Academic journal article Social Justice

Intellectuals for Law and Order: A Critique of the New "Realists"

Academic journal article Social Justice

Intellectuals for Law and Order: A Critique of the New "Realists"

Article excerpt


Crime will always remain with us, just as fires will be with us, or weeds.... Those less favored by nature or society are more tempted to violate laws and therefore suffer punishment for doing so more often.... There has been a worldwide decline in punishment and therefore of respect for law.

--Ernest van den Haag (1)

When Ernest van den Haag's Punishing Criminals appeared in 1975, It was regarded as a criminological aberration, a radical departure from the prevailing liberal consensus. (2) Filled with factual and methodological errors, a curious stylistic mixture of old-fashioned Reader's Digest moralism and literary pretensions, Punishing Criminals advocates the death penalty, longer sentences, "post-punishment incapacitation," banishment, exile, house arrest, and other less imaginative weapons in the "war against crime."

Stylistically, van den Haag stands apart from other intellectuals. The candor of his viciousness is unusual. No sheep's clothing for him. Substantively, however, he is in the mainstream of a new school of "realist" thought. Although there are considerable tactical and procedural differences among the "realists," they are united around their demand for tougher state repression against the working class in general and blacks in particular.

The forum for this conservative propaganda is far-ranging: in 1975, the American Sociological Review (ASR) published an article that argues that penal sentences are unrelated to class and race; (3) this was followed two years later by Hirchi and Hindelang's claim in the ASR that "the weight of the evidence is that IQ is more important than race and social class" in determining delinquency; (4) similarly, the most prestigious economic journals, including the Journal of Political Economy and the American Economic Review, regularly publish articles proposing that crime is rationally calculated behavior that can be deterred if the "cost" is made sufficiently high. (5)

Political scientists such as Edward Banfield and James Q. Wilson extensively rely on this economistic model in their hard-line analysis of crime. (6) Wilson's Thinking about Crime is currently perhaps the most widely distributed popular book on the subject. This apology for social eugenics and intensified repression (discussed further in this article) is highly recommended by Fortune magazine and can be bought at the airport or your local bookstore. Similarly, a highly publicized book dealing with crime, Freda Adler's sexist Sisters in Crime (reviewed in this issue of Crime and Social Justice), attributes the so-called rise in violent crime to the women's liberation movement.

Professional journals in criminology routinely carry this kind of analysis: Federal Probation printed Wilks and Martinson's no-nonsense plea for state-supervised surveillance of "criminals" in the community; (7) a recent lead article in Crime and Delinquency clinically proposes that the death penalty can only be made an effective deterrent if 3,000 executions per year are carried out. (8) Popular magazines also carry the "realists" analysis of crime. Wilson's work, for example, has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Commentary, and Atlantic Monthly. In addition, Time, Newsweek, Washington Monthly, Village Voice, and U.S. News and World Report have contained similar reports. (9) The New York Times, typifying this kind of coverage, provided a column to sociologist Jackson Toby's proposal that "incorrigibles" should be subjected to "internment, a long-lasting deprivation of liberty without duration fixed in advance." (10)

These ideas, which represent the dominant trend in criminology today, are not the product of "backward" practitioners or unqualified academics. On the contrary, this is the work of the "best and brightest" intellectuals teaching at such elite universities as Harvard and Chicago, supported by large grants from the federal government and the major (Rockefeller, Ford, etc. …

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