Conservative, Liberal and Radical Views of Crime

Randall G. Shelden (October, 2009)


Crime has always been and continues to be a hot political topic, the subject of countless commentaries by pundits and almost always an issue in state and local elections.  Various perspectives and proposals are offered by both politicians and by scholars.  These views fall into one of three political and ideological perspectives: conservative, liberal and radical.  Granted the radical view is rarely expressed among politicians, although certain aspects of this perspective can be found among the various proposals for reducing crime.  The two most common are, of course, the conservative and the liberal.  This essay is meant to provide a concise summary of these views, with an additional summary of two topics that has been receiving a lot of attention lately, namely “socialism” and “capitalism.”  What follows is not to be seen as an exhaustive overview of the subject, but rather a kind of “primer.”  Plenty of references are provided for those who wish to pursue these topics in more detail.[1]

The Conservative View

Both the conservative and liberal viewpoints are embedded within the context of both democracy and the free enterprise system.  From a conservative perspective, the two systems are working well, with most problems caused by individuals or groups of individuals who seem, mainly because of some character flaw(s), unable to succeed within the overall system. In essence, these individuals or groups make bad or irrational choices (it is assumed everyone has free will) which in turn put them in problematic circumstances. Aside from some psychological and/or biological assistance (which can help effect “choice”), the most effective way to address social problems such as crime is through the economic system, primarily by cutting taxes on the rich and/or corporations which is supposed to give them incentives to create jobs.  The use of tax dollars to develop “social programs” or otherwise assist the general public is to be avoided whenever possible. Obviously the size of the government should be minimized. Equality can be achieved mainly through hard work.[2] Part of this philosophy is a strong belief in “rugged individualism,” or the idea that you don’t need help from others, especially government. 

The term conservatism has its roots in the Latin word conservare which means to "save" or "preserve.”  Although the word has had a variety of meanings over the years (as has liberalism), in general it refers to a philosophy that supports “tradition” and the “status quo.”  One definition of conservatism is this: “Preference for the existing order of society. An opposition to all efforts to bring about rapid or fundamental change.”[3]

A popular variation is “Libertarianism” which can be defined as a “belief that legitimate government should be small and should play only the most minimal possible role in economic, social and cultural life, with social relationships to be regulated as much as possible by voluntary contracts and generally accepted custom and as little as possible by statute law.” Libertarians usually oppose government programs for the redistribution of income and other types of intervention to correct the ills of society.[4]  Many libertarians find common ground with liberals when it comes to criminal justice, such as their opposition to the drug war and the over-reach of the criminal law.[5] 

Conservatism also refers to a belief that existing economic and political inequalities are justified and that the existing order is about as close as is practically attainable to an ideal order. One of the earliest conservatives was Edmund Burke who supported the idea that the “proper formulation of government came from time-honored development of the state, piecemeal progress through experience, and the continuation of other important societal institutions such as the family and the Church.”  Another branch of conservatism originated from the Frenchman Joseph de Maistre who, writing in strong opposition to the French Revolution, “supported the restoration of hereditary monarchy, which he regarded as a divinely sanctioned institution, and for the indirect authority of the Pope over temporal matters.”  From an economic standpoint, conservatives have generally supported a “modified free market” in contrast to a strictly “Laissez-faire” system.  Thus they support government intervention into the economy to “promote competition while maintaining the national interest.”[6]

As the linguist George Lakoff explains, behind conservatism is a view of the family that can be described as the traditional nuclear family with the father in control as the major breadwinner. The society as a whole should operate based on this model of the family. There is, under this system, a “strict father morality” which is based in part upon the belief that in order to become a “good” and “moral” person a child must learn to obey the rules and respect authority.  Proper behavior is taught through the use or threat of punishment.  Within such a system “the exercise of authority is itself moral; that is, it is moral to reward obedience and punish disobedience.”[7]  

According to this view, this system of rewards and punishments has a higher purpose operating here, namely, that in order to survive in a dangerous world children must learn discipline and build character.  Punishment, according to this philosophy, is the only way to become a self-disciplined and moral person. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is a popular phrase. To be successful requires becoming self-disciplined.  More importantly, rewarding someone who has not earned it by developing self-discipline is immoral.  This is why conservatives are constantly complaining about various forms of welfare, affirmative action, lenient punishments and the like, for they see this as rewarding deviance, laziness, etc.[8]  Of course, this does not apply when we consider various kinds of “corporate welfare” and all the other benefits that accrue to someone born into wealth and privilege.  There is an erroneous assumption that those who are rich and famous did so through their own efforts, with little or no help from others.  Luck and the privileges of birth are not mentioned within this conservative philosophy.

