by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright May 2008
A person looks at another person doing something they don't like. The person looking later tells a friend, "There ought to be a law against that." and the friend nods in agreement.
What's the problem with this scene?
The problem comes when a law does come into existence!
The problem with outlawing behavior that we don't like is... someone likes doing it! If they didn't like doing it, we wouldn't have seen it happening in the first place.
The problem with outlawing behavior that people like doing is that the person doing the behavior is being disenfranchised: they are being invited to not be part of the community.
The problem with being disenfranchised is that if the community won't support the person, the person won't support the community. And this is the root of much crime.
This realization came to me after I experienced being pick pocketed while visiting Istanbul, Turkey. The attack happened on one of Istanbul's most famous and busy shopping streets: Istiklal Kadassi. I discovered I'd been pick pocketed only seconds after it happened, so I gave chase, and a companion I was traveling with looked for police.
The bad news was: I was old at the time of the attack, and I could no longer move faster than a fast walk. I could see my attackers, but I couldn't catch up with them. The good new was: my friend found two policemen and they came running up!
The bad news was: the pickpockets had now crossed a busy street, and were headed into a different neighborhood. The further bad news was: the cops would not chase them into that new neighborhood.
"They may have friends over there." said the cops.
At the time I was flabbergasted! The pickpockets were there... you could see them! But the cops would not catch them.
I thought about this a lot... and out of it came my understanding of the linkage between enfranchisement and crime.
When the cops crossed the street into that new neighborhood, they became disenfranchised... they didn't trust that the people of that next neighborhood would support them if they tried to arrest the pickpockets. They worried that they themselves would be attacked.
Likewise, in that next neighborhood, the pickpockets had friends, and those friends didn't care if the pickpockets did criminal activities in the Istiklal Kadassi neighborhood. The friends were disenfranchised from Istiklal Kadassi, and being disenfranchised meant they didn't care what happened there.
Disenfranchisement makes crime possible.
The alternative to disenfranchisement is enfranchisement: the feeling that what a person does matters to the community, and that the community cares about what a person thinks.
An example of enfranchisement:
From the late seventies through the mid nineties, a terrorist (called the Unabomber by the FBI) sent bombs to universities, airlines and other targets. He killed three and wounded twenty three. The FBI looked hard for him, it was their most expensive investigation to that time.
In the end, he was caught not by FBI investigative brilliance or diligence, but because in 1995 his writings were published in the New York Times, and his brother recognized them.
Ted Kaczynski's brother was enfranchised, he felt it was his duty to stop his brother's crimes against the community, and he acted on that feeling. If Ted Kaczynski's brother had been disenfranchised, if he had thought, "Ah well... so what. I know, but I don't care." then the Unabomber's reign of terror would have gone on.
Thinking "Ah well... so what. I know, but I don't care." explains why many criminals endure. This is the root of crime and violence problems in places such as Palestine, Iraq and... America and Europe.
How do laws fit into this picture?
Suppose three men, Able, Baker and Charley, are sitting in a room. Suppose Able lights up a cigarette, and Baker and Charley sitting next to him don't like smelling smoke.
Further suppose that Baker and Charley say to themselves, "There ought to be a law.", and then pass one.
There is now a problem. The problem is: Able still wants to smoke! Baker and Charley have passed a law, but they haven't changed the demand.
(Note: this an example of the concept of Tyranny of the Majority.)
What Baker and Charley have done is disenfranchised Able. Able will now think, "Ah well... this community doesn't care about me, so I won't care about it."
This disenfranchisement means that if Able sees something else going wrong, his first thought will be "So What?" and he or she will do nothing about it.
Sadly, the community corrosion does not stop with Able's apathy.
If Able cares enough about his smoking, he will look for someone to bribe.
If he can't find cigarettes, he will smuggle. If he can't afford one, he will rob.
All this... just because of a disenfranchising law that looked quite reasonable and obvious to Baker and Charly!
This is the big, big problem with disenfranchising laws of any sort. They bring apathy, corrosion and crime to the community.
Update: This 12 Oct 13 Economist article, A new type of Settlement, is a contemporary description of Palestinian refugee camps. The seriousness of the disenfranchisement problem is still not being recognized.
-- The End --
by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright May 2008
Chinese scholars observed that Chinese governments came and went, and they could not explain the coming and going well. So their explanation became that a government came and ruled when it had "The Mandate of Heaven", and fell when it lost it.
