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18. Poverty and Crime - a popular myth

A Nepalese vendor of used flashlight parts
It has almost become an accepted truth in the Western world today that poverty is one of the fundamental causes of crimes against property, crimes that have victims. That this is both untrue and baseless becomes obvious with but a moment's reflection on the situation. Crime stems not from a lack of wealth but from a lack of morality, and I will argue that a lack of morality is not the exclusive preserve of, nor even a natural consequence of being "poor." It is an insult to the financially lacking, who constitute a majority of the world's population, to suggest that immorality is created because of their lack of monetary wealth. Many of these communities indeed show a far lower level of crime than we experience in the West, and manage to lead richer lives than many a neurosis-ridden city dweller.

Today you can travel to countless countries around the globe which have massive differentials between the rich and the poor and yet suffer relatively low levels of crime compared to the affluent Western cities such as London, Amsterdam, Miami or Toronto. Take Bombay for instance, where the poor live in what many would consider dismal conditions, sometimes sleeping on the street or in the most makeshift of hovels; living by begging or bare sustenance activity. Within this milieu the wealthy of Bombay are very rich with housing prices reputedly the highest in the world. Yet you can leave your bicycle unlocked anywhere in Bombay with minimal fear of theft, and you can walk through this diverse city at day or night feeling safer than you would in the urban jungles of most developed countries. This is the case not only in Bombay, but in numerous third world cities around the world,* whose poor would find it difficult to comprehend the standards used to define those that we deem to be below the "poverty line". We are indeed poverty stricken in the West, but not in the financial department.

* Poverty and crime are undoubtedly found in combination sometimes; though it is unlikely that the street thieves of Rio de Janeiro are any more lacking in morality, or damaging to our planet, than those who happily take Brazilian government grants to cut down the rainforest.

In the Western world, we have suffered great periods of financial poverty such as that of the Great Depression of 1930, when many people lived on their wits with no social net to protect them. Though many lost everything they had owned and soup lines formed in the streets, levels of crime and murder did not soar to anything like today's record levels. Petty crimes of the unauthorised food consumption variety may have been higher but a huge section of society did not lose their basic morality when they lost their money.

Bonnie and Clyde achieved fame because of their uniqueness - this kind of stuff did not go on every day, and they certainly did not make a lot of money, even adjusting for inflation. Though extremes of poverty and wealth existed in the so-called Wild West of 19th century America, the chance of being murdered or mugged or burgled was remote compared to that which exists in these same places today. Bank and train robberies and shoot-outs were rare events remembered for years after. That gunfight at the OK Corral just happened once and it went into legend. Jesse James was a one-off.

We are prone to trivialise our own value and wealth by insisting on such a linear scorecard. We end up totalling all the stuff that was sold for money in a particular geographical area, and dividing it by the number of humans being there, when last counted, arriving thereby at the average "per capita" wealth of that country. I ask you! What about the wealthiness of good health, happiness, an unpolluted environment, fullness of love, friends and family, and a freedom from rules and regulation by Big Brother?

I will argue that a rural Thailand peasant in a happy self-sufficient community, eating pure food and breathing pure air, free of debt, far removed from sources of pollution both environmental and mental, largely removed from bureaucracy, taxation, and regulation, is IN FACT A WEALTHIER PERSON than a deeply neurotic sales executive in New York, unsure of his job security in a soul-destroying industry who financially earns perhaps 100 times as much as our Thai peasant, but still not enough to meet his mortgage and loan repayments plus living expenses and child support. Maybe we need a few more words for different forms of poverty.
Unnecessary laws, prohibitions, and regulations which are rigidly maintained by law-enforcement officers are patently one of the single greatest sources of crime in this world; and, as you will understand from the rest of this book, they are also one of the great contributing factors towards poverty of all forms. Worst of all, they discourage us as a society from developing our own codes of morality and make it easier for criminals to view their crimes as thwarting the state and breaking its stupid rules, rather than as committing an offence against the society to which the criminal belongs. The distinction is becoming dangerously blurred between what is a true crime against a fellow human, and what is just a transgression of some law that seeks to standardize behaviour rather than protect a potential victim.
"I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I was not poor, I was needy. They told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived. Then they told me underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged. I still do not have a dime but I have a great vocabulary."

Jules Feiffer, American humorist
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From the book "Uncommon Sense - The State is Out of Date"
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