According to the conservative view, there is a “morality of strength.”  Moral strength can be seen as a metaphor.  The metaphor suggests that the world is divided into “good” and “evil” and in order to stand up to evil one must be morally strong; and one becomes morally strong through a system of rewards and punishments which teaches self-discipline.  A person who is morally weak cannot fight evil.  If one is too self-indulgent he or she is immoral.  Welfare is immoral, as is crime and deviance, and therefore should be punished.  Therefore, it logically follows that crime and deviance are the result of moral weakness.  Teenage sex, drug use and all sorts of other “deviant” behaviors stem from lack of self-control.  A person with proper self-discipline should be able to “just say no” and those who do not must be and deserved to be punished.[9]

There has been a great deal of research supporting the connection between conservatism and the authoritarian personality.  This type of personality was first studied by Theodor Adorno and his colleagues at what came to be called the Frankfurt School (a groups of Germans who fled from Nazi Germany during World War II, first to Britain and then to the United States (Cal. Berkeley). The research explored the question of why some people easily succumb to fascism.  This led them to explore in some detail such related issues as anti-Semitism and ethnocentrism. They developed the now famous Likert scale (including the famous F Scale) with several variations to measure fascism, authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, etc.  Among the key findings included a close correlation between such factors as ethnocentrism, a rigid adherence to rules (and to authority in general), an inability or unwillingness to accept ambiguity, superstition (which is in turn is often linked to religious beliefs), the use of stereotypes and also punitiveness. Also, they found such characteristics as scapegoating and prejudice.[10] 

The conservative view of crime and criminal justice can be summarized very simply.  People commit crime because they think they can get away with it, largely because the pleasure they get from committing the crime is greater than the potential pain they would receive if caught and punished.[11]  This is, of course, the popular “deterrence” perspective.  From this perspective people refrain from committing crime mostly because of fear of getting caught and punished.  In order to reduce crime, the pain must be increased so that it is greater than the pleasure received from committing the crime.  In other words, to reduce crime we should increase the odds of getting caught and the severity of punishment.  This way potential criminals will think twice before committing the crime.  To use a popular phrase “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”  A common statement concerning battered women is “You made your bed, lie in it.”

Conservatives see criminals as having defective choice mechanisms, in particular by not going to school and in general obeying the rules, which will eventually lead to good jobs. As a result they begin to exhibit varying forms of delinquency like substance abuse, crime, violence, or any number of deviant combinations.

Students of criminal justice may recognize this argument as being part of the “classical school” of criminology. This school of thought makes these assumptions: (1) All people are by their nature self-seeking and therefore liable to commit crime. (2) In order to live in harmony and avoid a “war of all against all,” people agree to give up certain freedoms in order to be protected by a strong central state. (3) Punishment is necessary to deter crime, and the state has the prerogative (which has been granted to it by the people through a social contract) to administer it. (4) Punishment should fit the crime and not be used to rehabilitate the offender. (5) Each individual is responsible for his or her actions, and thus mitigating circumstances or excuses are inadmissible.[12]

It should be pointed out that this conservative philosophy has become a more dominant force in American culture in recent years, beginning with the Reagan years.[13]  Underscoring this development has been the concomitant growth in the number of conservative “think tanks.”[14] Add to this the increasing politicization of crime, referring to the fact that starting in the mid-1960s “law and order” entered into national political races with the Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964.[15]  Since this time it seems as if Republicans have had a corner on the market of “crime control” as a key issue. To be sure, their platforms have consisted of simplistic slogans like “don’t do the crime, unless you can do the time” or “go ahead, make my day.”  Nevertheless, such simplistic bromides have resonated with many voters, especially white Southerners.[16]

Conservatives also place strong emphasis on “personal responsibility.”  As Tim Wise puts it: “If you're struggling economically, don't blame the system: just work harder. If you find yourself behind your white counterparts, don't blame racism or discrimination: just work harder. And if you commit a crime, go to jail: no whining about the environment in which you grew up, or whether you were abused as a child, or the fact that you might be mentally ill.” However, conservatives often don’t take their own advice, such as when Rush Limbaugh was hooked on drugs “all the talk about the moral weakness of drug users and abusers suddenly disappeared, to be replaced by claims that he had become addicted, as if by a disease: the same diagnosis the right regularly eschews for street junkies.”[17]  As far as welfare is concerned, while they castigate the poor as being lazy and claim welfare reinforces dependency, they do not hesitate to take tax dollars in the form of “corporate welfare” or gladly accept government help when times are tough (e.g., AIG, banks and other big corporations received billions of dollars starting in the fall of 2008 when the economy began to collapse).[18]

