Discover more from NeoNarrative
Justice You Shall Pursue: An Interview With Charles Fain Lehman
A recounting of his interest in criminal justice, the history of criminal justice reform, deep diving into the connection between civil rights and wokeness, and even some thoughts about parenting!
Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a public policy research organization, a contributing editor at City Journal, a public policy magazine, an excellent tweeter, Co-host of the best inquiry into the nature of institutional health, his podcast Institutionalized, and was previously a staff writer on with the Washington Free Beacon. Additionally he’s written for such papers of note as the Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, and (my favorite publication) Tablet Mag. Charles is just overall an exceptionally high-level thinker on matters involving criminal justice to progressivism to so much more. This conversation was refreshing for reasons you’ll see, it’s very rare to talk to someone with such a clear head but, when you do, it just hits like nothing else. To hear even more from Charles, follow him on Twitter today!
I want to really dive into your work at City Journal and elsewhere because you’ve produced some of the most informative and sensible material on crime and crime policy I’ve found online, but before that I’m wondering: where does your interest in crime reporting come from, and what inspires you to keep going in the wake of what seems like a pro-crime movement capturing our newsrooms, elite colleges, and preeminent government institutions? You were the first person to support my interest in converting to Judaism as a black dude (as I mentioned in our dms), and so I have to ask also if Jewish culture centralizes the importance of issues of public safety in some way? Let’s get into it.
In some senses, my interest in crime is just a product of my natural contrarianism—I am rarely satisfied with the popular explanation. When I first started out as a reporter (at the Washington Free Beacon), I focused on domestic policy broadly, which I still do to some extent. I have a fluency with numbers, and so my first intuition was to dig into publicly available data. What I regularly found was that data about the criminal justice system simply did not align with the account of reality pushed by the criminal justice reform movement. Books like The New Jim Crow and documentaries like Thirteen give the impression that most people are in prison for marijuana possession on trumped up mandatory minima, all at the behest of the private prison-industrial complex. In reality, the majority of offenders are in prison for murder, marijuana possession is barely an asterisk in prison populations, mandatory minima explain little of the growth in prison populations, and few prisoners are held in private prisons at all. So I began to develop the sense that perhaps the story popular with people, even conservatives, my age was not precisely up to snuff.
The other issue that I think started me down the road to my "tough on crime" stances today was learning about death penalty abolitionism. I wrote a long essay (unfortunately never published) about the death of Clayton Lockett, who was executed in Oklahoma with a drug called midazolam, which lead to a fairly horrible death. What became apparent to me in researching the piece is that Oklahoma only used midazolam because anti-death-penalty activists had lobbied pharmaceutical firms to stop selling more reliable drugs, namely pentobarbital and thiopental, to states, forcing them to switch to less reliable methods. This sort of unintended consequence is actually a common theme across abolitionist activism. For example, in 2019 the Supreme Court blocked the execution of Vernon Madison, a 68-year-old man whose lawyers argued that dementia rendered him incompetent for execution. But of course, Madison only developed dementia because he'd been awaiting execution for literal decades, since he murdered a police officer in 1985.
These may seem like fairly specific issues, but I think they can allow us to identify a common theme with the progressive current in criminal justice reform, namely a belief that "justice" is primarily a concern of the accused—protecting his rights, defending him against the state, etc. Values like due process are, of course, important. But our discourse obfuscates entirely the basic fact that most criminals have committed heinous acts, and that the first responsibility of justice is to redress those harms through punishment. I am motivated, in other words, by a basic belief that justice matters, and that many reformers, in their zeal for fairness or equity or whatever, actively undermine the pursuit thereof.
I don't think this is consciously a Jewish attitude, which is to say I don't think I came to this sentiment because I was taught at some point that this is what Jews believed. That said, I tend to think the view that one of the ways that Judaism is distinguished from Christianity is the primacy of justice in the former, compared to the primacy of mercy in the latter. To the Christian, everyone is a sinner, and so the differences between me and the death row prisoner are ontologically trivial. (A view like this I think motivates someone like the Atlantic's Liz Bruenig, whom I credit as one of the few honest death penalty opponents, even as I disagree with her.) Judaism, by contrast, is fundamentally a religion of law: God says that these things ought to be done, and to live well is to do them. Of course, Judaism thinks a great deal about the balance of justice and mercy—the Talmud blunts the Torah's death penalties, for example. But Judaism always proceeds from the view that there are laws which should be respected, and that violating those laws requires consequences. So in that regard, I suspect that my views are inflected by Judaism. And indeed, coming around to those views I think helped me to think more about Judaism, too.
