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Sunday
Feb102013

Bank robber chatting with Bill Murray illustrates self-control theory

Fresh from robbing a bank in Tokyo, a robber saw film star Bill Murray and stopped to chat with him! Soon, Tokyo police tackled him (the robber) in mid-conversation.

This is a perfect image to illustrate the essence of the low self-control theory of criminality in Gottfredson & Hirschi's 1990 A General Theory of Crime, an important book that I become aware of through the work of French scholar of the sociology of crime and contributor to the Austrian school of economics (a rare combination!), Renaud Fillieule (see his presentation on praxeology and criminology embedded below). They write on p. 89 that:

A major characteristic of people with low self-control [characteristic of most actual criminality] is a tendency to respond to tangible stimuli in the immediate environment, to have a concrete “here and now” orientation.

Moreover, police caught the man with "a knife and a bag filled with 455,000 Japanese Yen, or about 5,000 USD." Once again, this is a perfect image for Gottfredson & Hirschi's contention on p. 21 that:

Although it may be more glamorous and profitable for law enforcement [and news and entertainment media] to portray an image of crime as a highly profitable alternative to legal work, a valid theory of crime must see it as it is: largely petty, typically not completed, and usually of little lasting or substantial benefit to the offender.

The vast majority of actual crimes are just like this, "petty, not completed, and of little benefit to the offender." This event, too, would have gone mostly unnoticed and unreported, were it not for Bill Murray walking by.

Self-control theory in criminology maps fairly closely to the concept of time-preference in economics (specifically, low self-control would be associated with high time preference). However, the latter is more precisely formulated as a praxeological law; the former more of a specific interpretive framework for understanding behavior patterns.

Here is a fascinating 2012 lecture examining the field of the sociology of crime from a Misesian action-theory perspective.

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Reader Comments (4)

You raise a point I have often pondered: Most crime is just as time and labor intensive as productive work, and carries the additional cost of risking severe punishment. And the payoff for robbery or burglary is usually not that great, so it doesn't seem like a worthwhile endeavor, But if you're unable to discipline yourself enough to do a regular job or provide some service, and you want immediate gratification, I guess stealing seems like the way to go.

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJason Kelly

Jason, For some reason, I didn't get a comment notification on this. Anyway: The General Theory of Crime presents quite a strong case that almost all "really existing" crime does not involve much in the way of time or labor. It is quick and opportunistic. They present the case that the public image of crime being a kind of substitute for a skilled occupation is somewhere around, say, 98% media-invention and 2% reality. The other thing they take on is the idea of criminal specialists. Again, the data show almost all criminals ranging from one type of crime to the next. The specialist is a rarity and when found, greatly exaggerated as a story line (either media or fictional.)

February 27, 2013 | Registered CommenterKonrad S Graf

Konrad,

I just got a notification from that spam comment by "Essac", but I don't think I ever got one from your response above. Ha ha! Anyway, my comment was obviously just based on my own navel-gazing. I was mainly thinking of serial burglars. We seem to have lots of those in central Florida. It just seems like if you are going to take the time to stake out a house, wait for the owners to leave, execute the break-in, robbery, and escape, and then go find a buyer for the stolen goods, that would be a big time and labor commitment. Then you have the risk of apprehension, getting shot by a victim, etc. I guess what you're explaining is that most crime is more of the impulsive shoplifting variety, and not the planned out burglary variety; or that even burglaries are mostly just one of the myriad acts by people who engage in various types of impulsive criminal behavior. I have heard the time preference analogy before, and if I had thought it through, should have realized it doesn't really fit with the idea of the criminal specialist or the crime-as-substitute-for-a-job hypothesis.

June 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJason Kelly

The key word to bridge the serial burglar case and the General Theory of Crime model is probably opportunism. The criteria for "planning" and "impulsive" is relative; it doesn't mean there is no planning at all, but just that it will tend to be relatively shorter-term. I would guess the authors would expect to see 1) signs of short-termism in other areas of life, possibly including, but not limited to, other forms of crime, and 2) a form of serial opportunism in the choice and timing of each particular act within the overall pattern. It might be, for example, an open question whether to make this the last house or maybe decide to do another one next week (and maybe we'll decide that next week), and then it adds up to a pattern to observers after the fact. This sort of thing. Up in the air. A few days of sustained effort in this way, would contrast with, let's say, having a multiple-year strategy for career advancement that builds step-by-step toward longer-term goals, that actually creates an improvement pattern, as opposed to recycling within the same pattern as before. One other point is what is not seen. The statistics record the completed acts, but not the ones that were called off. So the historical record looking backward will tend to look more organized that what actually happened from the perspective of going forward in time.

June 2, 2014 | Registered CommenterKonrad S Graf

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