Lay citizens don’t go to the ISO meetings either, or to the WTO negotiations, or to so many other things, and pretending they might have something intelligent to say about either of those things–including criminal justice–is at best extreme naïvity and at worst populism.
…So, this is the question to the blogger and to those who agree with him: if not the Elite–if not those who are qualified by virtue of their knowledge of the matter–then who is to steer the Polis?
There may be a misunderstanding here. As an armchair social scientist, I try to adopt some of the habits of a real social scientist. I try to stay on a fairly high analytical level, and not let my private opinions show too terribly much.
Thus, the point of the previous post was not to suggest that elite control of criminal justice policy was either a good or bad thing, but to observe that the elite, in European countries, doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of justifying their control over this area of policy-making. These justification problems, in turn, cause embarrassing gaps between rhetoric and reality; such as when EU politicians condemn Saddam Hussein’s execution in the name of an abstract political entity, rather than in the name of a majority of the population in their home nations.
Information Unlimited’s point about elite control over policy-making is well-taken in general, but there’s a significant difference between the examples he states (ISO and WTO proceedings, for instance), and criminal-justice policy. As some of the comments you can read on this blog make clear, it’s hard to convince ordinary citizens that criminal justice policy should be controlled by elites. Unlike WTO proceedings, crimes attract continuous, high-profile press coverage and arouse strong passions.
Crimes arouse passions because they violate what Durkeim called the conscience collective, the fundamental collective moral intuitions of society. It is a direct, passionate experience: "Punishment, thus, remains for us what it was for our fathers. It is still an act of vengeance since it is an expiation. What we avenge, what the criminal expiates, is the outrage to morality."
Thus, plenty of reasonable people will admit they haven’t the faintest idea what European monetary policy should be, or which issues should dominate Germany’s policy towards Botswana. However, everybody has strong opinions on what to do about the child-molester on the front page of the daily tabloid. Experience shows it’s nearly impossible to change these passionnate emotional reactions. Thus, it’s actually hard for European elites to maintain exclusive control of criminal-justice policy — they have to keep devising new and convincing rhetorical justifications to satisfy their public that their lenient policies serve the public safety.
Now I will stop being coy, and out myself. I have no problem with the fact that European criminal-justice policy is made principally by elites. Not because I love elites so much, but because they are doing a good job, in international comparison. European societies are some of the safest on earth. Germany is a particularly safe place to live. Crime rates in Germany are stable, and many have declined (G) in recent years. Of course, there are hundreds of factors that explain this, including an aging population. However, it can be said with certainty that the fact that Germany’s lenient criminal-justice policy is not triggering large increases in serious violent crime.
The paradigmatic nation in which the average citizen does control criminal-justice policy is, of course, the United States. In no other developed nation could the citizens of a state, for instance, reinstate the death penalty by direct public referendum. Further, virtually all local prosecutors are elected directly by the public, as are judges in about half of the states in the U.S.
When the U.S. public wants harsher penalties, therefore, it gets them. The result can be seen in the following chart showing developments in the American prison population, courtesy of The Sentencing Project:
The United States now has the world’s highest incarceration rate by a huge margin (the second is Russia). Yet it also has much higher violent-crime rates than Western Europe.
Citizen control over policy-making largely explains these developments. Simply put, Joe Sixpack thinks that locking up more people for longer periods of time is the most effective way to make him safer. On this particular point, Joe Sixpack is wrong. He’s wrong because he’s ignorant, and he’s, unfortunately, ignorant about many other things as well. (Percent of Americans who knew the Republican Party controlled the House of Representatives in 2002: 32. Percent of Americans who knew that the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO in 1964: 38).
However, Joe Sixpack’s elected representatives listen to him nonetheless, and try to please him by enacting ever-harsher punishments. Now, let me say that this situation will correct itself: Americans seem to have awakened from their orgy of incarceration with second thoughts. As Winston Churchill once said, you can always count on America to do the right thing, after it’s exhausted all the other options. But the human cost, in the meantime, has been enormous.
This is why I’m interested in the question whether European policy elites will be able to resist pressure to permit direct citizen control over criminal-justice policy making. I want them to succeed, but I’m not always sure they’re on the right track.