It’s Fortunate For Me That Others Choose Society’s Misfortunes

It's unclear what choice Eric Garner made in this picture.

It’s unclear what “choice” Eric Garner is making in this picture.

Probably the most frequent explanation of American society is that many effectively “choose” their misfortunes. That an essential distillation of this viewpoint–the title of this article–sounds so ridiculous is not an accident. It’s considered not suspicious at all that whole demographic groups happen to “choose” the same depressing fate because of “culture.” It’s said, for instance, that “free choice” and the necessarily corresponding “bad culture”–sound imperialist to anyone?–can explain the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Of course, the argument relies on the difficulty of disproving “free will.” Stopping short of that, there’s many considerations that disprove this viewpoint. It should first be pointed out that nobody fully understands the exact reasons that leads someone to engage in crime. Individual acts of crime are not predictable. This is a fundamental truth of criminology. What holds for one criminal won’t necessarily hold for another. In light of this, we can’t speak of “causes” of crime, only “sources” of crime. It’s clear that poverty and criminalization of drug use are major sources of crime. To ignore this is a kind of ideological insanity.

The second thing to point out is that focusing on “choices” is to engage in the grand illusion: that our own social reality and upbringing is the “normative one”; that our life experience and the decisions we made within it are completely expected from everyone else. It’s a happy accident that our positions of middle and upper-class privilege are entirely the products of our agency: our “goodness” and their “badness.” However, like every animal on Earth, humans are heavily influenced by their environments.

It’s instructive to think of life outside of your bubble. If you lack legitimate economic opportunity in places like Compton, through an accident of birth, your chances of becoming a career drug criminal are much higher. If your friends growing up are gang bangers, you’re likely to pick up your first felony when you’re with the homies–note that the youth component of crime is the highest.


If you are a chronic drug user with an already weak support system–this should be treated medically–you are more likely to steal to maintain your $100 a day heroin addiction. Note that heroin is only expensive because it is illegal and note that drug users are prominent culprits in crime. It’s actually possible to do a back-of-the-napkin calculation that shows that, given the number of heroin addicts in the US, they would need to steal more than the entire FBI-reported incidence of theft each year to maintain their habit. To quote American University professor Jeffrey Reiman in his monumental work, The Rich Get Richer And The Poor Get Prison:

Do a little arithmetic. Making some conservative assumptions, suppose that there are half a million addicts with $100-a-day habits. Suppose that they fill their habits only 250 days a year (sometimes they’re in jail or in the hospital). Suppose that they have to steal for half their drug needs, and that they must steal three times the dollar value of what they need because they must convert their booty into cash through a fence. (These conservative assumptions are similar to those made in a report of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, titled Social Cost of Drug Abuse, estimating the amount of theft in which heroin addicts had to engage to support their habits in 1974.) If you have done your arithmetic, you have seen that our half-million addicts need to steal $18,750,000,000 a year to support their habits. This is more than the $15.7 billion that the FBI estimates as the loss due to property crime during 2010, and it doesn’t even take into consideration theft by those addicted to other drugs, such as crack cocaine.

A third point is that, for their to be moral content, a “choice” must feature predictable outcomes in a situation of complete knowledge. Obviously this is very difficult to achieve in real society. Eric Garner no doubt had little expectations of being another police-murder statistic when he allegedly sold a cigarette on a street corner. Escalations are extremely unpredictable, and there’s no moral value in forcing a society to unnecessarily regiment itself; that is the opposite of freedom. Knowledge is very important. It’s unlikely that you would make the same life decisions today that you made when you were young. You may, no doubt, object to my condition of “complete knowledge” on the grounds that this is impossible in any society, but this is a limitation of the “free choice” model–not my critique.

And when it comes to knowledge, most criminals do not think they will be caught. Along the same vein, criminals are not the only ones that weigh the odds: we all do. Corporations, in particular, are *frequently* breaking the law out of calculation. When you’re rich, these are often called “business decisions.” If we reasonably thought we can advance our positions in a capitalist society, who’s to say that we wouldn’t? That is the goal, after all. This leads us into the idea of “strain theory” in criminology: that there are pressures to acquire wealth that are so great that law and order begins to break down.

A final point that I would like to make is that most criminals are not “calculated killers,” in spite of the 5 o’clock news myth. Often violent crimes happen in a fit of rage or an unpredictable altercation. It’s easy to see this in the case of a robbery gone bad or a romantic affair gone wrong. The illusion of choice continues to fade.

However, some choices are more free than others, but it’s choices made by a very different group within society. When it comes to who ends up in “our” prisons, quoting a distinguished criminologist, Paul Leighton, it’s “the decisions of (a) legislators about what to define as crime (b) police and prosecutors about whom to arrest and charge (c) judges and juries in conviction (d) sentencing judges about the appropriate punishment (e) the media in what to report as a ‘crime’ and an ‘accident’ and (f) all these decisions taken together.” The result is that the less powerful end up in jail.

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