Certain extreme versions of the conservative philosophy can become potential dangerous, especially in American society today. A small but very vocal minority on the “far right” have been grabbing the headlines expressing a great deal of hatred and racist beliefs.  Usually members of such groups do not make blatant racist statements, but rather use various “code words” that mask racism.  Examples can be found in the accusation that President Obama was not born in America, or charges that he is either a “socialist” or a “Muslim,” or that he is a racist and hates whites, a charge made by one of the leading proponents of right-wing attacks, Glenn Beck.[19] A great deal of this component is linked directly to the growth of fundamentalist religious doctrine, which in itself is extremely punitive, and in fact bordering on fascism.[20]

Many on the extreme right have been complaining that their rights have been taken away from them and that the government has ignored them.  They often feel a sense of powerlessness in the midst of rapid changes.  It is no accident that almost all of them are white and one of their major complaints is that they are being discriminated against because of affirmative action, even though in actual fact blacks as a group fare much worse on virtually every economic indicator.[21] During the demonstration in Washington, D.C. on September 12, 2009 (organized by several right-wing white groups) witnessed an expression of much anger.  Ron Walters, an emeritus professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, stated that: "In terms of many people who lost the election feeling disempowered and disenfranchised. The movement of conservatism is dethroned. People are feeling, therefore, resentful about that and determined to demonstrate that resentment in ways that intimidate people, quite frankly." Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory University, said these feelings of “victimhood” were reinforced by Republicans during Senate hearings for Obama’s Supreme Court appointment of Sonia Sotomayor. He states that: "They attacked her as a racist, and where they scored points is with a lot of Americans -- not only with conservatives, but a lot of Democratic white males -- who have been on the losing end of affirmative action." He said that Republicans were able "to make the case that whites are getting a bad deal."[22]

It is interesting to note that back in 1964 historian Richard Hofstadter, writing about the ”paranoid style of American politics,” noted that in the mid-1950s conservative whites were complaining that:


America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power.[23]


Most conservatives, such as those who attended the September 12 demonstration, deny that race has anything to do with their complaints. Dallas Woodhouse, the North Carolina director of the conservative “Americans for Prosperity,” states that "It's not about race. It's about socialism. . . . I think it's actually the policies that are scaring people."[24]  (The term socialism will be discussed below.)

The Liberal View

Modern liberalism has its roots in the period known as the Enlightenment in the 18th century and in particular the works of John Locke (among others) whose writings had a profound impact on the leaders of the American Revolution. During this time period there was a rejection of many assumptions that dominated most theories of government, such as the “Divine Right of Kings,” hereditary status, the established religion and free trade. The Declaration of Independence was a liberal document as it proclaimed that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to insure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."[25]

Liberals view the relationship between democracy and free-enterprise as problematic, with most benefits accruing to a small minority, which in turn has created a huge gap in both income and wealth (see discussion below). These individuals then, are primarily disadvantaged by problems with the system (not necessarily by their own choice), and should, therefore, be helped by those more fortunate, for whom the system does work. Liberals see plenty of flaws in the system and therefore support the use of tax dollars for various social programs in terms of education, work, housing, health concerns and so on. Obviously this entails a much greater involvement of the government sponsored and a different use of tax dollars. Liberals see the goal of government is to provide for the general welfare of society or the “common good.”  This was the philosophy being the “New Deal” created by the Roosevelt administration during the 1930s where tax dollars were spread out much more evenly among the population.  Programs such as Social Security and the G.I. Bill were among the most popular.[26]

As for crime, liberals support the notion that because many offenders come from situations of disadvantage - situations related to the social structure and not necessarily merely an individual choice - responses to crime are much different. This means that, for example, prisons should focus on rehabilitated via education, work and social skill enhancement. This “inside” work would happen along with the rehabilitation of the outside, as problems related to housing, schools, health clinics, etc. would have to be addressed. For liberals, this “systemic” approach, although costly at the outset, would be the only way to effect crime, and, at the same time, make for a better society.[27]

Liberalism, in contrast to conservatism, views society as a “nurturant parent.”  According to Lakoff, this view of the family is that both parents are equally responsible for the moral development of children.  The primary duty of such parents – and by extension the entire society – is to love and nurture their children.  Nurturing includes two important aspects: empathy and responsibility – for both yourself and others.  There is an element of “social responsibility” from this viewpoint and thus when it comes to the political arena there is a core value system that stresses the importance of helping others and being concerned for the well-being of your community and the entire society.  Rather than acting like an authoritarian parent (i.e., the authoritarian or conservative philosophy), liberals stress the importance of acting like an authoritative parent.[28]  As the reader can no doubt see, two very different approaches to responding to crime emanate from the liberal and conservative perspectives.