Going to focus on criminal justice reform for a bit here because it’s been one of the most baffling features of the progressive project yet in my opinion. In the plainest sense possible, there seems to be some natural agreement between progressives and America’s criminal elements, both inside our prisons and out. The latter would have it that sympathy for the unfortunate fact of their current or future imprisonment and occasional sentences to death would eclipse harm done to victims and their families, that prison be abolished entirely, that police be abolished entirely. Of course criminals would want all that. If I were some cartoon villain with presidential ambitions, this would probably be my campaign platform. And so it boggles my mind that these are popular points of progressive justice reform and that regular people are supposed to want these things too. I recently read that SF’s D.A. (maybe the most renowned advocate for the progressive justice reform project) discharges roughly half of all felony gun cases and additionally dismisses around 25% of charges that were filed, and I suspect that the numbers for other D.A.’s in other liberal cities are likely the same. These actions are almost explicitly pro-crime. How are policies like these possibly able to garner the support that they do? Is it just a misunderstanding of the nature of most offenders? Do people just not know that over half of all inmates sentenced under state jurisdiction are in for violent crimes? Or do progressive views on criminal justice follow from an illicit view of freedom, that it requires absolution from all consequence? Is there any precedent for ideas like these?
The first thing I'd emphasize is that there's nothing really new about this phenomenon. If you read the pat criminal justice reform histories I alluded to — The New Jim Crow is easily the worst offender — you receive this story where basically either Nixon or Reagan took office, then racistly decided we had to lock up all the black people and so did the "War on Drugs" (whatever that means). Of course, what actually happened was that starting in the mid-1960s, crime rose more or less unabated for 30 years, until a combination of population change (the Baby Boomers got old), mass incarceration, better policing, and community organizing finally pushed it down.
But what is most telling is that these narratives routinely imply that prior to 1968, no one thought about crime at all. What they either do not know or do not wish their readers to know is that the period that lasted until the mid 1970s and which began, by various definitions, in the 1920s (with the Wickersham Commission), or the 1890s (in England at least), was characterized by exactly the reforming zeal that we see today, which could reasonably be described as "criminal justice reform." The "rehabilitative ideal," whereby incarceration was meant to be primarily rehabilitative, reigned. Many states and the federal government set up probation and parole systems. A series of Warren court rulings—including most famously Miranda v. Arizona, the source of the Miranda warning you see on cop shows—curtailed the power of the police and expanded the rights of offenders. By the early 1970s, the tenor of the legal and political environment was such that the Supreme Court even formally abolished the death penalty (though it was reinstated four years later).
Why did this happen? Partially it's part of the progressivism and then post-war liberalism that dominated America in the long first half of the 20th century, with their shared belief in social progress through government action. But a big part of it was because (as my friend Barry Latzer argues in The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America) we were in a period of relatively low violence, at least as measured by homicide rates. Reform was possible, in other words, because crime was less salient of an issue, and so Americans focused less on offenders and more on the system that managed them. Fast forward to the early 2000s, of course, and you see exactly the same pattern: thanks in part to the "tough on crime" movement of the 80s and 90s, crime rates declined to historic lows, cities became safe, and we started to think about the system rather than the criminals again. Thus, the criminal justice reform movement, which starts in states in the 2000s, spreads to the federal level with Obama, grows increasingly radical in the wake of Ferguson, and turns totally nuts after George Floyd's murder.
