Neo-liberalism, crime and criminal justice.

Author:Reiner, Robert
Position:Crime and punishment

What is neo-liberalism?

Neo-liberalism is the most common label for the economic theory and practice that has swept the world since the early 1970s, displacing communism in eastern Europe and China, as well as the Keynesian, mixed economy, welfare state consensus that had prevailed in western liberal democracies since the Second World War (Dumenil and Levy, 2004; Harvey, 2005; Glyn, 2006). As an economic doctrine it postulates that free markets maximise economic efficiency and prosperity, by signalling consumer wants to producers, optimising the allocation of resources, and providing incentives for entrepreneurs and workers (Kay, 2004).

Neo-liberalism as culture and ethic

Advocates of neo-liberalism see it as promoting not only economic efficiency, but also political and personal virtue. (The classic exposition is Hayek, [1944] 2001; for critical assessments see Tomlinson, 1990; Gamble, 1996.) To neo-liberals, free markets are associated with democracy and liberty. They also see markets as encouraging responsibility. On their analysis, welfare states have many moral hazards: they undermine personal responsibility, and meet the sectional interests of public sector workers, not the goals of public service. Neo-liberals advocate market disciplines, workfare and new public management to counteract this (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992); McLaughlin, Muncie and Hughes (2001) analyse the impact of new public management on criminal justice policy; Leys (2001) is a comprehensive critical analysis.

Neo-liberalism has spread from the economic sphere to the social and cultural. The roots of contemporary consumer culture predate neo-liberal dominance, but it has now become hegemonic (Sennett, 2006). Aspirations and conceptions of the good life have become thoroughly permeated by materialist and acquisitive values (Hayward, 2004; Hall and Winlow, 2004, 2006; Lawson, 2006). Business solutions and business models permeate all spheres of activity from sport and entertainment to charities, NGOs and even crime control (Zedner, 2006). The 'Rich List' and its many variations have ousted all other rankings of status.

The dysfunctions of markets

The benefits of neo-liberalism (supposedly economic growth, dynamism, efficiency and responsibility) have been familiarised as common sense by its cheerleaders, and indeed in most public discussion Mrs Thatcher's TINA rules. There are however many negative consequences of unbridled markets and materialism that used to be widely perceived. They were stressed by a variety of traditions, above all the various forms of socialism, and many religions. They were also understood by classical liberal political economy, from Adam Smith to Alfred Marshall and Pigou. As with the trumpeted virtues of markets, their dysfunctions transcend the economic, and include moral, social and political harms. Briefly, in the absence of countervailing interventions markets may produce a variety of negative consequences: economic, ethical, and social and political.


There are five economic disfunctions of markets:

-- Left to themselves competitive markets will become increasingly dominated by monopolistic accumulations of power, as the winners use their resources to drive out competitors.

-- Inequality of wealth and income will become ever greater as again the winners of early competition multiply their advantages.

-- Allocation of resources increasingly reflects the consumer power of the rich, not human need, with the Galbraithian juxtaposition of private affluence and public squalor.

-- Market systems are prone to macro-economic cyclical fluctuations (although their sources and the appropriate modes of regulation are of course hotly contested, for example between Keynesians and monetarists).

-- Insecurities caused by the vicissitudes and adversities of ill-health, old age and so on are widespread, hard to predict at the level of the individual, and not solely attributable to personal responsibility. They are better protected against by collective rather than individual insurance and other strategies.


Materialistic market societies generate cultures of egoism, short-termism and irresponsibility to others. They encourage lack of concern about the wider ramifications of action, in the present, but above all for posterity (as the issue of climate change illustrates most obviously). Bakan's analysis of company law shows that it requires corporations to act in ways psychiatrists would diagnose as psychopathic in an individual (Bakan, 2005, pp56-59). The most stirring expression of this claim remains Tawney's quintessential statement of ethical socialism in The Acquisitive Society. Competitive market society:

suspends a golden prize, which not all can attain, but for which each may strive, the enchanting vision of infinite expression. It assures men that there are no ends other than their ends, no law other than their desires, no limit other than that which they think advisable. Thus it makes the individual the centre of his own universe, and dissolves moral principles into a choice of expediencies. (Tawney, [1921] 1961, p33). SOCIAL AND POLITICAL DISFUNCTIONS

Inequality and competitiveness produce many adverse social consequences, notably poor health, social conflict and violence. Wilkinson (2005) provides a comprehensive recent review of the voluminous empirical evidence.

'Free' markets have complex institutional, cultural and legal conditions of existence. These include state suppression of the disorder that may be sparked by market-generated social dislocations. As Karl Polanyi forecast in 1944, the same year that Hayek published his Road to Serfdom warning of the perils of socialism, markets can threaten freedom and democracy (Polanyi, [1944] 2001). In Andrew Gamble's famous formulation, the 'free' market needs the strong state (1994)--and the 'strong' state may well become authoritarian. Democracy is threatened and undermined by wide inequality (Jacobs and Skocpol, 2005). It leads to the 'best democracy money can buy' (Palast, 2004), as the costs of campaigning and media access spiral beyond the reach of all but the wealthy and corporate interests.

Neo-liberalism and crime: theoretical interpretations

The broader economic, social, political, cultural and moral dysfunctions of neo-liberalism produce more crime and more authoritarian criminal justice policy. Both the positive and the negative consequences of neo-liberalism generate processes that criminological theories of various kinds have identified as sources of crime.

Crimes have complex and multiple origins. A crime will not occur unless five necessary conditions are satisfied:

  1. Labelling: Troublesome, dangerous, harmful acts may occur in profusion, but they are only seen as crimes if they are labelled as such. This involves the creation of the necessary legal categories, and the reporting of incidents by victims or witnesses, and their recording by the police. This means that what appear to be new trends in crime may really be the result of shifting laws, or changing social and official perceptions and practices.

  2. Motive: A crime cannot occur unless someone has formed a motive to commit what lawyers call the actus reus. In the last 150 years criminologists have offered many theories of the sources of these motives. They may be quite normal desires for widely sought property or pleasures, or (by definition much more rarely) deeply deviant pathologies. But the crime will not occur unless somehow biology, psychology or social structure has produced someone with the wish to commit an act that is seen as criminal.

  3. Means: The motivated potential offender must have the capacity to commit the crime. The means of crime change as technology and social routines alter.

  4. Opportunity: A motivated, capable potential offender cannot carry out a crime unless there is a suitable victim or physical target.

  5. Absence of controls: The crime will not occur if the perpetrator is prevented by social controls. These may be formal: the presence or threat of codes, courts or constables; or informal: the internalised residue of Sunday school sermons perhaps--the inhibitions of conscience that Eysenck called the 'inner policeman'.

Impact of neo-liberalism on the conditions of crime

Neo-liberalism has an impact on all these conditions in ways that make the commission and/or recording of crimes more likely.


A consumerist culture makes the reporting of property crime more likely. The theft of valuable consumer durables is much more likely to be reported to the police and recorded by them, especially if they are insured. This can produce apparent crime waves that are largely recording phenomena. For example the General Household Survey in the 1970s showed that the huge growth of burglaries was primarily due to increased recording, caused by the spread of domestic contents insurance (Hough and Mayhew, 1985, p16). Thus much (although certainly not all) of the increase in recorded crime that fuelled the politics of law and order and helped propel Mrs Thatcher into Downing Street was illusory.


The most plausible (and venerable) sociological account of crime is...

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