Old Britain has a cancer — the cancer is crime
Theft and violence create a huge financial burden on society
I’ve had five bicycles stolen, maybe six, all but one since I started cycling regularly into central London 20 years ago. It goes without saying that none of these crimes were solved and I never got the bikes back — and that the police made no effort to find them.
Like with almost everyone who’s experienced bike theft, it was basically the scene from The Big Lebowski where he asks if they’ll recover his car, and the police officer replies: ‘I’ll just check with the boys down at the crime lab. They got four more detectives working on the case. They got us working in shifts!’
On the most recent occasion the police didn’t even bother, even though it was stolen in front of a CCTV camera operated by a local security firm, and I’d reported it immediately. But then, only 1.4% of bike thefts result in a suspect being charged, and convicted thieves will at most receive a warning or fine, so what would be the point? If a crime entails a 99% chance of escaping punishment, and a 100% of avoiding jail, it is effectively legal.
And my story is very average. I’ve heard of several people finding their own bikes on Gumtree, and the police still doing nothing. Some are advised to buy them back from the criminal. It strikes me as strange, because the police could make some easy arrests just by trawling the site, and if they headed down to one of the markets where stolen bikes are openly being sold, it would presumably lead to convictions for more serious crimes. But then, the criminals wouldn’t go to jail, so what’s the point?
I haven’t had a bike stolen in ages, partly because I lumber around with two much heavier locks, but mostly because I deliberately avoid cycling to any evening event in town. I’ll use public transport, or even drive, which is bad for the city’s infrastructure and for my health, increasing the risk I will become a burden on the health service; and since about one in five victims of cycle crime do not replace their vehicle, this must all add up. I’d prefer to bike, but bike theft is legal.
Being a victim of crime has not just an immediate cost — the financial loss, stress, fear and sadness — but wider secondary consequences. Not only is the cost of crime immense, but so too is the cost of crime avoidance.
At the Baldwin Substack, Works in Progress editor Ben Southwood recently looked at the cost of crime in the US, citing one paper estimating it to be $2.6 trillion annually – about 12% of GDP, an immense drain on society. But, as he points out, the actual total is probably larger, because this figure doesn’t cover the cost of crime-prevention.
‘People try their damnedest to avoid being the victims of crime,’ Southwood writes: ‘This leads to many extremely socially costly behaviours. Some of these have really obvious “macro” effects. People who fear new neighbours have a substantial risk of committing crimes tend to oppose new development nearby, and to live in extremely spread out “sprawl” suburbs, where sheer walking distance between places makes crime more difficult. What’s more, people in high-crime areas prefer to travel with metal shields around them at all times — that is by car — causing dramatically higher carbon emissions. By contrast ultra-low-crime Japan is tolerant of high-density development throughout its cities, and rates of cycling, walking, and transit use are all extremely high, while carbon emissions are much lower.’
The issue of NIMBYism is more existential in the US because, with its huge supply of land and more extreme violence, neighbourhoods and even whole cities can quickly fall apart as law-abiding taxpayers flee crime. It makes complete sense for people to oppose housing projects which might lead to disorder and a spiral of secondary migration.
But even in Britain the fear of crime surely makes people more inclined to oppose development, and even if they opposed anyway — and most people are NIMBYs — it lends them moral justification. I recently cited the example of Cockfosters, where opposition to development hurts those mostly young people priced out of north London’s outer suburbs, yet it makes perfect sense when one looks at nearby Edmonton. Development problems and the housing shortages that follow are aggravated by low trust, and trust is hammered by crime.
But the downsides go further. In a follow-up post, Southwood looked at the environmental cost of crime due to sprawl, citing one study by Julie Cullen and Steven Levitt, which ‘finds that when crime rates across the city rise ten percent, city centre populations fall one percent… One crime tends to push one person out of the city centre, on average.’
New York’s murder rate increased by 400% between 1955 and 1975, during which time the population of Manhattan fell by 35%. ‘If crime is a major contributor to sprawl, and if sprawl is, as many credible estimates suggests, the largest contributor to carbon emissions, then crime plays a huge part.’ Suburban New Yorkers produce an extra 50 tonnes of C02 per year compared to those in the city centre, so the climate cost of each murder will be considerable.
There is also the stress of commuting, which has a big impact on happiness levels, and presumably productivity. Crime is only one factor causing people to leave the city — they want larger houses and more green spaces — but it undoubtedly plays a part, especially as the most affordable urban neighbourhoods bear the brunt of violence. I would be curious to see if there was data on the relationship between people reporting crimes online and spending more time on sites like Zoopla: I imagine there is a link.
On the same topic, Sam Ashworth-Hayes looked at the huge costs of crime, including those borne ‘through avoidance behaviour and opportunities forgone’.
‘Crime erodes social capital and trust in institutions,’ he wrote: ‘making for less effective governance. And ultimately, people do not do things they would otherwise do; a Samsung advert showing a woman jogging alone at 2am with her earbuds in was called “unrealistic” and “insensitive”, but absent crime and the fear of crime this would be a totally reasonable activity.’