Part of the differences between conservative and liberal views on crime and criminal justice can be summarized by citing two contrasting models of the criminal justice system: crime control and due process.[29]

The crime control model is based on the assumption that the fundamental goal of the criminal justice system is the repression of crime through aggressive law enforcement and harsh punishments, including the death penalty. From this point of view, protecting citizens from crime is more important than protecting the civil liberties of citizens. Supporters of this model would prefer that few criminals be set free on so-called technicalities, even at the expense of depriving innocent persons of their constitutional rights. Thus, the concern is more public safety than individual rights.

If the crime control model resembles an “assembly line,” the due process model resembles an “obstacle course.” The due process model stresses the importance of individual rights and supports the general belief that it is better to let several criminals go free than to falsely imprison an innocent person. This model is based on the assumption that the criminal justice process is plagued by human error and that at each stage individual rights need to be safeguarded. The accused should be accorded legal counsel and equitable treatment, and the discretion of criminal justice personnel, especially the police, should be limited.

It is also argued that throughout history there have been people who have committed a variety of harms against their fellow human beings.  This being the case, societies have instituted a variety of procedures to identify the perpetrators and make it so they will not harm others. Obviously no one wants serial rapists or murderers wandering around the streets – even “leftists” like myself want something done!  Just as obvious no one wants their homes burglarized, their cars stolen, their purses snatched, etc.

On the other hand, there is a lot left unsaid in the conservative argument.  The most important omission is the question of “why do people commit crime in the first place?”  Is it only the fear of getting caught and punished that keeps us from doing harm to others?  Could it be possible that most of us are socialized to respect the rights of others, to believe that it is simply wrong to harm other people?  And how do conservatives explain the consistently high rates of crime in America – especially violent crime  – compared to all other countries (except a few in the Third World)?  They cannot claim that we are not tough enough since our punishments are the most severe and we are among a few in the world that use the death penalty (again, except for a few Third World countries).[30]  Quite often conservatives describe crime as if it is simply a choice one makes, not unlike the choices we make of the food we eat.

The Radical View

A third viewpoint is often referred to as “radical,” “critical” and “Marxist.” From this point of view, the problem of crime stems from the very nature of capitalism.  This view begins with the idea that capitalist societies are characterized by conflict – between classes (e.g., labor vs. management), races (black vs. white) and gender. Also, inequality is created and perpetuated by the capitalist system, largely because profits do not “trickle down” very far.  In fact, in recent years there has been the greatest upward shift of wealth and income since the 1920s.[31]

From this perspective, the role of government is not neutral but rather tends to support the capitalist system and those who benefit from it.  Currently (fall, 2009) most of the efforts of the Obama administration (and the previous administration) are directed toward saving the capitalist system.  Radicals will also argue that even the New Deal during the Roosevelt years of the Great Depression aimed to save capitalism, although millions of working people received assistance.

Karl Marx is the best known proponent of this view.  He saw capitalism as a system that exploits workers for the benefit of the owners. For Marx, true democracy cannot coexist with capitalism. Government represents the interests of those in power. In his words, the state is the instrument of the ruling class.  According to Marx, the capitalist system must be replaced (and indeed will naturally be replaced) by socialism whereby the state “withers away” and those who perform the labor will control the government and all the major industries.[32]

Although Marx was not particularly focused on crime, it is not hard to see that from his analysis, the plight of the criminal becomes tied to the plight of the general, exploited society. Said another way, this person's circumstance will speak most directly to the effect of living in a system where, by its nature, access to success goals are limited and even restricted. Consequently criminal behavior can result from this imbalance. A radical perspective focuses on “those social structures and forces that produce both the greed of the inside trader as well as the brutality of the rapist or the murderer. And it places those structures in their proper context: the material conditions of class struggle under a capitalist mode of production.”[33]  The material conditions include the class and racial inequalities produced by the contradictions of capitalism (which produce economic changes that negatively affect the lives of so many people, especially the working class and the poor).[34]

According to Lanier and Henry, there are six central ideas common to critical/ Marxist theories of crime and criminal justice. These are as follows:[35]


1.             Capitalism shapes social institutions, social identities, and social action. In other words, the actual “mode of production” in any given society tends to determine many other areas of social life, including divisions based on race, class, and gender plus the manner in which people behave and act toward one another.


