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Suppose we lived in a totalitarian regime with very little control of what we could own, what we could do and when we could do what we want. In such a case, it'd be that the crime rate would become very less (as could be observed in certain countries). True, the people here could possibly commit crime, but they'd be less likely to due to severe penalities involved. (This effect can be easily observed in certain regimes around the world if one does some searching...)

On contrast, suppose we live in a first world western country, say the US or so, then any individual has an ability to commit crime as a result of the rights and strong constitution protecting their personal life.

In such a case, would it be a reasonable argument to say that the US is more free the totalitarian regime due to the fact that there is people have seemingly more ability to commit crime due to lesser "direct" legal coercion? If yes, What would be the justification? if not, what would be the correct alternative statement with justification?


Technical complexities: Of course, whatever "crime" means is relative to the legal structures of each country, so what would be crime in one country would not be in another country. So, take all instances of "an act of crime" in the above text as to simply mean to against established legal norms.

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  • Most definitions of (political) freedom would identify non-totalitarian systems as more free than totalitarian ones, bringing in the question of ease-of-criminal-activity might seem like "overkill" (pun intended?). Or then totalitarianism itself can already be defined as "not free" in the relevant sense. Jun 29 at 17:58
  • Perhaps maybe there could be something else to compare the provided free society with to highlight the issue more. I couldn't think of better examples, so I took the first one which came to my head @KristianBerry Jun 29 at 17:59
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    I don't think your intuition is off-kilter (if I share your intuition, anyway). If we define freedom relative to force/coercion, then we can have a regime A that has less laws but harsher punishments than regime B, or either regime can have the same number of laws/degrees of punishment but vary per discriminatory laws that rope in more people unjustly (e.g. if there was one law, a ban on carrot-eating, and the punishment was a $100 fine: still, the state would be using way too much force just to get at all carrot-eaters). Jun 29 at 18:04
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    Yes, that's exactly around the lines of what I was going for @KristianBerry Jun 29 at 18:06
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    Surely in a society for which more things are illegal, it is easier, not harder, to commit crimes. If blasphemy, jaywalking, and murder are illegal, I need only blaspheme and jaywalk, which are so easy that I can do them effortlessly at the same time; if only murder is illegal, I must incur the costs and risks associated with murder to commit crimes.
    – g s
    Jun 29 at 19:07

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What does 'able to commit crime' mean? Less likely to get caught? Face less draconian penalties if they are caught?

Saudi Arabia have very severe penalties for crimes. But, people also know that what they get up to in private compounds that doesn't relate to politics and is not made public in any way, will generally get left alone, so breaking the law around alcohol is apparently widespread.

In North Korea the penalties are very strict, and the apparatus for citizens checking on each other is very extensive. But over 1,000 flee each year, and around 1% of the population is in prison camps being worked to death.

The USA has a gigantic prison population, more than double per capita it's next nearest competitor, China. 13 states arrest people for traffic violations, and underfunding of rural police pushes them to make money from fines, people risk losing their car and livelihood being stopped once their inability to pay results in an arrest warrant, and slightly more than half of police shootings happen during traffic stops. 'Freedom' means something massively different if you're too poor to fix your tail light.

Wilkinson & Pickett in their books The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, and The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone's Well-being, go into the research about how economic inequality correlates with violent crime. Inequality, and lack of opportunity, constrain freedom, for poor. But also lead to much higher spending on security, more theft and robbery, and more fear of crime, affecting the rich.

I presume what you really mean is, ability to commit minor crimes, and not face serious consequences. Perhaps like drinking alcohol during prohibition, or taking recreational drugs. Crucially, alcohol was legalised, and cannabis has been in a lot of the world (or decriminalised). I'd point to what a crime is and what penalty it faces, matches community sentiment, being the real evidence of liberty, and community self-determination. And, no one being held above the law - because that's the real issue that allows elites to impose penalties they would not acept for themselves or their loved ones.

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Crime is a complex issue with multiple factors. Even of your intuition was true, it would be very difficult to reliably assign a difference in crime rate between two countries to a difference in freedom level, all other factors excluded.

That said, there is a flaw in your proposal: new laws can actually raise the crime rate by creating new crimes (this can be observed in actual countries and cities).

