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The Criminal and the Community
Part II - Chapter IV - Social Conditions and Crime


OUR social inequalities are the cause of much serious crime. That such inequalities always have existed is undeniable, and that they may continue to exist is at least likely; at any rate, there is no immediate prospect of their abolition; but the form and degree they take are variable. Within recent times the gulf between the wealthy and the poor has been widened. The pauper is an old inhabitant, but the millionaire is a new portent. The rich man of our grandfathers’ day was a local magnate who might be capricious, but who could be personally approached. His successor is cosmopolitan. The poor in those days were not so well informed as they are now that the ends of the earth have been brought together, and the mechanical inventions that have brought wealth to many have enabled the multitude to get a wider outlook on the world. A rich man may be courted for his riches, but they do not now gain him reverence from the poor.

If free education has not educated the masses any more than the expensive kind has educated many of the rich, it has enabled them to read. They know more than they did, and with the access of knowledge discontent with their condition has increased. For good or ill many of them have lost the fear of hell, but the fear of the poorhouse is still with them as with many who are better off. The desire to make money dominates all sorts of people, and in the effort men are marred. Each sees the greed of his neighbour, but fails to see that he shares the vices of those he condemns. The man who is “ successful ” is critical of the faults of those less fortunate; and they in turn are often too ready to attribute his position to his absence of scruple rather than to any ability he may possess. There is envy on the one side and distrust on the other ; but out of, and in spite of, it all there is steadily growing an effort towards co-operation and mutual help.

In the welter of conflicting interests there is much done that every man would disapprove if he saw it done by his neighbour. Yet those whose conduct is most shady are often not conscious of the enormity of it, being too much engrossed in the end they seek to be particular as to the means ; and that end is not always an ignoble one. They mean to do great things and kind when their ships come home; and they do not see that the question for each of us is not, What would we do if we had what we desire ? but, What are we doing, being what we are and where we are?

In the thirst for wealth dishonest practices are condoned in business, and within the law robbery is allowed. There is a disposition to take more account of what a man has than of what he is ; and this cannot fail to have a vicious effect. X 19 was a young man who held a position of trust and received a small salary. He had no showy vices and, so far as could be ascertained, not many others. He was strong in the negative virtues; being an abstainer from drink, tobacco, and such things as are affected by pleasure-seekers and cost money. His employers were quite satisfied that they had in him a model servant; but they found their mistake, and were as unreasonably indignant as they had been unreasonably pleased; for he had been conducting a very ingenious system of fraud upon them. With the money he had abstracted he had been speculating in shares, and he had been successful up to a point. If his last venture had turned out well he would have been able to resign his situation and live virtuously ever after, first paying back to them their money. This is what he calculated would take place, and if his expectations had been realised nobody would have known of his misfeasance; but he lost on his venture and there was a crash. He pleaded guilty to embezzlement and was sent to prison for a long period. He had disposed of a considerable sum of money, but the curious thing about it was that he claimed that he was simply doing what his employers lived by doing—using other people’s money without consulting them as to details ; though ho admitted that in their case they were in a position to meet claims, and their clients knew that their money was not lying in a safe. He took his sentence quite philosophically, with the remark that he had observed that people who had defrauded certain kinds of commercial corporations, such as banks, always got longer terms of imprisonment than those who merely robbed poor people ; and as the firm that employed him was a big concern he would have to be made an example of. He was shrewd in his observations, however wrong-headed they were in some respects, and he is not the only young man who has taken the risk in the attempt to acquire riches and who has argued in the same way. The number of those who are tempted to do so will diminish when it is shown that the successfully dishonest person is as much condemned by the opinion of those whose society he seeks as the failure is condemned by the law.

Men young and old go wrong in the endeavour to make a show. They want position and are willing to pay for it even at the expense of others; indeed, there are many who spend as much effort and energy in intriguing to get a position they could not fill as, if properly applied, would enable them to qualify for it. Some want to be social leaders, and exceed the limits of their income in the attempt. So long as they merely get into debt their creditors are the losers, but there are limits to credit and their situation may offer them facilities for peculation. The intention is to repay the money; but the honourable intention may be out of their power to execute, and the criminal act brings them to disgrace and ruin. In all cases where the process has gone on for years without discovery, the offender is found to be firmly persuaded that he is rather an ill-used person, and that if he were only allowed time he would be quite able to show a balance on his side of the account. This suggests the reflection that his conduct must have been often under review by himself, and a wonder as to how long he has taken to twist his mind to a belief in his own integrity in face of the facts; yet it is only some such belief that has enabled him to continue his defalcations. It is sometimes matter for surprise to the public that men who have continued to embezzle funds for years should have appeared so respectable; but they are not acting a part; they have convinced themselves of their uprightness through it all, and that is a very important step towards convincing others.

Even the Churches are not free from the imputation of making the end justify the means; and with lectures against gambling they sometimes run lotteries to obtain funds. This does not show bigotry against gambling, but it can hardly help to drive home the objection to the vice. Example is worse than precept in these cases.

The Press, which reaches a wider audience than the pulpit, is becoming more a means of making money for its proprietors than a medium for the formation of reasoned opinion ; and some papers have organised sweepstakes under the thinnest disguise. As for betting, there are numerous papers that depend on it for their profits. Workmen and women pore over the betting news and run into debt to back a horse. The misery that many entail on themselves and their dependents by this conduct is widespread, and efforts have been made to check it, but it does not seem to be diminishing. As a rule it is safe to assume that people do not bet with the intention of losing, but with the hope of winning. It is not harmless excitement they seek; it is money they want; and they argue that they are doing nothing different from what is done by wealthier people on the Stock Exchange. They know as little about horses as those who speculated in rubber knew about that substance ; and they have no interest in improving the breed. They want to be rich without working, and they see that some men manage it. The losers are forgotten; and what do they matter anyway if we win?