2.             Capitalism creates class conflict and contradictions. Since a relatively small group (a “ruling class” consisting of perhaps 1 to 2 percent of the population) owns and/or controls the “means of production,” class divisions have resulted, as has the inevitable class conflict over control of resources. The contradiction is that workers need to consume the products of the capitalist system, but in order to do this they need to have enough income to do so and thus increase growth in the economy. However, too much growth may cut into profits. One result is the creation of a surplus population - a more or less steady supply of able workers who are permanently unemployed or underemployed (also called the “underclass”).


3.             Crime is a response to capitalism and its contradictions. This notion stems in part from the second theme in that the “surplus population” may commit crimes to survive. These can be described as crimes of accommodation.[36] Crimes among the more affluent can also result (see next point) in addition to crimes of resistance (e.g., sabotage and political violence).


4.             Capitalist law facilitates and conceals crimes of domination and repression. The law and legal order can often be repressive toward certain groups and engage in the violation of human rights, which are referred to as crimes of control and repression. Crimes of domination also occur with great frequency as corporations and their representatives violate numerous laws (fraud, price-fixing, pollution, and so on,) that cause widespread social harms but are virtually ignored by the criminal justice system.


5.             Crime is functional to capitalism. There is a viable and fast-growing crime control industry that provides a sort of “Keynesian stimulus” to the economy by creating jobs and profits for corporations (e.g., building prisons, providing various products and services to prisons, jails, police departments, and courthouses).[37]


6.             Capitalism shapes society’s response to crime by shaping law. Those in power (especially legislators) define what a “crime” is and what constitutes a threat to “social order” and, perhaps more importantly, who constitutes such a threatCand this usually ends up being members of the underclass. Various “problems” that threaten the dominant mode of production become “criminalized” (e.g., the use of certain drugs used by minorities rather than drugs produced by corporations, such as cigarettes, prescription drugs, and of course alcohol).


The importance of the capitalist system in producing inequality and hence crime is apparent when examining recent economic changes in American society and the effects of these changes. In recent years particularly, many scholars have begun to seek an explanation of crime and delinquency by examining changes in the economic structure of society and how such changes have contributed to the emergence of what some have called an “underclass,” which in many ways represent what Marx called the “surplus population.”[38]

Moreover, the amount of injustices caused by a system that serves only those in power may well result in even more violent behavior, as this is what inconsistencies and contradictions often induce. Here again, to legitimately address the problem of crime, this view argues that the capitalist system must go.[39]

Conservative, Liberal and Radical Views of Madoff and Other Corporate Criminals

While watching a segment of “60 Minutes” (October 4, 2009) that focused on Marc Drier who was convicted of masterminding a complicated “Ponzi” scheme (smaller in scale to Bernie Madoff’s scheme) I wondered how these three perspectives would view this kind of offense and corporate crime in general. This may not be totally complete, but I would argue that from the conservative perspective, these offenders freely chose to commit crime and need to be punished.  No other explanation would be needed. From a liberal perspective, this kind of behavior stems from a culture of greed that tends to be largely ignored by the media and treated lightly by the criminal justice system.From a radical perspective, this behavior is an inevitable outgrowth of capitalism itself and will continue as long as capitalism lives. 

As long as we are on the subject of radical approaches to crime and justice, a few words about a much understood term, “socialism,” seems to be in order.  While we’re at it, we may as well add a few comments about “capitalism.” As you read this,  keep in mind that there is no such thing as a “pure” form of any kind of political or economic system, no such thing as “pure capitalism” or “pure socialism” anywhere, just variations along a continuum.

What is socialism?

This is without a doubt one of the most misunderstood terms in modern political discourse. (Many have accused Obama of being a “socialist” which is quite an absurd charge, as a recent commentary so aptly points out.) There are not only many different definitions, but many different varieties of programs and policies that can be described as more or less “socialistic.”[40]  The term itself had its origins in the 1820s long before Marx started to write about the subject.  The Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary defines it this way:

1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3 : a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done.


            What many people fail to realize is that there are many different publically financed programs that could be called “socialistic” since one aspect of “socialism” (from the common definitions, like above) is having the government (i.e., taxpayers) providing the funds.  One writer expressed it this way:


Few would deny the bravery and heroism of our firefighters and police, who selflessly throw their lives in harm’s way to save ordinary citizens. Well, they’re socialists because they accept public money as payment even from those who have never needed their services. Likewise, anyone who calls the police for help or has their life saved by a volunteer firefighter has benefited from socialism. To oppose socialist programs simply on the basis of “it’s evil” and “why should I give away what’s mine” is a frighteningly grotesque concept. Road work, Social Security (the ability to retire), the National Guard, our Military, redistributed Alaskan oil revenue, along with firefighters and police, these are all examples of socialism that nobody ever seems to complain about when it benefits them.[42]


Another write noted that: “If programs that redistribute wealth are socialism then clearly Americans are comfortable with socialism. The whole point of government is to redistribute personal wealth. We could have eschewed taxes when our country was formed. We learned that it is hard to protect the nation by hoping many unpaid farm hands toting guns would show up when faced with insurrection or invasion. We form governments to handle common societal problems too big to be solved individually.”[43] The New Deal was an example of socialism – one big part of that has been the GI Bill, which was a huge benefit not only to returning GI’s but to American businesses.[44]


What is capitalism?

