Selected Skirmishes: Guns, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll

Weeding out the root causes of violence


"The devil made me do it" was Flip Wilson's comic alibi when the moment of truth arrived. Flip simply fingered the all-purpose culprit.

Mr. Wilson may well have been a little too Flip back in the '60s; our society is a dangerous place for reductio ad absurdum. Sociopaths really have found "the devil made me do it" a compelling defense for behavior criminal, antisocial, or just downright rude. Two-and-a-half decades later, we are not having much of a laugh-in. Rather, we are coughing up blood.

The response to social mayhem in the elite centers of opinion, however, is as boldly grotesque as the carnage on the streets. Learned Americans of every political stripe—and conservatives will not have the last laugh—seek policies that "go after" (as if the government were a lean, mean "search & destroy" outfit) the "root causes" of social chaos. Then the esteemed social-engineering expert or unindicted congressman spells out a campaign to harass some segment of the legal (and therefore regulable) sector of society that purportedly will reduce the incentive or ability of those in the illegal sector. Liberals like to regulate weaponry; conservatives like to outlaw drugs; everyone seems to enjoy a splash of TV censorship. ("Your Honor, MTV made me do it!")

Hearings are held, commissions appointed, villains demonized, legislation drafted. Occasionally, rules are enacted—never with any promise that the measure will actually curtail crime or promote civility, but as a "needed first step." The follow-up? Bigger budgets to get at the "root causes."

Our society formerly avoided breakdown because we didn't care about the root causes. We assigned individuals to keep themselves in order. "You got some bad root causes, bud? You figure it out, and get it fixed." Nowadays an adult can murder his parents with a shotgun while they're relaxing in the den and then put Mom and Dad on trial for all the lousy stuff they did to him. Great social scientists will announce him emotionally troubled, and therefore blameless. The criminal act has become an incidental after-effect—what we really care about is the root causes. And do our utopians have an herbicide plan!

Gun Control and Federal Pay Scales. We have 215 million guns in America. They have been purchased (or otherwise procured) for hunting, offense, or defense. Maybe hunters will take up another sport, but I think we might have to pay the BATF agents assigned to collect these 215 million firearms a healthy off-scale increment. And replace them often.

Drug Prohibition as a Gang Development Program. The Drug Crisis really is a crisis—not of desperate drug taking but of desperate drug buying and lucrative drug selling. By driving out the profiteering pharmaceutical companies, we invite in the neighborhood punk and make him the first guy on his block to sport a Beemer. This social science ain't rocket science; we had a dry run (literally) with Prohibition's gentle nurturing of La Cosa Nostra. The conservative folderol that legalizing drugs will tell impressionable youngsters it's OK to snort up is foolishness so perfect that even liberals should be impressed. The right-wing impersonation of Mussolini's Fascists ("everything that is not permitted is forbidden") is superb, but just a tad clichéd, don't you think? Let us remind the Bennettaddictines: In a free society, the state permits all kinds of self-destructive behavior that is stupid, obnoxious, or foul. Like being a Republican.

Getting Violence off TV and Back in the 'Hood, Where It Belongs. Media violence is a real problem; I just cringe when I see the thwacking given Reginald Denny. Of course, the censoring of real, live news is never the frontispiece for rabble-rousers pushing regulation; it is, however, the underlying reality. There is far more violence in the news than on sitcoms or even cop shows. And it is of the brutal, hideous sort. Censoring the problem is hardly a solution to the problem, as some notable thinkers concluded some 200 years ago.

It appears clear that individuals commit crimes when they fail to deal with their own menacing "root causes," and that the one reliable way to help their emotional development process is to give them meatier incentives to get control. Banning their tools or their inspiration often results in reckless political intrusions that fail to crush the devil within us all.

Eric Hoffer noted, upon his horrifying glance at the U.S. crime problem 20 years ago, that the central urban policy failure of our time was the inability of decent people to get angry. I fear that our concern over the market for guns, drugs, and steamy Madonna rock videos is further manifestation of our weak stomach for confronting the violent perpetrator mano a mano. Freeing our police and prisons from counterproductive Big Brothering and siccing them upon those animalistic stalkers who truly deserve society's wrath seems to frighten America's ruling class worse than a gun-toting, dope-smoking Ninja Turtle cracking heads on a Saturday morning cartoon.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.