

  • Aren’t murder statistic supposed to include murders committed within a family? Those are a whole different ballgame.

  • Sunfish

    Something maybe Sunfish can help me on. What percentage of US murder victims have prior criminal records? What percentage of murder victims have prior serious criminal records? I don’t think that information was available in the sources I used. Do you know a source or have a guess?

    I don’t remember seeing that question being addressed directly. What follows is speculation (and slightly incoherent speculation, since I’ve a nice beer buzz working right now):

    I’m going to guess that a prior history of violent crime (especially against non-family-members) is probably a pretty good predictor of violent death in men but not women.

    My own experience is that people who are victims of violent crime outside of their own families often place themselves into situations where violence is more likely. I regularly hear that “I was mindin’ my own business and they just jumped my ass,” but I can count the number of times that’s actually been true without taking off my shoes. What’s common is that someone is attacked after throwing a gang sign, shouting the wrong thing to the wrong person, something that (at least in the assailant’s perception) is provocation. And most of the time, when we arrest someone for a violent crime, it’s not his first time. Especially when the crime was committed in public against someone who’s not a family member.

    Victims of within-family violence, however, I’m going to guess…well, I’m guessing that their criminal histories don’t correlate well with their violent death rate.

    Not sure how to break victim histories down by “serious” crime vs. “non-serious.” I think it makes more sense to separate violent from non-violent crimes. Again, I don’t have the stats in front of me, but it’s intuitive to me that someone who commits a misdemeanor assault on a complete stranger is a more-likely killer than someone who commits fifty counts of felony securities fraud.

    That being said, I just had a look over the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, and they don’t show victim’s criminal history.

    Here’s some data that seems to support my guess.

    However, let me caution you with one thing: “Arrests” is a vague term. There’s one definition that I normally use (“significantly impairing” someone’s freedom, usually by preventing them from leaving the scene and then transporting them somewhere else), which is what courts usually think of when they use the word. However, there’s another one: some states use the term “non-custodial arrest” to refer to incidents where a cop stops someone, issues a citation or summons, and the releases the suspect/subject/whatever at the scene. I’m not sure why that’s done or even which states still use the term.

    Alisa: The FBI stats do include within-family murders. There’s a table for victim-offender relationships. I don’t have the URL handy, but searching for UCR on http://www.fbi.gov should turn it up.

  • Thanks, Sunfish, I thought it would. In my view when discussing public safety, crimes within family should not be included in the stats.

  • RAB

    Talking of the thread that Mid has linked to-
    Has there been any further developements?
    I gather the fat boy did get arrested.
    Though I fear the worst that will happen to him will be a caution or at the outside a conditional dscharge, for all the distress that he and his mate caused Jackie D.

  • Midwesterner

    Thanks Sunfish. It adds something to my knowledge that I didn’t realize before, but makes sense in hind sight. Domestic murders are generally very predictable and there is advance warning.

    In fact, all murderers and victims seem to share approximately the same data across all of the reports and regions with a very significant exception pattern.

    In 2001, the 68 largest cities accounted for 42% of reported homicides which house only 18% of the U.S. population. (Homicide figures obtained from 2001 FBI Uniform Crime Report, p. 201.)

    This was especially enlightening when you realize that those cities have the strictest gun laws in the nation and (therefore?) account for a hugely disproportionate share of homicides.

  • Sunfish

    I’m not sure why that’s done or even which states still use the term.

    I meant: “I’m not sure why the term non-custodial arrest is used.” I know exactly why I don’t jail everyone who I charge with a crime.

    Alisa:

    Thanks, Sunfish, I thought it would. In my view when discussing public safety, crimes within family should not be included in the stats.

    Why is that?

    Thanks Sunfish. It adds something to my knowledge that I didn’t realize before, but makes sense in hind sight. Domestic murders are generally very predictable and there is advance warning.

    There’s advance warning for the victims, anyway. Well, the victims who open their eyes enough to see it coming. Domestics are a strange and nasty beast, in that there’s usually a long period of several cycles of escalation and calming before the victim comes forward to anyone, or anyone at all intervenes from the outside. By the time the cops first show up, a lot of the psychological damage has already been done and the victims’ perceptions are badly distorted from anything the rest of us would recognize.

    (snip a long digression and rant about domestic violence by me.)

    Here’s the question: At what point is it appropriate for the state to get involved, and what sorts of involvement are okay? (Okay, it’s a good question for another discussion thread some other time.)

  • Sunfish: the keyword in my comment was public safety, in the “being in public” sense. It is one thing being murdered for one’s wallet when walking back home after a night out, but it is quite another being murdered by a person one lives with and knows well.

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