Up until in the fall of 2008, it was a rare occasion when the word “capitalism” was discussed at any great length in the major media.  Within a year the word is used about as often as socialism.  Now it is the subject of Michael Moore’s latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story.”[45]


So what is capitalism?  First we turn once again to the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary which gives the following definition: "an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market."[46]


A slightly different definition comes a web site called Investors Word (Note how many links they provide): 


Economic system characterized by the following: private property ownership exists; individuals and companies are allowed to compete for their own economic gain; and free market forces determine the prices of goods and services. Such a system is based on the premise of separating the state and business activities. Capitalists believe that markets are efficient and should thus function without interference, and the role of the state is to regulate and protect.[47]


The Webster’s World Finance and Investment Dictionary provides this:


An economic and business system that rewards individual effort by giving successful individuals and companies the right to keep the profits from their activities. Most of the land, factories, manufacturing, transportation, and communication systems are privately owned and operated in relatively competitive environments, where businesses and individuals seek to increase their profits. Capital is raised in order to fund activities and produce profits. Property and businesses are privately owned and typically the government plays a minor role in directing business.


Some very telling words are found within each of the definitions of capitalism, such as “private” (and privately owned) and “their profits” or “their own,” which is quite the opposite from the use of the word “collective” under socialism.  Also, note the different role of the government under each of these systems.  Under socialism the role of government owns or controls the distribution of goods, whereas under capitalism the function of the government is to “regulate and protect” the system or plays a “minor role.”  Also note the omission of one of the most important ingredients of capitalism in these two definitions: workers and consumers. 

            Capitalism is also referred to as a “free market” system.  This can be defined as a system without intervention or regulation by the government, except to regulate against force or fraud. This kind of market is based upon the law of “supply and demand.”[48]  This view has had its share of critics over the years who note – correctly – that there is really no such thing as a pure “free market” and that capitalism depends for its survival assistance from the government.[49]   

In my view, one of the best books ever written on the subject of capitalism was by Robert Heilbroner.[50] As he puts it, one unique feature of capitalism is “the restless and insatiable drive to accumulate capital.” Heilbroner suggests that this can be explained in part by the desire to obtain prestige and distinction among one’s fellow human beings, something that was pointed out by Adam Smith.  More than any other measure of prestige and distinction, the possession of capital “confers on its owners the ability to direct and mobilize the activities of society...”  In short, it is capital that “calls the tune” and that control over the access to capital “invests their owner with an attribute that goes beyond prestige and preeminence.”  “This,” says Heilbroner “is power.”  Moreover, wealth itself becomes “a social category inseparable from power.”  And “wealth can only come into existence when the right of access of all members of society to an independent livelihood no longer prevails, so that control over this access becomes of life-giving importance.”  Quoting Adam Smith, Heilbroner gets to the essence of capitalist society, especially in modern American society, namely that: “Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality.  For on rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the rich supposes the indigence of the many.”[51]





[1]  I was inspired to write this by Jim Palombo where he wrote about these three perspectives in his book Criminal to Critic: Reflections Amid the American Experiment. Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2009.  I have elaborated and expanded upon the ideas he presented there.


[2]  This web site provides a good chart comparing the two views on a number of current issues.


[4]  Ibid.


[5] One example is a book called The Tyranny of Good Intentions: How Prosecutors and Law Enforcement Are Trampling the Constitution in the Name of Justice by Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton.  New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008.  See also Gene Healy, Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything. Washington, DC: The Cato Institute, 2004.  The Cato Institute is a libertarian think tank in Washington, DC.


[7] Lakoff, G. (1996).  Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 67.


[8]  Ibid, p. 68. 


[9]  Ibid, pp. 74-75.

[10]  The key findings from their research can be found in: Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Row.  A modern descendent of the F Scale is Robert Altemeyer's Right-wing authoritarianism Scale.  A more recent look at the connection between this type of personality and conservatism is found in John Dean’s excellent book Conservatives without Conscience. New York: Viking, 2006.  Dean refers to a study that explored personality characteristics of nursery school children and followed them for two decades.  What the researchers found was that “little girls who are indecisive, inhibited, shy, neat, compliant, distressed by life’s ambiguity, and fearful will likely become conservative women.  Likewise, little boys who are unadventurous, uncomfortable with uncertainty, conformist, moralistic, and regularly telling others how to run their lives will then become conservatives as adults” (Dean, p. 31).  The study he is referring to is: Jack Block and Jeanne H. block.  “Nursery School Personality and Political Orientation Two Decades Later.”  Journal of Research in Personality (2005).


