by Locker Room contributor
James Q. Wilson has spent decades dissecting public policy ? filtering fact from fiction and seeking the course of action that will lead to the best results, not the course designed to help policymakers feel better about themselves.
Wilson collects 15 of his best articles in the recent book American Politics, Then & Now and Other Essays. Among the most interesting pieces is a discourse on “the future of blame.”
As science exposes more and more of the genetic basis of anti-social and criminal behavior, some people make the case against punishing those genetically predisposed to act outside the law. If young men are most likely to commit crime, should they face the same type of punishment as others who break the law?
Wilson’s answer is yes.
A young man loaded with testosterone, lacking interest in other people, and driven by impulses rather than reflection may find it much harder to avoid crime than a young woman who has little testosterone, is closely attached to others, and is shy about acting impulsively. To avoid criminal behavior, the male has to climb a steeper hill than the female. It may therefore seem unfair for the law to treat their behavior equally.
But it is actually the man who benefits more from a system of laws that attribute blame and responsibility. Because he must climb the steeper hill, he is in greater need of the incentive and guidance the law will provide. If the hill were made flat to save him from the unfair exertion ? so that each person was expected to behave only as biology might direct ? we would make life only superficially easier for our aggressive young man, and much harder for both the better-behaved woman and for society more broadly. For if we allow ourselves to think that explaining behavior justifies it, then we will have reduced the incentives for people who are likely to behave wrongly to avoid that behavior. We will also have reduced the likelihood that people behaving well will recognize that they are doing the right things.
Wilson’s observations might prompt you to ask: What are the John Locke Foundation’s ideas about the best way to address crime? Jon Sanders addressed the topic during a March briefing for legislative candidates.