That's an account of the process, but doesn't really answer your question about /why/ people go along with these policies. But I tend to think the answer has to do with the many definitions of the term "justice." What I mean by that is: when we talk about justice, sometimes we mean values like "fairness" and "appropriate treatment." All else being equal, justice means making the criminal justice system more humane, more rehabilitative, etc. Particularly in the American context, our rights-based little-l liberal tradition also puts huge emphasis on justice meaning due process, rights of the accused, etc. At the same time, justice also means the ensuring of "safety," and a guarantee that people don't get to flout the rules either through serious crimes or by creating disorder (I've argued that Chesa Boudin, the aforementioned SF DA, lost his recall campaign because of the city's disorder problem). And justice means people getting what they deserve, i.e. punishment. Unfortunately, these values are often forced into tension! Notwithstanding the insistence of CJR advocates, criminals are pretty reliably people who engage in profoundly antisocial behavior. In the absence of strong government, a predatory few can and do dictate the terms of life for everyone else (great books on this theme include Elijah Anderson's Code of the Street and Jill Leovy's Ghettoside). Justice for the community comes into conflict with justice for them.
So I think what tends to happen is that we change which components of justice we care about based on the salience of mobilizing issues. If the crime rate is high, and there's graffiti on my street, and guys are getting shot up, and they just let a child rapist out with a slap on the wrist, I care a lot about justice as consequences. If crime is low, and there's horrifying footage of a cop murdering a guy, and someone insists that everyone in prison is there for pot, obviously we care more about justice as fairness. I don't think /most/ people who disagree with me about criminal justice reform have different values from me; rather, they have different judgments as to what the facts are, and how those facts relate to the shared values. Some of that is deliberate misunderstanding perpetrated by people with wildly different value sets—prison abolitionists, e.g. But a lot of it is just how people receive and interpret information today, for better or worse!
I want to zero-in on the idea you expressed early in your answer that post-war liberalism had a belief in “social progress through government action,” I think this is getting at something broadly relevant. It’s an important idea clearly borne out in civil rights legislation, a framework which may have some connection to the progressive politics currently gripping pretty much all American institutions. You’ve written about woke capital having its provenance in civil rights law and it’s probably the most novel explanation for woke genealogy I’ve seen, and you have done an excellent job detailing the sheer scale and power of civil rights bureaucracy, as have other writers like Richard Hanania who makes a similar argument. But in my mind there’s some causal gap between civil rights legislation and woke corporate-culture that needs filling and so I want to ask about it now. If I understand what I’ve read of civil rights legislation, its concern and scope is mostly in non-discrimination, which is antithetical to woke capital, which is mostly motivated by positive discrimination and redistribution of historical injustice, or something like that. Zach Goldberg’s research on frequency of activism-ladden language in major American publications deepens my questions here. Up till around 2010, nearly half a century into the post-civil rights era, mention of things like “white privilege” and “diversity and inclusion” were relatively stable in major newsrooms, which I take to be a kind of barometer of both public and corporate sentiment. Wokness then seemed mostly confined to university campuses. Only after 2010, despite previous decades of pressure from civil rights law and its proponents, American newsrooms were suddenly swept up in the woke revolution, and all major corporations and institutions eventually followed suit. It seems if anything that loose, sometimes backward interpretations of civil rights law have been used as justification for wokeness instead of the former causing the latter, as with Harvard justifying “race-conscious” admissions and discrimination in favor of black and hispanic applicants by calling the practice lawful. How do we draw a link between civil rights era policies of non-discrimation with the current clamor for discrimination on the basis of race?
This is, I think, a very important question, which requires something of a detailed answer. I want to make three points in response to it. The first is that civil rights law, and indeed the civil rights state, is not exhausted by the 1964 Civil Rights Act (CRA), and many of the problems with it emerged in the decades following passage and are outgrowths of subsequent policy changes. The chief concern is not so much with the CRA and the Civil Rights Movement that birthed it, as the new and peculiar regime that came afterwards. The second is that when we talk about the civil rights state creating wokeness, we are arguing both that it directly pressures institutions into following woke norms, and indirectly creates the conditions by which those norms take root. And the third is that "wokeness" in its current form is not exactly new, or at least strongly resembles phenomena that have happened before, and I think this reflects the way the civil rights state has expanded over the past several decades.
