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Democracy and Crime: An Old Question Awaiting New Answers

José Cuesta's picture
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The recent political unrest and violence occurring across the world have revived an old question, one that is so straightforward that it rarely gets a straightforward and convincing answer: Does democracy fuel or quench violence? For decades, sociologists, historians, political scientists, criminologists, and economists have hypothesized numerous associations, predicting just about any result.

Let’s focus on democracy’s relationship with crime. Democracies have been predicted to fuel crime (conflict theory); decrease crime (civilization theory); initially raise and then decrease crime (modernization perspective); have no impact at all (null hypothesis); or have an unpredictable impact depending on the development of their political institutions (comparative advantage theory).

In a recently published paper, I argue that the many existing explanations relating crime and democracy suffer from what I describe as an “identification” problem. The different explanations are not necessarily exclusionary in terms of their determinants, mechanisms, and predictions, which makes testing those explanations a rather difficult business. Furthermore, predictions are imprecise. This is unsurprising when dealing with concepts as fluid as democratization, political transitions, and democratic maturity. Arguments talk vaguely of early and late stages and of short or medium terms to describe the processes’ dynamics. The result is a broad range of predictions consistent with various hypotheses simultaneously. 

Empirically, available data are generally limited and biased toward Western samples. In addition, a good deal of the problem is that empirical studies — with very few exemptions — are unable to separate qualitative and quantitative aspects of democracy in an operational manner, using instead flat and one-dimensional representations of democracy. Thus, a study using a dummy variable capturing whether or not the country is a democracy obscures differences in the quality of democracy among countries and over time and generates unwanted noise in the form of abrupt regime shifts in truly gradual democratization processes.  

So, unable to answer the first question, I would like to ask a different one: Could we do better in terms of explaining the relationship(s) between democracy and crime? Here is my answer: It is unlikely that a more conclusive and compelling evidence can be provided without improvements in data and in the method and quantity of data collection. So the immediate emphasis should be on the generation of quality data, not the generation of more theories.

The good news is that there are several strong sources that already fulfill various criteria for desirable data that can capture intensity and quality and are comparable across countries and time, truly global, and periodically collected. The bad news is that no single source satisfies all criteria. This suggests that what may be missing is a coordinated effort that brings closer together already existing data collection initiatives and future sources. Despite the multiple complications of coordination, there are successful examples to learn from:

  • In the System of National Accounts, multiple international organizations set a conceptual framework of principles, definitions, measurements, and technique integration guidelines within which the design of economic data, economic analysis, decision making, and policy making are all articulated.
     
  • START — the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism —is an international consortium of more than 50 public and private partners based at the University of Maryland. It sets and supervises guidelines for unified data generation and research among several international, public, and private institutions and the academic world.
     
  • A third model is an institutional repository of national data that over time influences the standardization of data collection and presentation. There are many examples of this model, including the United Nations Development Programme repository of national indicators linked to human development, or the World Bank’s repository of household surveys as part of the Living Standards Measurement Surveys initiative.
Whatever the model, moving forward will require a strong champion institution able to harmonize technicalities and ensure financial sustainability of the project without requiring existing data-generating institutions to relinquish their original mandates. Champions wanted.