Violent crime is continuing to rise in American cities. This year has seen a continuation of violent trends — from homicides to carjackings — that have been on the rise in cities since 2015. Last year was the deadliest year for 12 major cities. The causes and consequences of this rise in violence are varied, but all solutions will require a common, less-than-obvious component: conservatives.
Since most of America’s large cities are governed by Democrats, this may seem counterintuitive. But for residents of these cities, ideological liberalism offers little in the way of practical solutions for rising crime. From the modern and misguided “defund the police” movement to a historic focus on “root causes” of crime rather than crime itself, ideological liberalism has repeatedly failed to protect public safety or restore order.
The reason these policies don’t work is the same reason that reversing increasing violent crime requires conservatives: Liberals and conservatives hold vastly different views of human nature. Liberals view human nature much the way the French Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau did, that is, essentially good and only corrupted by an “unnatural” civil society. This explains why, when it comes to crime, the left often looks for solutions beyond the individual offender and seeks to reduce the role systems and institutions play in remedying violence.
This is in stark contrast with how conservatives view human nature. As Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute has put it, “What often sets conservatives apart from progressives is our view that the human person is imperfect, broken, perhaps fallen, and yet also created in a divine image.” This means that human beings have both an inherent dignity as well as an innate capacity to cause pain and create chaos.
In recent years, acknowledgement of the inherent dignity in humanity has led conservatives to expunge some criminal records, to improve prison conditions for women and to revisit the punitive use of solitary confinement.
But the human capacity for evil means systems and institutions need to respond swiftly, appropriately and proportionally to human depravity. This is something our friends on the progressive left seem to neglect. Evil is not the sum of a series of “root causes” — it’s not something you can weed out of society for good. It’s a constant among societies of men.
Thankfully, conservatives have led the way on reducing violent crime in the past. Perhaps the greatest conservative policy achievement of the last 30 years was the decline in homicides and other violent crime in New York City. Murder peaked in New York City in 1990 when the city saw 2,262 homicides.
When Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1994, he brought with him a new forward-thinking police commissioner in William Bratton and the ideas of conservative academics James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. By the time he left office in 2001, New York City had fewer than 650 murders that year. This was accomplished by improving public order, professionalizing policing, prioritizing problem areas and incapacitating serious offenders.
The conservative view of human nature also recognizes that humans are rational — if imperfectly so. This means changes in policies can change behaviors and deter crime.
Modern deterrence theory is the outgrowth of work done by Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago economist Gary Becker. Becker posited that criminals, like all people, were rational actors who commit crimes when the perceived benefits outweigh the perceived costs. Applications of Becker’s theory to policing and criminal sentencing have repeatedly found it is possible to deter criminal behavior.
Perhaps the greatest violent crime reduction strategy we have to date was formulated by a group of non-conservative academics and the Boston Police Department who nevertheless relied on the deterrence premise and focused their efforts on the small number of violent gang members driving explosions in violence.
While Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was correct when he wrote in “The Gulag Archipelago” that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” serious violent offending concentrates among a small number of people in a small number of places, often within the context of gang activity. Their efforts, known as “focused deterrence,” were incredibly successful, and reduced youth homicides by 63 percent.
Other cities would later adopt the model with similar success. Cincinnati’s effort, for example, resulted in a 37.7 percent reduction in gang-member-involved homicides after 24 months and a 58.6 percent decline after 42 months.
Reducing crime won’t require big-city politicians to become dyed-in-the-wool Reaganites, but it will require conservatives and conservative ideas. It will require adequately funding and deploying police, appropriately punishing and incapacitating serious violent offenders, and deterring those who can be prevented from committing serious crimes in the first place.