[11]  The classic statement of this view is found in Cesare Beccaria. On Crimes and Punishment.  New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963; reprinted by Transaction Publishers in 2009 (edited by Graeme Newman and Pietro Maronqui).


[12] For examples of the conservative approach to crime see the following:  James Q. Wilson.  Thinking About Crime. New York: Vintage, 1985; one of the most simplistic, error-filled books was: William Bennett, John Diiulio and John P. Walters. Body Count: Moral Poverty...And How to Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.


[13]  Mauer, M. (2001).  “The Causes and Consequences of Prison Growth in the United States.” Punishment and Society 3: 9-20.


[14]  Herman, E.  (1997) “Privatization: Downsizing Government For Principle and Profit. Dollars and Sense (March/April), pp. 10-12.


[15] Many conservatives do support equal rights, such as Barry Goldwater, who opposed the ban on gays in the military and even supported racial integration and rights for women in the military. John Dean pointed this out in his book Conservatives Without Conscience. New York: Viking Press, 2006.


[16]  Jonathan Simon has argued that starting in the late 1960s the elite in America have been engaged in “governing through crime” in that crime has become such a significant issue that all sorts of legislation has been passed that have extended governmental control into the lives of the majority of citizens (ironically quite contrary to conservative philosophy, especially of libertarians). Governing Through Crime.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.


[17]  Wise, Tim.  “Personal Responsibility for Thee But Not for Me: Blame Shifting and Buck-Passing, Conservative Style.” August 9, 2007.

[18]  On corporate welfare see the following: Stephen Slivinski. “The Corporate Welfare State: How the Federal Government Subsidizes U.S. Businesses.”  Washington: Cato Institute, May 14, 2007).  In this article the author finds that about $92 billion was spent by the government to subsidize corporations; Mark Zepezauer.  Take the Rich off Welfare.  Boston: South End Press, 2004.  In this book the author demonstrates that about $800 billion of tax dollars is transferred to the rich.  See also: David Cay Johnston, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government expense (and Stick you with the bill). New York: Penguin, 2007; Ralph Nader, Cutting Corporate Welfare. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.


[19]  For background on Glenn Beck see Alexander Zaitchik. “Meet the man who changed Glenn Beck's life.”  Salon, September 16, 2009.


[20]  For more detail on the connection between punitiveness and religion, see my book Our Punitive Society. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press (forthcoming).  For a shorter summary of this see my web site:  Fascism is another misunderstood (and misused) term.  According to the Merriam-Webster on line dictionary fascism is (1) “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition”; (2) “a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control.”It has been used to describe several dictatorial regimes, such as the one founded in Italy 1919 by Benito Mussolini and of course the most famous, Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler (often called “National Socialism”).  The term has been terribly misused lately by some commentators, such as Glenn Beck, who have argued that some of the policies of the Obama administration are leading the country toward fascism.  The best examples of his views are seen in his book: Glenn Beck's Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine. New York: Threshold Editions, 2009. For a critical review of his book go to this web site.  


[21]  A great deal of research documents these discrepancies.  On the issue of affirmative action see the following:  Tim Wise.  Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. New York: Routledge, 2005; Ira Katznelson.  When Affirmative Action Was White.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.  On racial differences in wealth and income see: Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro (eds.). Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (2nd ed.).  New York: Routledge, 2006; Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton.  American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998; Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States.  New York: Routledge, 2006. For an excellent discussion of the “hidden dimension” of racism in America see James W. Loewen. Sundown Towns. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005. One of the best treatments of race and punishment is by Bruce Western. Punishment and Inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. On race and the drug war see Doris Marie Provine. Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Updated information about the distribution of wealth and income can be found on this web site.


[22] Robin Abcarian, Kate Linthicum and Richard Fausset.  “White conservatives say it's their turn for empowerment.”  Los Angeles Times, September 17, 2009..

[23] Richard Hofstadter.  “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, pp. 77-86..

[24] Abcarian, Linthicum and Fausset.  “White conservatives say it's their turn for empowerment.” 