A potted history of the CRA would go something like this: From the late 1940s, mainstream America became increasingly concerned with the status of black people. You can debate about why—rising living standards creating concern for the disadvantaged, the aforementioned ascendancy of liberalism, the incorporation of blacks into the FDR coalition, integration of the military and the experience of WWII, whatever—but it became increasingly apparent to many Americans that black citizens, particularly in the south, were still subject to explicit and horrific discrimination. People were radicalized by concrete displays of this animus—think about the vision of Civil Rights protesters beaten and blasted with water by Bull Connor—and its effects, as in the famous "doll test" in Brown v. Board. To resolve this very particular problem, however, Congress passed an extraordinarily general, sweeping law, prohibiting discrimination on a wide variety of bases. In most parts, this law was formally colorblind. But many of its ambiguities and unintended consequences gave birth to a system that was anything but.
The first development comes from how courts chose to understand the idea of discrimination. While the authors of the CRA had intended for the law to restrain discriminatory intent (there's Congressional discussion to this effect), judges and regulators (e.g. the EEOC) began to focus on discriminatory outcomes. They adopted explicitly color-conscious approaches, using disparate impact as evidence of discrimination, or seeking to impose quotas in higher education. This, the sociologist John Skrentny argues, has a lot to do with the challenges of actually regulating intent. Outcomes are easy to capture by measurement, whereas intent is something institutions can and do keep from courts. It's simply easier to recognize, and therefore stamp out, discrimination if you care more about outcomes than about intent.
The second development is a product of the way that, rather than target blacks specifically, the CRA was written to confer protections—and therefore rights—on the basis of general categories. This was not really seen as a problem at the time, because America was more or less divided between blacks and whites, with only small Hispanic (not even really a discrete group) and almost no Asian population—conferring civil rights protections on the basis of race or ethnicity meant protecting blacks. But once the privilege existed, groups started jockeying for formal recognition as needing protection, which carried with it access to jobs and government resources. This situation was compounded by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which dramatically changed immigration law and heralded America's great ethnic transformation. As Hispanic and Asian populations grew, they had to be incorporated into the civil rights state. (For more on this, I recommend Skrentny's other book on the topic, as well as David Bernstein's forthcoming book.) So too did other groups who argued they, too, were historically disadvantaged and in need of state support: women, the disabled, homosexuals, and most recently trans people. A remedy specifically for discrimination against one group became a formula for many groups to seek benefit.
The third development comes in particular in the way that civil rights law deals with the concept of a "hostile environment." (I recommend Gail Heriot's papers on these topics: I, II.) In short, everyone agrees that there can be conditions in a CRA-subject institution—business, school, etc.—which constitute discrimination without being formally directed at anyone. If everyone at my hypothetical place of business spraypainted swastikas everywhere and talked about how the holocaust was good, that would be discrimination, even if they weren't screaming slurs directly at me. But (and this is in part the fault of the less-well-remembered 1991 CRA), because small acts can add up to produce a hostile environment, "zero tolerance" for conduct that could conceivably be conducive to discrimination is necessary.
I think in these developments we can begin to see the emergence of the common structuring ideas of contemporary wokeness. Disparate impact analysis gives birth to Kendi-style "if there's a racial disparity, it's evidence of racism" theories. The ambiguities around who deserves civil rights benefits is conterminous with the "oppression pyramid" way of categorizing the world. And hostile environment discrimination, Heriot argues and I agree, is the genesis of "microaggressions" and our increasing squeamishness about giving offense.
This takes us (shorter from here, I promise) to point two. In general, when someone argues that, to borrow Richard's phrase, "woke institutions is just civil rights law," we can say that the state is operating both directly and indirectly to produce "wokeness." It operates directly when it pressures institutions into compliance—hostile workplace law, e.g., compels the sort of zero tolerance policies that lead to David Weigel being suspended for a month for retweeting the wrong thing. But it also operates indirectly. It can do this by inducing the creation of bureaucracies geared toward responding to its mandates—here I am thinking of the HR/DEI bureaucracy—which then have an incentive to expand their purview by suggesting they are necessary for more than just compliance (I write about this in the City Journal piece you alluded to; Frank Dobbin also has a book on the topic). In addition, the law is a teacher, and sets the terms of public debate. Census racial categories, e.g., form the foundation of how we think about race, even though they are often nonsensical—Middle Eastern people are considered white, Indians and Japanese people are agglomerated into one big "Asian" category, even the most disadvantaged whites are lumped in with their successful peers, etc.
