“Crime in America has plummeted since its numerical peak in 1992; the violent sort by 38%, according to FBI statistics,” The Economist noted recently. That’s clearly a blessing. But why on earth is it happening?
People come up with widely divergent answers, the magazine pointed out. Some credit the removal of lead from gasoline. Some credit the increased use of psychiatric drugs. Some credit better policing, including innovations like Compstat, a system that analyzes where crime is concentrated and helps set policing priorities. Some credit demographic change. Famously, economists Steven Levitt and John Donohue credit a rise in abortion.
As it happens, crime was one of the first intellectual mysteries to intrigue Peter Drucker. When Drucker was 16, as he recounts in his memoir, Adventures of a Bystander, he took up a challenge by his uncle Hans to search for the legal and philosophical rationale of criminal punishment, a quest that eventually led him to conclude that he needed to go another step. “What needed explanation was the existence of crime—and that I knew to be well beyond my powers,” Drucker recalled.
The only attempt at explanation Drucker found came from a Marxist pamphlet that argued crime resulted from capitalism—and that the solution was socialism. “This seemed to me naïve to the point of childishness,” Drucker wrote. “There was overwhelming evidence that crime was endemic to human society regardless of its economic, social or political structure.”
Drucker was, like any human being, accustomed to unexplained phenomena. Some of those phenomena, he felt, would have to be treated with the respect to which the unknown is entitled.
At the same time, Drucker believed the scientific method to be a crucial approach to the unexplained phenomena of life and of business. It starts, crucially, with coming up with a clear and comprehensive definition of the phenomenon being studied. (For instance, maybe, for the purpose of a specific inquiry, the definition of “health” must encompass not just physical but also mental wellbeing, or “violence” must encompass not just actions but also certain kinds of speech.)
Then you go to work. “Effective decision makers . . . go back and think the problem through again whenever they see something atypical, when they find unexplained phenomena, or when the course of events deviates, even in details, from expectations,” Drucker wrote. “They are the rules for scientific observation first formulated by Aristotle and then reaffirmed by Galileo 300 years ago.”
What do you think explains the drop in crime?