I propose that a large part of that Mandate of Heaven is enfranchisement: if a large part of the people of the community feel they have a stake in their community and their government, the government will survive. When the people of a community lose that feeling that they have a stake in the government, lots of bad things happen.
The first bad thing to happen is rising crime. If people don't care, then they won't censure criminals. It's not police who stop criminals, it's neighbors and family. If neighbors and family feel they have a community worth caring about, crime stops.
The second bad thing to happen with rising disenfranchisement is rising corruption. Corruption is often cast as an evil person conspiring with an evil government official. But that is just one kind of corruption. A second kind, a more common kind, is when the corrupter and the corrupted official both agree that the government official is being asked to enforce a basically crazy law.
A most spectacular example of enforcing a crazy law was Prohibition in America in the 1920's. Some people said outlawing drinking was a good idea, but a whole lot of people thought it was crazy. Those who thought it was crazy to stop people from drinking were disenfranchised. Some of those people who thought it was a crazy idea were policemen and politicians. It wasn't hard for smugglers (bootleggers) to convince these "evil" policemen and politicians to take money to not enforce these laws, because many respectable people didn't want them enforced, either!
Prohibition is a textbook example of disenfranchisement producing both crime and corruption. Flash forward to the 2000's, and I will let you, the reader, speculate on what government program looks equally disenfranchising, for just the same reasons.
Enfranchisement is a shades of gray thing, it's not an off/on thing. Prohibition was crazy, and it caused a lot of disenfranchisement, crime and corruption, but it did not topple the US government. In Russia, however, it did. At the beginning of World War I, there was as strong a Temprance Movement in Russia as there was in the US, and the Tzarist government enacted an anti-drinking law similar to the US's prohibition law. This, plus several other gaffs, was enough to bring down the Tzarist government. Considering that the Tzars had ruled Russia for five hundred years previously, this series of gaffs of the early 1900's was a spectacular blunder.
And, sadly for Russians, things did not get better for forty to eighty years, depending on your view of what Communist rule was like.
There are cases of the opposite in history, too, cases where a government looked like it should have fallen, but didn't. In those cases the government maintained community support, it maintained its ability to enfranchise the right people.
Two recent examples of this are the robustness of Saddam Hussien's government after the first Gulf War, and Kim Jong-il's maintaining power in North Korea.
George Bush (senior) defeated and humiliated Saddam in the First Gulf War in 1991, and stopped the fighting when he felt that Saddam's government was doomed. He felt that the Iraqi people would see him as discredited and quickly replace him.
They didn't, they stuck with him, even though he got really, really crazy after that. He kept the franchise, why? The answer was spoken at the time (1991), although Western media chose to mostly ignore it. "There's no one better to replace him."
It wasn't until the aftermath of the Second Gulf War that truth of that explanation became painfully obvious.
The peacefulness of Kim Jong-il's succession has a similar explanation. The North Koreans strongly fear that outsiders will start running the country again, as the Japanese did during the 1900-1945 time frame. The way to keep that from happening is to present a united front to the outside world... no dissent must be shown!
This fear is the heart of Kim Jong-il's mandate from heaven, his enfranchisement.
What does this have to do with running the US?
The lesson we should take from this is becoming sensitive to enfranchisement. Enfranchisement was what America offered to the people of the world when it was a shining example of Liberty: a person could come to America and have a say in the running of their own life.
Enfranchisement is taken away each time Americans enact silly laws that trample on the desires of some of those living in our community. One example of this is the War on Drugs.
Enfranchisement is taken away when we discriminate against those new to our community, such as each time we declare illegal immigrants as being outside the law.
Enfranchisement is taken away each time we declare the Rule of Law as not sufficient to combat a problem, such as when the people being held at Guantanimo are declared to be outside conventional American law.
All of these are blows to enfranchisement. All of them lead to a weaker community by promoting crime and corruption, and the "I don't care" attitude.
We, as a community, need to become much more sensitive to enfranchisement issues.
-- The End --
Followup: There is an article in Reason Magazine that covers this topic of police enfranchisement and community enfranchisement from a different perspective. The article is entitled:
'30 Years of Failure' A conversation about the War on Drugs with Ed Burns, co-creator of The Wire (The Wire is a TV program)