It is thus reasonable to believe that the policy changes from point one would work a cultural change long before today. And indeed, I think the historical record shows that they did (point three). As early as the 1970s, elite liberals were evincing a fixation on race and the status of minorities characteristic of their descendants today. The classic study of this is Tom Wolfe's 1970 essay "Radical Chic," which documents elite support for the Black Panthers in New York. I think there's a sort of backlash during the Reagan administration (though only kind of, as I discuss in my CJ piece), but by the 1990s race-consciousness is back in full swing. It's then that corporate trainers make the switch to "diversity" thinking; it's then that "political correctness" enters the public lexicon; it's then that the nation is introduced to the concept of Critical Race Theory, after Bill Clinton tries to appoint Lani Guinier to run DOJ OCR; it's then that the "ebonics" controversy happens. There is, I think, another backlash in the 2000s, as much against RW censoriousness as LW (the South Park decade!). But then the pendulum swings back, as Zach Goldberg (now my MI colleague) shows, around 2010.
A point on that language point, however. Yes, certain contemporarily salient terms — "white privilege" or "BIPOC" e.g. — rise in salience in the late 2010s. But the terms in which we have these debates come and go. We don't really talk about "safe spaces" or "trigger warnings" anymore, at least not with the same frequency. Interestingly, the term "racism" is in decline in usage, per Google NGrams. This suggests to me that the linguistic terrain of the wokeness dispute regularly shifts, and so picking any one set of words to characterize it will give us a false impression. I do think Zach is right that something weird happened to our elites in 2010, I just also think that something has happened before!
Anyway, my view is in short that the Civil Rights state is more than just the CRA, and in fact in many ways subverts the original goals of the CRA; that there is a relationship between features of the Civil Rights state and contemporary woke culture; and that this is not accidental, but a causal relationship, whereby the development of law has driven changes in culture.
Great, great answer. I’m getting a feeling I don’t get often when talking about these topics or when hearing others talk about them, which is a feeling of living in a state of non-exception, that everything unusual we’re seeing is part of somewhat regular historical cycles. I’ve occupied myself with how we might upend wokeness and return to something more akin to Big L Liberalism, and rivers of bits have flowed on Twitter about this because dealing with wokeness is frustrating for those of us more concerned with merit and free expression as foundations for organizing the world than skin color and ideological purity. But from your perspective I feel you might say it’s only a matter of time before merit comes to the forefront of values and things like color-blindness in American workplaces returns in normative force. So, two (and a half) part question: Why are most social phenomena never really exceptional? Is it right to assume that this is an important heuristic you use in your thinking on culture? And will wokeness end on its own?
These two questions sort of flow together, right? Insofar as "how will this wave of wokeness end" and "is this wave of wokeness different (and is anything really 'different')" depend on each other. I don't have a definitive answer to either question, but I'll give a couple of different thoughts/takes/impressions, which point in conflicting but possibly resolvable directions.
People like to overcomplicate, even theologize, wokeness, as a value set. This is, I think, a peculiar habit of the contemporary liberal critic of wokeness, who insists on his belief in free and unlimited discourse but often does a very bad job occupying the mindset of their dissenting interlocutors. (To be fair, most people are bad at occupying the mindset of their interlocutors — it would be bad for our persuadability and therefore social cohesion if we were good at it!) So he prefers to see wokeness as this alien, irrational thing.
In reality, I think the woke program is pretty straightforward. Society is composed of groups, those groups are in conflict, one of those groups has more power than the other groups for historically contingent reasons, the best way to resolve that conflict is to work toward intergroup equality, and laws and actions should be evaluated in relation to how they resolve that conflict. Not only are these not inexplicable values, many other cultures embrace them. They are often, just as one stark example, the working framework for post-conflict multiethnic states. A favorite example of how these values play out is in hate speech: the idea that we should ban hate speech sounds totally weird in the American context, simply because we think about the right to speak as a fundamental political right, a basic component of citizenship. But hate speech laws exist all over the world! And when Critical Race Theorists (yes, the real Critical Race Theorists, like Richard Delgado) talk about the issue, they often invoke not only those cases, but also the value system that undergirds them. Hate speech harms target groups, we should be concerned about harm to those groups, therefore we should prohibit hate speech.
