When the deep economic recession hit in 2008, the unemployment rate doubled, from 5 percent to 10 percent. Experts on criminal behavior predicted that this would lead, almost inevitably, to a spike in crime. When times get bad, the theory goes (and history, to a large degree, shows), more people turn to a life of crime.
But in this recession, the opposite happened: Crime rates fell. In 2009, the FBI reported an 8 percent drop in robberies nationwide and a 17 percent reduction in auto thefts. Cities across the country also reported declines in crime.
James Q. Wilson, a senior fellow at the Clough Center at Boston College who also has taught at Harvard, UCLA and Pepperdine (and who wrote the seminal public administration text Bureaucracy) explores the reasons why this is the case in a piece published in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend.
A primary reason, it turns out, is action taken by government at all levels. In some ways, the effects of government intervention are direct and obvious: With stepped-up efforts to punish criminal behavior, the United States has a high incarceration rate compared to the rest of the developed world. Not only that, but policing has become much more sophisticated in recent years, as data-driven efforts to analyze crime patterns and evaluate response efforts have led police departments to become more focused and effective in their jobs.
Other government actions have had an indirect effect on crime. For example, Wilson points to efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency since 1974 to keep lead out of gasoline and paint products. Doctors have long known that children with high levels of lead in their blood are more likely to be aggressive and delinquent. Now, economists are reporting that limits on lead may be paying off in lower crime rates.
"At the deepest level, many of these shifts, taken together, suggest that crime in the United States is falling--even through the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression--because of a big improvement in the culture," Wilson writes.
But at a time when a national debate is raging not over whether to cut the size and scope of government (and the compensation of the people who work for it), but how deeply, it's critical to remember that arguably the most important of those cultural shifts were driven by government action. The subtext of today's arguments over whether public servants at all levels of government are overpaid or pampered with generous benefits packages is the notion that the work they do isn't of very much value, anyway. But so many things we take for granted are the direct result of the hard work and the keen ideas of those who work in government. And we may not notice the effects of taking them away until it's too late.