[26]  Arthur Schlesinger.  The Coming of the New Deal, 1933-1935 (The Age of Roosevelt, Vol. 2). New York: Mariner Books, 2003; Anthony Badger. The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940. Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2002; Jean Edward Smith, FDR. New York: Random House, 2008. on the G.I. Bill an excellent source is: Edward Humes. Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream. New York: Harcourt, 2006.    There are many web sites concerning the New Deal.  This is one of them:


[27]  A good summary of this approach to addressing the crime problem is provided by Elliott Currie. Crime and Punishment in America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998.


[28]  For a more concise summary of Lakoff’s two models, see the following:  George LakoffThinking Points: Communicating our American Values and Vision. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006 and Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.  White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004.


[29]  This idea was originally proposed about 40 years ago by Herbert Packer. The Limits of the Criminal Sanction. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.


[30] See my essay “Imprisonment and Crime Rates.”


[31] See the following web site for details:


[32]  There are many sources that give an overview of Marxist perspectives. For starters see this web site; more complete is this web site. A brief definition is found here. Also see the following: Antonia Callari, Stephen Cullenberg, and Carole Biewener (editors). Marxism in the Postmodern Age: Confronting the New World Order. New York: Gulliford Press, 1994; Paul D’Amato. The Meaning of Marxism.  New York: Haymarket Books, 2006; Peter Singer. Marx: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001; an excellent source for understanding the current economic crisis from a Marxist perspective is John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff.  The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences.  New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009.


[33] Richard Quinney and John Wildeman. The Problem of Crime: A Peace and Social Justice Perspective (3rd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1991, p. 77.


[34]  A good example of applying some of these ideas to the study of crime – and in particular one prominent theory of crime, that of “anomie” theory – is Stephen F. Messner and Richard Rosenfeld. Crime and the American Dream (4th ed.).  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2006.


[35]  Lanier, M. M., and S. Henry. 1998. Essential Criminology. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 256-258.


[36]  Quinney, R. (1977). Class, State, and Crime: On the Theory and Practice of Criminal Justice. New York: David McKay


[37]  Shelden, Randall G. Controlling the Dangerous Classes: A History of Criminal Justice in America (2nd ed.).  Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2008.


[38] It is important to emphasize that Marx did distinguish between these two terms. The “lumpenproletariat” was seen by Marx as the bottom layer of society, the “social junk,” “rotting scum,” and so on. In short, they were described as the “criminal class.” The “surplus population” referred to working-class men and women who, because of various fluctuations in the market (caused chiefly by contradictions within the capitalist system), were excluded, either temporarily or permanently, from the labor market.  It is important to note that during the current recession more and more people have become part of the “surplus population” or “reserve army of labor” given all of the lost jobs and layoffs.

[39] For an excellent presentation of the “radical” perspective in criminology see Michael. J. Lynch and Raymond Michalowski, Primer in Radical Criminology, fourth edition. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press, 2006.


[40]  A good summary of socialism is Michael Newman. Socialism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[42] Michael Falino, “Is It Socialism They Fear, Or The Boogeyman?”  August 12, 2009.


[43] It is interesting - in fact amusing – to note how many Republicans who decry the proposal for a “government run” health care system are among the first to use one for their own medical needs, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who went to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, to “have an elective coronary artery bypass surgery after it had been revealed that he had arterial blockages.”  Several others who are railing against government run health have also used the same facility, such as John McCain, Kit Bond and George Voinovich. Sam Stein, “GOPers Decrying ‘Socialized Medicine” Go to Govt. Hospital for Surgeries.” Huffington Post, September 2, 2009. Many ordinary citizens who have been protesting at town hall meetings similarly decry “socialized medicine” yet also say “don’t touch my Medicare.”


[44] See note 8 for a reference to Hume’s study of the G.I. Bill; see also Paul Krugman. The Conscience of a Liberal. New York: WW Norton, 2007. This is the name of Krugman’s own blog.


[45]  See the following: Kenneth Turan. “Capitalism: A Love Story.”  Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2009; John Horn. “'Capitalism: A Love Story' won't be a 'Sicko'” Los Angeles Times, September 17, 2009.  See also the interviews with Naomi Klein and on Democracy Now, the latter of which includes a tape of the interview.

[49]  John Kenneth Galbraith (1996), “Free Market Fraud - the myth of capitalism”; Dean Baker. Free Market Myth . Boston Review, January/February, 2009; see especially Noam Chomsky. “The Passion for Free Markets.” Z Magazine, May, 1997.


[50]  Heilbroner, Robert. L. (1985). The Nature and Logical of Capitalism. New York: W. W. Norton, p. 33.


[51]  Heilbroner, pp. 42-46.  He is quoting from Smith's famous The Wealth of Nations (1976). Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp.709-710.



© 2009 by Randall G. Shelden. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.