Take two countries, Freedomia and Tyrannia. They are the same in everyway, except one law: eating apples is forbidden in Tyrannia. Citizens of Freedomia are evidently more free than those of Tyrannia: they can do all the same things, +1. But the crime rate is going to be higher in Tyrannia because of all the people who like apples and will break this law that doesn't exist in Freedomia. As such the country with the higher crime rate will also be the one with the less freedom.

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  • This is also not neccesarily trus, take for example Conservative and rich middle Eastern ountries where there is perhaps more stricter laws but less crime in total. Heck one of them is even popularised as one of the most safest places on earth Jun 30 at 5:03
  • @SBrian I'd say the fact those petromonarchies distribute a revenue from the oil money to every citizen greatly helps reduce the crime rate. The main problem with your theory is you can't isolate a single reason for people doing crime. And when one makes a thought experiment to actually isolate government control as a factor, it seems the opposite of what you said his true.
    – armand
    Jul 1 at 8:42
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First of all what crime rate are you referring to? The one reported by that government, the one "felt" by it's citizens (also what part of the citizenry) or the "true crime rate" and how trustworthy are they or how able are you to accurately compute them.

Like a totalitarian country might have a 0% crime rate... simply due to the fact that saying otherwise is a crime. Or it might be very safe for tourists because the government protects it's cash cows from any threats and only presents a favorable perspective of the country, though behind the scenes "threats" can be the existence of regular citizens in their proximity and despite not being counted the government breaking it's own laws to do that is also part of the true crime rate. So the discrepancy between reported, felt by different parts of the citizenry and "true crime rate" (what an omniscient observer would count) can vary drastically.

Also you have different reasons for why people commit crimes, from illnesses and compulsions, to crime being the only or only viable way to achieve the bare necessities, to conditions where you willingly break existing rules without any obvious need to do so.

So if you make something illegal that is an inevitable part of the human condition or the social condition in that country than you're likely going to have a high crime rate, because people can't help doing it anyway regardless of consequences. Or your police apparatus is simply not good at doing it's job.

Which leads to another point that it's not just about the laws but also how they are enforced. Like you could for example make it illegal to breath, so you could imprison (or worse) any and all people at will, but could apply that selectively only to those who you don't like. They would inevitably have committed a crime and the high crime rate among the dissident populations could be used to justify the increased police focus there.

Actually "crime" is anything but an absolute property but something that the government can actively set the rate of themselves. So if there is too much crime they can just declare it not to be a problem, make police look the other way et voilà problem solved, while if there is too little crime (for example to justify a large police apparatus) one could just make something trivial and common illegal and suddenly crime is going through the roof.

Not to mention that penalizing something doesn't have to be a binary between good and pure evil either, like depending on how much you want to suppress a behavior or encourage another behavior you might apply different levels of punishment.

Or with regards to levels of punishment it's not the case that harsher punishments are more effective at deterring crime. Of course no punishment is of low effectiveness as a deterrent and with capital punishment the chance of a relapse into crime is rather low, but even with the existence of capital punishment murder is still a thing, it can even increase in prevalence as you normalize the use of extreme violence as a method of justice. So that killing and dying becomes a part of everyday life and "simply how the world works". Not to mention that harsh penalties can result in people avoiding to report others to the police for fear of unjustified punishment and repercussions by their relatives or criminals might avoid turning themselves in and instead rather fight with the police as they have nothing left to lose.

So it's not a linear effect and might even end up being counter productive.

On the other hand just because it's made easier to do a crime doesn't mean you're actually doing it. Like it's usually always possible to commit murder (getting away with it is a different thing but there's little stopping you in terms of the deed itself), though few people would even consider that. If it were to be legal tomorrow people would probably still not think of it as a good idea as it's something with unforeseeable and irreversible consequences for others but also yourself.

And last but not least there's might be a difference in terms of who makes the law and what options you have to challenge it, so is it a democracy where you could technically take part in the process of actually changing the law if it sucks or is it an autocracy where you have no way to challenge a law other than breaking it and where your dissent only matters if it is shared by a substantial amount of people who are at or near the breaking point?

So the crime rate is not really a good number to compare systems or to rank the degree of freedom within a system. There are or can be correlations of that effect, but there are a lot more variables in play that can easy overshadow that.

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