Ignoring the roots of violence

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A deadly tragedy hit Iowa City this week.

One victim is dead after a shooting downtown last weekend that sent two others to the hospital. At least two dozen other murders have been reported in Iowa this year. Even as violent crime continues to decline across the country, violent deaths so close to home are jarring.

Horrific incidents like these lead to predictable conversations about how to “solve” violence. Many liberals will call for gun control, while many conservatives will call for beefing up law enforcement. Both sets of ideas whittle away Americans’ civil liberties — with people of color hit hardest — and neither deals with root causes of violence.

Americans often struggle to have meaningful conversations about the causes of crime. For some, that discussion seems to somehow excuse or justify violence.

Of course we should state unequivocally that violence is bad and the people who commit violence are wrong. However, when we refuse to recognize certain conditions tend to foster violent behavior, we ensure we’ll get more of it.

I often find it helpful to examine societal problems through the lens of economics. When we talk about human behavior, the concept of opportunity cost, conceived more than 100 years ago by the great Austrian economists, becomes powerfully telling.

Opportunity cost refers to things we pass up through choices we make. Given limited resources like money or time, there are always next-best things we must forego.

This helps explain why most people don’t commit crimes they’re likely to get in trouble for — the opportunity cost is too high. If you go to jail, you miss out on your comfortable life and chances to improve it further.

But suppose your life isn’t very comfortable, and you see few chances to improve it. You’d probably rather not go to jail, but the opportunity cost — the value of the things you’d miss out on being in jail — isn’t as high.

The latter scenario is the reality for many criminals. Various studies have found a link between poverty and crime — when unemployment drops or wages rise, we often see less criminal activity.

Another factor that muddies the equation even more — job hunting with a criminal record. Data from the Sentencing Project shows 60 percent of Americans who get locked up are still unemployed a year after release and when they do find jobs, they earn an average of 40 percent less than workers without criminal records.

Once someone is in the system, even for a minor crime, they’re more likely to offend again, often more serious than the last. A single arrest can set off a dismal chain of events that forever hampers an individual’s quality of life. Throw in the fact that Iowa locks up black people at 11 times the rate as white people — third-worst in the nation last year — and it looks a lot like a civil rights crisis.

Government policies rarely achieve their intended purpose. Putting poor Americans in cages under an ever-expanding criminal code only makes criminals out of more people.

We shouldn’t excuse violence, but we are stupid if we ignore the ways we’re making it worse.

• Comments: Sullivan.AB@gmail.com; adam4liberty.com

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