I tend to think past "waves" of wokeness are just this system of values increasing and decreasing in relevance/salience, particularly among elites. But it's worth emphasizing that most Americans do not think about the world this way! A favorite example is quotas: 3 in 4 Americans oppose explicit quotas in either higher education admissions or hiring. This isn't perfectly true: you can get them to compromise through question phrasing, so that e.g. only 26 percent think the government should "prohibit a person from sharing political views that are offensive to some," while 60 percent think the government should "prohibit people from sharing a racist or bigoted idea." But I do think Americans still broadly believe in liberty of the individual rather than the group, equality of opportunity rather than outcome, etc.
Values don't come from nowhere: in my view, they are the emanations of deep institutional or structural components of a society. This is why most social phenomena are never really exceptional (to get back to your question): people and institutions just act out their intrinsic tendencies over and over again. For whatever reason, America's structural determinants seem to bias us toward a sort of classical liberalism/folk libertarianism. de Tocqueville argued that Americans' character is a product of how much space we have, and the newness of our land. Another argument that I'm partial to is that American liberalism is a historical accident—Enlightenment thinking was just really in vogue in the 17th and 18th centuries, and a handful of small landholders who happened to be really geeked for it wrote our constitution and early laws, which have subsequently set the terms of culture. We got lucky! But in this view, if the institutions/characteristics of the society stay the same, the values that are expressions of those institutions/characteristics stay the same. Which explains the durability of America's peculiarly "right-leaning" character (in a developed international context).
Then the question becomes, what could cause values to change? Which really means, what causes deep structural change to American culture? I think there are four answers, three of which are relevant. (The fourth is immigration, but how immigration and cultural norms interact is thorny, and I don't think the average guy immigrating to the US is super woke, so I'm willing to bracket it.) One is wealth: the political scientist Ronald Inglehart identified a connection between rising wealth in the west and what he dubbed "postmaterialism," the transition from concerns with wealth to concerns with justice, equality, and other higher values. To borrow Rob Henderson's theory, in postmaterial societies people stop competing with each other by getting stuff, and start competing on the basis of "luxury beliefs"—moral purity, extremeness of commitment, etc. Answer two is legal change: I talked in the last question about how the emergence of a distinct legal regime under the aegis of the civil rights state has contributed to cultural change; Christopher Caldwell called the Civil Rights Act our second Constitution, more or less, and while I don't agree with his analysis, I think that's not an inapt way to think about it. Answer three is technology, which always alters how we interpret the world. I've argued that liberal notions of grace and forgiveness depend on the possibility of forgetting, something which is increasingly remote to us, and explains much of the "cancellation" phenomenon.
Do all of these macro pressures beat out Americans' preference for folk classical liberalism? I don't know! I am optimistic that there will be another "backlash" in the next decade or so — on the electoral level, we've sort of been in the middle of one on and off since 2016. People are pessimistic about the trajectory of young people, who seem uber-liberal, but I think a lot of that is fad. It was not so long ago that high schoolers loved Ron Paul! And liberalism tends to fade out with age. So wokeness will probably "burn itself out," but will probably appear again. The question is if we will see a durable change in American values, and that I'm not sure about. I think the phenomenon I am most worried about is the epistemic shift occasioned by the internet, which represents a challenge to basically every system of government on earth. But it's hard to say how that will shake out: the internet is both radically centralizing and radically decentralizing.
I do want to add that I've taken a sort of disinterested stance, but I'm very much a partisan of American values. I think American individualism and commitment to freedom are both better aligned with human nature and (consequently) a major part of what has made us the world's greatest nation. There are areas where I am perhaps at odds with the current classical liberal consensus: I've written in support of enforcement against hate crimes, e.g., and am a vocal supporter of drug prohibition. But even those issues I think about through the lens of American Republicanism, i.e. I think that they are important because they facilitate the kind of collective and individual self-rule that characterizes freedom in the American tradition.
Again great answer, and I want to focus on something you said at the end here as an overture to your thoughts on crime and policy. You’ve published some excellent work on the broad involvement of alcohol in crime (e.g. 1/3rd of prisoners had alcohol at the time of their crime, which is just wild) and targeted alcohol proscriptions as a solution, and I want to hear you talk more on this and your stance on drug prohibition in general as a crime-ameliorative! I’ve never really considered how much crime is driven by substance use and abuse until reading your work, I think in part because of the prevailing myth that alcohol prohibition of the 1920s didn’t actually work and that decriminalization of drugs is a viable policy solution for substance-abuse and other illicit activity. Tell us why we should think more seriously about drug prohibition!
