Friday, January 19, 2018

Create an environment to curb crime and disorder

In the book “The Wisdom of Crowds”, James Surowiecki argues that behaviour is shaped in many respects by the environment in which people are allowed to operate, and that people tend to go against rational behaviour in order to conform to the nature of their environment.
He further argues that most people will always want to do what is right, even if it is not in their immediate individual interest, as they realise that doing the right thing instead of pursuing one's selfish interests will result in a better society for everyone. If, however, there are no enforced rules to prevent selfish people from seeking out their own interest, then there will be a general breakdown of the community, and everyone will start to do what is in their own interest. In the end, of course, everyone will be worse off.

This is true not only of organisations, but also of societies.

This explains quite clearly the situation we face in Jamaica. One can argue that the prevailing lawlessness and high murder rates are caused primarily by the environment we have allowed to develop, where everyone pursues their individual self-interest over societal interest. The inevitable result is that everyone loses or everyone gains less than they would if the interests of the society were pursued by all.

What causes this, according to Surowiecki , is the fact that rules are not enforced.

Let us examine Jamaica's case. Over the years people have been allowed to drive any way they want (including on any side of the road), people have been allowed to set up businesses in any residential area they choose, people have been allowed to squat wherever they choose (60 per cent of the population now squats), and play music at any time and at any volume they choose. Allowing all these things to happen has led us to a society where lawlessness rules and crime prospers.

Why have we had such difficulty in dealing with the crime monster all these years? The answer is that all the actions we have taken have never sought to address the nature of our environment which is gradually going downhill. What we have always sought to do is introduce special police squads, strong legislation, or other such knee-jerk initiatives. But we have never sought to enforce the laws and bring people to book for breaking the laws.

So there are taxi drivers out there right now with hundreds of outstanding traffic tickets. Or we have read recently about the light sentences handed down for gun offences. Or we are only too familiar with the long time it takes for a case to be tried. Or we take 10 years to pass Road Traffic Act amendments that can assist the police with enforcement. Or we fail to properly equip the police, or agencies like the NSWMA, and then we wonder why they can't function at full capacity.

We need to understand that enforcement of laws is not just the action of the police or the courts, but everything that goes into making them effective.

So in effect, to take the argument from Surowiecki, by our inability to enforce the rules, we have now created a situation where more and more people see law- breaking (pursuing individual interests) as the only way to get any benefit from the society. In short, we have failed to create a society where law-abiding action benefits everyone. We have created a society where individual pursuits result in greater rewards for some rather than where group pursuits result in a greater reward for all.

The result is sub-optimal performance, which finds its way into low productivity, poor economic and social development, reduced standard of living (we have seen increased poverty recently), and ultimately low GDP performance.

In order to fix this problem, we must recognise that immediate steps must be taken to counter lawlessness, such as a military response. However, a long-term sustainable fix requires a serious focus on changing the environment, which is currently a fertile ground for crime and disorder because it encourages deviant individual pursuits.

My own view is that if we were to start enforcing the laws, primarily at the level of the roads and things like illegal vending and night noise, then we would start to see a behavioural change. And using the argument by the book, we would start to see more and more people seeing the benefit of action for the benefit of society as a whole, as individual interests against the society will result in swift punishment and act as a deterrent.

For example, if motorists know that by accumulating more than five unpaid tickets they will lose their driving privileges and go to jail if they fail to comply, then road indiscipline will go down. But if someone knows that even if they have 100 tickets outstanding they will more than likely not be held to account, then they can take the risk of driving badly and getting to their destination before the law-abiding citizens.

We must therefore understand that in order to solve crime in any sustainable manner, serious law enforcement is necessary. I have seen some people argue that the proposed fines are too high, as if they are planning to be fined. But my view is that the way to avoid the fines is to abide by the law, not break the law.

As someone said a few years ago, the Jamaican society has developed to a point where “the man who plays by the rules will always get shafted”.

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