Whistling in a Robber’s Face

One of the standard arguments against accepting immigrants, especially economic migrants, is that a high proportion of them are socially irresponsible or even criminals. However, the idea that economic success reduces crime does not hold up to even brief scrutiny: if morality and wealth were a single scale, then the comfortable lands of Western Europe would be almost crime free and the subsistence economies of deserts and mountains would be sinks of depravity. However much it suits those who have the money to tacitly promote it, being poor is not a sign of low character. So, if wealth is not in proportion to likelihood of abiding by the law, why are so many crimes about money or material possessions?

On the surface different groups seem to commit different crimes: not many merchant bankers hang around on street corners waiting to commit carjackings; there are few, if any, black teenagers from Harlem being investigated for insider trading.

However, re-framing the data to link method to opportunity, the theory that a sub-set of each group obtains money and material goods using the methods most easily used by that group seems worth investigating. A stockbroker has greater access to the financial markets, so is more likely to use them than a caretaker. To avoid long and complex descriptions, for the rest of this article, I will call all these crimes theft.

So, if the only difference is likely method, why do people who already have a comfortable life commit thefts?

For me, the most likely answer is relative deprivation. Anyone familiar with teenagers will be aware how important having the right trainers, clothes, or gadgets is. Many of these signs of high status draw at least part of their power from being of above average cost to that social group, so – however affluent a teenager is – the tokens of their social group will cost slightly more than at least half the group can afford. While the tokens may be different for groups that are not Western teenagers, the same proof of social power by affording the better end of what your group values applies to holidays, cars, watches, and conspicuous consumption.

People commit theft not because someone has something they don’t, but because someone who is close enough to them to seem a peer or rival has something their group invests with worth beyond its function.

Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.

-Oscar Wilde

The converse can be seen in the greater joy of disadvantaged children at receiving a simple present such as a football or doll than the joy wealthy children display might display at receiving a more monetarily valuable present.

Of course, this does not address the issue of why some members of a group commit theft and not others. Is it simply the lower half of a group seeking to become the upper half?

I believe not. For me, the answer lies in the same need for social status that drives relative deprivation.

However much a teenager might feel they will die if they don’t have the right mobile phone, the statistics suggest being unfashionable is not – of itself – fatal. Social status can come from less material sources too: a person who has great skill in some field needs fewer material tokens to achieve the same external validation.

Similarly, no everyone’s need for external validation is the same. As adulthood often teaches, the opinions of others are less meaningful than a sense of self-worth.

So, far from lack of material possessions being a sign of weak character, it is more likely over-dependence on material possessions in place of self-belief that tempts people to theft.

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