Capitalism and Homicide: Some Thoughts on Anonaccio and Tittle’s “A Cross-National Test of Bonger’s Theory of Criminality and Economic Conditions”

A friend in Indonesia recently sent me a paper by Olena Antonaccio and Charles Tittle from North Carolina State University entitled “A Cross-National Test of Bonger’s Theory of Criminality and Economic Conditions.”  In 1905 the Dutch Marxist Willam Adrian Bonger had hypothesised that capitalism, by its de-moralisation (i.e., reduce the moral feelings that people had for each other) of the population, would increase the homicide rate (and other criminal activity.)  The task of the researchers was to a) see whether there was a correlation between capitalism and the homicide rate and b) find out why this was so.  Since Marxism is a favourite subject of mine, this was intriguing to me.

Let’s start by addressing the second point first: the researchers discovered that the main weakness of Bonger’s thesis was that, although there is some correlation, Bonger did not consider the effect of informal social controls, i.e. peer pressure, and its effect on behaviour.  The connection with capitalism is that “capitalist systems may generate crime because they flourish where social control, particularly informal social control, is weak.”

The whole concept of morality in a Marxist context is, for me at least, an oxymoron, and this alone makes Bonger’s thesis very non-Marxist.  However, as I discussed a year ago in The Trouble With Morality, whatever force morality has is connected with community standards.  (I would suggest that Christians read my original piece before blasting me on this statement.)  Marxism’s rejection of morality contains in it an underestimation of the power of community standards, which is one reason why Marxism hasn’t worked out the way it was supposed to.

Beyond this however is an intriguing statement:

Of particular note is the finding that in countries with a predominant Eastern religion, the direction of the association between capitalism and homicide rates actually is reversed…Our finding that in countries with predominant Eastern religions, capitalism actually is linked negatively to homicide rates seems to bear testimony to Messner and Rosenfeld’s argument, suggesting a clear route to synthesization.

This needs a little analysis, and I have two comments about this:

  • Their definition of “Eastern religions” is very “Western centred,” i.e., “ABC,” “Anything But Christianity.”  The outlier in this is Islam.  It’s not clear to me that Islam is really an “Eastern religion.”  It would be interesting to see how the correlations work out if Islam was considered by itself. But such a consideration would have to include the significant Islamic countries which they left out of the study, such as Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and the “50/50” situation in Nigeria.  (Their country selection betrays an allergy for less developed countries overall, and even Brazil was left out.)
  • Most countries where these “Eastern religions” are active have not experienced the assault of secularisation that has occurred in the West.  (Japan is an exception, and it comes out very socialistic in the ratings.)  How that assault will play out in these countries (especially the Islamic ones) remains to be seen.
  • Another term that probably isn’t univocal here is “capitalism.”  As David Isenberg points out at Asia Times Online, “Generally, China, India and Russia are not following the West’s liberal model for self-development, but instead are using a different model, ‘state capitalism’; the system of economic management that gives a prominent role to the state.”  The researchers used four independent variables:
    1. social security taxes as a percent of revenues;
    2. private health expenditures as a percent of total
      health spending;
    3. union density, and
    4. the Gini index of income inequality.

It’s interesting to note that countries such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, China and even the Phillippines have a higher capitalism index than the U.S. using these criteria.  (My own experience in China teaches that the Chinese are very adept capitalists, even under state socialism!)  In a society with a high group cohesion, for example, unionisation may be less necessary to achieve workers’ goals.  Also, states with a high degree of state centralisation are a good opportunity to centralise the wealth, pushing income inequality upward.  (In the West, heavy state involvement is generally connected with wealth redistribution and income levelling, as this last election cycle witnessed.)  The level of social security taxation is not only related to the desire of society to provide for its pensioners but the rate of return on the investment, a sore subject in the U.S.

Although the researchers’ goals are admirable, their attempt to get a meaningful results is sidetracked by variable definitions which may not be as informative as they would like.  But that’s the way of research.  As I pointed out in my own master’s thesis many years ago:

In any investigation such as this the ideal goal is to come up with something truly novel, and many of such works emphasize their novelty to the denigration of those who have gone on before. While in some fields of endeavour this might be appropriate, in this case such sweeping novelty cannot be claimed. This work fits the mould as outlined by Pascal above: it takes the work that has been done before, advances it a step while realizing that there are many more steps before “perfection” is achieved.

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