I stumbled on an old, ignored piece of news the other day, which struck me powerfully. Apparently crime rates in the United States continue to plummet, despite the ongoing recession. While I had assumed that the drop in crime rate was related to our insanely high rate of incarceration, apparently that doesn’t really explain it. First off, most of the rise in prison population comes from non-violent offenders, and violent crime has dropped even faster than non-violent crime. Second, there are lots of other places around the world where crime has been dropping, and the incarceration rates there haven’t changed. Sociologists are either at a loss, or they have conflicting ideas, or they say it’s a combination of factors.
But a little-known economist, Rick Nevin, has a theory: a drop in lead poisoning. He applied a statistical model which tracked violent crime rates and lead poisoning in nine different countries over the course of the 20th century. Lead is a neurotoxin that reduces the ability of people to control their impulses.
“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.”
Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor…
Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.
Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.
“It is startling how much mileage has been given to the theory that abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime” in the 1990s, Nevin said. “But they legalized abortion in Britain, and the violent crime in Britain soared in the 1990s. The difference is our gasoline lead levels peaked in the early ’70s and started falling in the late ’70s, and fell very sharply through the early 1980s and was virtually eliminated by 1986 or ’87.
“In Britain and most of Europe, they did not have meaningful constraints [on leaded gasoline] until the mid-1980s and even early 1990s,” he said. “This is the reason you are seeing the crime rate soar in Mexico and Latin America, but [it] has fallen in the United States.”…
Nevin’s work has been published mainly in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research. Within the field of neurotoxicology, Nevin’s findings are unsurprising, said Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the editor of Environmental Research.
“There is a strong literature on lead and sociopathic behavior among adolescents and young adults with a previous history of lead exposure,” she said.
If this is true, it raises a lot of questions. Most obviously: what’s the best way to lower the crime rate? Maybe we should reduce funding for police forces, incarceration, etc., and concentrate everything we have on anti-lead environmental legislation. After all, it was just a few years ago that lead was found in toys imported from China; and lead has leeched into the earth and groundwater from underground gas canisters all over the country. And not just lead — it is an especially widespread neurotoxin, but it’s not the only one. What other poisons are we eating, drinking, and breathing?
Another question is: should we, as a society, regulate lead? The obvious answer is yes, but how, exactly? Should it be regulated on a state-by-state basis, or by the EPA? Or should there be international standards set by the UN? Or should there be a set of class-action lawsuits brought by states and individuals against lead-producing industries? Remember, the issue here is not so much whether such laws would be moral or just, but what would be the quickest, most effective way to eliminate lead poisoning. Outright bans are simple in theory, but they quickly get complex in practice, and they don’t always work.
But for me the most interesting question is: what does this say about the philosophical foundations of a free society? Because, since the time of Locke, it’s been assumed that individuals are independent agents with free will. Tyrants, dictators, and even philosopher-kings are morally wrong, because every human has the inalienable right to liberty. While we may be persuaded or dissuaded or coerced, ultimately all our decisions are our own responsibility; and thus we can vote as we wish, establish laws as we wish, speak as we wish, and so on. And if we break the laws of our society, whether because we feel they are wrong (civil disobedience) or for any other reason, we alone hold the responsibility for that decision and we alone must pay the consequences.
But all of this is clearly false. A child born into a lead-infused home, exposed to neurotoxins from birth, has been poisoned, and cannot be held fully responsible for their actions. In effect, their crimes are the result not of poor character, but of environmentally-induced mild insanity; and the solution is not incarceration, deterrence, or punishment, but treatment (if possible). Left untreated, should such a person be allowed to own or operate a gun? Should they be in any position of responsibility such as military or political service? Should they be allowed to vote? In other words, if they are not fully sane, can they really fulfill the social contract that a free society requires?
It would seem not. But here’s a sobering thought: how many of us are, in fact, suffering from environmentally-induced mild insanity? I myself grew up in the late 70’s, before most of the laws against lead in gasoline and paint went into effect. I have never committed a crime, but nor have I ever wanted to — I have different issues with impulse control. Of course, most people do. But maybe most people have been poisioned, to various degrees. Do we even know what a normal person would be like, anymore?
Maybe we really have all gone slightly crazy. How would we know?…