The drug - crime connection is sort of necessarily a complicated one. I think the evidence (which my colleague Connor Harris and I review in the report you mention) that alcohol can be causally linked to (i.e. is not just correlated with) crime is strong. At present, alcohol probably contributes more to crime than drugs do. But this is relative to the status quo, in which alcohol is far more widely consumed than even marijuana, never mind the harder drugs, because prohibition means that there are far fewer active drug users than active alcohol users. If you could buy methamphetamine out of a vending machine, you'd have far more meth-involved crime than you do now.
Of course, that last assertion is controversial! Advocates of legalization tend to argue that all of the crime, and particularly all of the violent crime, associated with drug use is a product of criminalization. Legalize it, they argue, and a legitimate market would drive out violent actors. This argument tends to turn on exactly the example you alluded to, alcohol Prohibition in the United States, which is commonly asserted to have driven up violence as gangs fought for control of territory. In reality, the story is a little more complicated: yes, the gangs were associated with crime, but Americans really did drink less, which should have led to a reduction in violence, including particularly domestic violence. Similarly, critics of drug prohibition point to the insanely high levels of violence during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But in my view that was a contingency of that particular market, rather than a necessary result of prohibition. Notably, today's opioid crisis is not associated with heightened violence, e.g. the states with the highest levels of OD death have unremarkable violent crime rates. As a rule, violence is in general bad for business. When dealers had to distribute from corners, and therefore control "turf," it was more necessary. But the advent of the cell phone, instant messaging, etc. has made dealing a much less centralized phenomenon, reducing the need for, and therefore incidence of, violence—which redounds to the drug dealer's benefit!
My point is that bald assertions that prohibition is the exhaustive cause of violence are overly simplistic. In reality, the question of "what drug policy regime minimizes violence" is like all questions in drug policy, in that there is no clear cut answer. That can vary on the level of what is legal versus what is not, but also on a level as microscopic as police tactics: the infamous "Hamsterdam" experiment in The Wire, in which the PD creates an area in which drugs are tacitly "legalized," is in fact an example of selective policing seeking to minimize violence. If you sell outside of "Hamsterdam," you're still subject to prohibition, and the experiment only "works" (within the show's reality, of course) because of that implied threat constraining dealers' behavior.
I do think, though, that the case for drug prohibition is only a little bit about minimizing crime, and violent crime more generally (by definition, prohibition increases the total number of crimes, because people are selling an illegal substance, but you get my point). In one regard, it's about minimizing death and other harms to health: the bet of the prohibitionist is that by making drugs more costly to obtain, prohibition constrains the number of users and the number of uses such that the total number of life years lost (a crude statistic) is less than under some other arrangement. And that of course can vary by substance: it's a stronger argument for prohibiting heroin than it is for marijuana. In another regard, I think prohibition vs. legalization implicates key ideas about freedom. I alluded previously to the idea that drug prohibition "facilitates the kind of collective and individual self-rule that characterizes freedom in the American tradition." By this I mean that there are things other than violence that can deprive us of freedom, and addiction is, for many people, one of those things. Insofar as the function of government in the American tradition is to facilitate freedom—freedom meaning more than just the right to do whatever we want—the state should strive to prevent people from falling into that state, even if it means not letting other people consume a substance they would like to consume.
My final question for you is a bit unrelated to everything asked so far, but I have to ask because I’ve been too interested for too long— I know you’re a relatively new parent which is exciting since you are probably one of the most pro-natalist individuals I’ve seen on Twitter. I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had with early 20-somethings who’ve absolutely sworn off starting a family in the future because of climate change or “how scary the world is now” or the economy or whatever, so it’s like rain after scorched summer to see someone who actually likes children! Can you talk a bit about why having kids matters and what it’s been like as a new parent, facing the same crazy world that’s been scaring young people (mostly women) to death?
