Inequality creates crime

The other day I listened to an excerpt of a talk by Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He claimed with great certainty and conviction that reams of social science data more or less definitively prove that violent and property crime across the world stem largely from one source: inequality.

The crux of his argument is that the common wisdom that poverty breeds criminality is incomplete, if not flat-out wrong. It is not absolute poverty that creates crime, but rather relative poverty–particularly that kind of poverty that creates an immobile underclass of young men starved of social status, without any way to improve their prestige without breaking the rules–in other words, by committing crimes.

Now, this made so much intuitive sense to me that I had to look around and make sure it wasn’t too easy to be true. But lo and behold, the World Bank, hardly to my mind a paragon of progressive thought, backs this up in a 40-page study that I won’t quote from heavily. But here’s the money from the abstract:

“Crime rates and inequality are positively correlated within countries and, particularly, between countries, and this correlation reflects causation from inequality to crime rates, even after controlling for other crime determinants.”

In other words, mo’ inequality, mo’ problems.

It’s not just the World Bank. Google it a little and you’ll find reams of backup.

Why isn’t this front page news? Why isn’t it common knowledge? I’ve never heard this before, even though it’s apparently established fact in social psychology.

Now, this ties into my beliefs on the future of the economy, society and wealth. I’ll get into that another day. But here’s the thing: this is an argument for conservatives to get mad about inequality. Conservatives are all about law ‘n’ order. It’s, like, their thing. And I get that. I don’t want to live in a world where lawless gangs run wild in the streets and you can’t keep glass in your windows for fear of stray bullets, either.

What they don’t generally care much about is fairness of outcome. They tend to see each individual’s take of the economic output as roughly proportional to their give–that is to say, they believe that people deserve their given share of wealth and status merely by the fact of having ‘earned’ it–and any notion that they might, perhaps, have exploited an unfair system in order to reap a disproportionate share of wealth compared to their actual value is generally laughed off as liberal pansy whining.

Liberals believe severe inequality is wrong at a basic, moral level. It disgusts us. We look at a world where a CEO makes a thousand times what a mailroom clerk does, and it evokes the sensation of smelling raw sewage. Conservatives, on the other hand, see the meritocracy hard at work, and smile.

Fine. Everyone has their own taste, and their own concept of economic paradise. But the vast majority of us–basically all the non-sociopaths–agree that we don’t like theft, murder, rape, etc. So here’s where we have to start pulling in the same direction. The facts say inequality cause that stuff. It causes it hard. It’s the single biggest predictive factor.

So liberals have a moral reason to fight inequality, and all this time we’ve been shouting at conservatives that they need to care about other people more. It’s always been a losing strategy.

But now we can tell them this:

You should care about inequality if you care about your family’s safety.

You should care about inequality if you care about keeping your possessions.

You should care about inequality if you care about your own life.

If you’re not a sociopath, you’re on my team on this one. Let’s go win. More on what winning looks like later.