I feel like I should disclaim that I have one kid, a not-quite-two-year-old boy, which gives me only limited qualifications to opine on parenting. I have friends with four or five kids of both sexes and all ages. So I'm really not sure how much people should take my commentary on parenting for.
That said: I think that people who claim that they do not want to have kids because of climate change, or inequality, or the evils of capitalism, or whatever, are mostly lying, at least to others and usually to themselves. Mostly, they do not want to do it because it sounds boring, and hard, and they feel like they are not yet equal to the task in a way they think their parents were. And to that I am perfectly comfortable saying yes, having a kid is often extremely boring, and probably the hardest thing I have ever done, and I am often just making it up as I go along (which is what your parents were doing, also)! But having granted all those premises, I think I can say a couple of things to endorse it anyway.
Part of parenting is dealing with really unpleasant moments, like when your kid wakes you up at 2 AM and you have to go into a dark room to change their dirty diaper. Or when they throw up on you twice in the span of 45 minutes. But in those moments, often what I think about is that I was once the tiny thing keeping my parents up at 2 AM, or getting sick all over them, or begging to be carried, or throwing a fit in the parking lot. And they didn't throw their hands up, or curse, or give up (at least not in front of me); they gave me what I demanded or what I needed, without expecting anything in return, more or less unceasingly. And so the first thing I tend to think is parenting is not actually about the parents—it's about the kids, who are small, and defenseless, and often just need someone to make it better. And everyone, it turns out, was a child once, and almost everyone had someone, or several someones, who did that for them. So it is my view that the only way we can actually repay the enormous debt of having been parented (those many of us who carry it, at least), is forward, not backward. I don't think you have to do this via parenting—the novelist Ann Patchett, who has no children, has a heartbreaking reflection on caring for her grandmother in her last days that to me recalls some of what is hard about parenting. But you do have to do it, and for most people, the best way to do it is to parent.
But "parenting is repaying a debt" is not a very sexy message, even if it's true. So my second point: parenting is existentially satisfying in a way that many things aren't. A lot of what we fill our days with are "experiences," or sensual stimuli—television, social media, vacations, sports games, etc. etc. Those are great, don't get me wrong. I love to cook and eat, which is a primarily sensual experience. But I think many people often feel, in my view rightly, a certain emptiness associated with this lifestyle. "What is this all for?" we might ask, or, “What is the purpose of this?" "Why get out of bed in the morning?" One thing I have discovered as a parent is that this is basically not a question I need to ask anymore. The reason I get out of bed in the morning is because my son needs me to. Being a parent means having a whole other person whose whole world you are. I think it's really hard not to find that meaningful, if you put even a little effort into it.
Okay, sure, "existential satisfaction," whatever. The most persuasive reason I have is that parenting is cool. In Far From the Tree, his book about the lives of children who are profoundly different in some way, the writer Andrew Solomon observes that "reproduction" is something of a misnomer. In theory, he argues, we imagine that our children will be replicas of us, a pure product of the two parents. In reality, they are always much more, surprisingly more, than the sum of their parts. They are totally novel and unique, a completely new person who goes through the whole process of becoming a fully formed adult right in front of your eyes. My kid loves the alphabet; the other day I just discovered he can say the first four letters, totally unannounced. He is constantly exploring and discovering new things, completely guileless and fascinated by the world. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that I can think of that is like that experience of watching someone that you made, and who is in many senses yours, grow up into their own person. That's often fun, although it's just as often frustrating (my kid is currently learning to test boundaries, which is funny until it isn't). But it's basically always exciting, which is pretty great, in my opinion.
These are all very philosophical answers. If you want the books that made me feel okay about being a parent, calmed my worries and so forth, I recommend Bryan Caplan's Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, Emily Oster's Cribsheet, and (for a longer read) Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption. These are all books which argue, more or less, that most parents' worries are overblown, and that as long as you make sure they're clothed and fed, you can spend more time having fun with your kid than pushing him to get into the best preschool. If you're actually worried about climate change, realize that a) the marginal temperature impact of an additional human is negligible, and b) the real solution to climate change will probably involve innovation, so more humans means more brains means a faster solution. But really, this is an excuse. You're never going to be "ready" until you're actually doing it, so, at least in most of the cases you're talking about, might as well do it.
For more from Charles, follow him on Twitter today!