This spirit of selfishness and greed is not confined to the gambler, though it shows itself nakedly in his pursuit; and before it can be exorcised a better conception of our duty to each other will require to be attained. Meanwhile it is a small thing to prosecute bookmakers and those who deal with them, if the higher forms of gambling are left untouched. The poor cannot afford to gamble and must be protected from themselves; but can anybody afford to gamble? Can the State afford to allow them to set such an example? The whole evil has been dealt with in a peddling spirit. The bookmakers stand to win, whoever may lose, but they are not the people who gain most. They are not an influential class, however. If the newspapers were prohibited from publishing betting news the machinery for the gamble would fall to pieces; but if this were attempted there would be a howl, for they are not without influence. So there are difficulties. There always are difficulties when influential people have to be dealt with; and it is much easier to hit a little man than a big one—but the profit is less. I do not say that there are not those who gamble for the sake of the excitement, but that these do not come to prison as a result. The man who does run grave risk of landing there is he who gambles for the money that he may win but that he usually does lose.

The desire to shine among others is at the root of much of the foolish and criminal conduct of many men and women. It is not necessarily an evil desire, but the methods adopted to secure admiration may result in evil. There is much talk of the dignity of labour, side by side with the worship of money. If people draw the conclusion that the dignity of labour means that one man should work that another may spend, they are likely to make an effort to escape the dignity. They hear of the blessings of poverty, but they sec that among them are not comfort and social consequence ; and in so far as they prefer these they will let anybody else have the blessings. To admit that some must be poor if others are rich is not to accept the poor man’s lot for oneself. So long as honest work is only given formal praise and poverty implies practical hardship, while the possession of money is allowed to create a presumption in favour of a man, there will be those who will seek to get it by any means in their power. If we paid the homage to poverty that is given to wealth we might reasonably expect to find these people content to be poor; but while there is no likelihood of that being done, we may as well face the fact that our social inequalities result in the commission of crimes against property among a proportion of those who have a chance of helping themselves thereby. The great mass of men and women— rich and poor—do keep free from grave offences, living their lives quietly and discharging their duties as citizens according to their light and their ability; but these false ideals stimulate many to the commission of crime. It is well, therefore, to remind ourselves and others that ultimately a man is judged not by what he has but by what he is, and to recognise that a man is foolish if he sacrifices his life and dwarfs his personal development for any social advantage whatever.

The conditions which engender crime may be greatly modified and in many cases may be destroyed by political action. Crime is largely a concomitant of city life, as we have it. To live properly people need room, and so long as the present congestion exists all our efforts can at best palliate the evils which infest and infect us. We may regulate the sale of drink in order to prevent drunkenness; we may classify our poor and attempt to relieve their poverty; but drink and poverty are factors which remain comparatively inactive in the causation of crime, except where men are packed together to the degree in which we see them. Let our cities continue to be hemmed in and built in the air instead of being spread over the earth, and we shall require additional sanitary regulations to combat disease and more police laws to cope with crime, while the numbers in our institutions will increase.

The city is the product of our industrial pursuits and the methods by which they are followed ; but the city as it exists is no more necessary to the life of the community than the city before the day of Public Health Acts was a necessary part of our civilisation. Men could live conveniently near each other and work at the same occupation, at least as efficiently, if they had room, as is possible under the cramping conditions that exist at present. Man’s life ought to be something more than his work; and there will be more who work to live when there are not so many who merely live to work. Reform your cities; or rather see that men are not allowed for their private interests or pleasures to “do what they like with their own ” in defiance of the public welfare, and the cities will reform themselves.

The tenants of the crowded districts are hustled by the law, which in some cases they offend from sheer inability to do otherwise. When those who make a profit by the existing conditions of affairs are as summarily dealt with there will be a possibility of improvement. There are some landlords who assume the supervision of their property and of their tenants, but others are merely rent collectors; and their carelessness provides opportunity for the criminal classes to hide themselves. So long as the law allows men to make a profit by denying others access to the land except on payment of whatever ransom they choose to exact, the cities will remain crowded and the country will become depopulated. When the landlord is made to pay if he will not let his land be put to its most profitable use, there will be less inducement for him to withhold it for a time in the hope of realising a famine price from the needs of the community. It is poor policy to punish people for the results of the strain to which they are subject while those who profit by the cause are left alone.

But political action is slow and political parties are—what they are. To most of us a change of Government means that Lord This is replaced by Mr. That; probably relatives, and almost invariably belonging to the same caste; none-of them particularly hasty in applying the remedies in which they believe —for when it comes to doing things instead of talking about them a great deal more depends on sentimental impressions, the result of friendly contact, than on intellectual opinions and political theories. Politicians are like other people; their imagination can more readily picture the result of action as it affects their own friends than as it affects those of another social class. Those who have a vested interest in the present conditions of things may personally suffer by any remedial change; and though there are many who are magnanimous enough to place the public gain before all else, there are far more who honestly cannot see that any measure whereby they would suffer a private loss can possibly be a public gain. They are often very estimable persons, and knowledge of that fact paralyses the action of their friends who are politically opposed to them.

It would be so much more easy to remedy evils if those who profited by their existence were only ill-natured and grossly selfish people ; but when they are kindly and courteous it is a pity to push them. Besides, they are often widows and orphans ; for there is a remarkably high rate of mortality among the husbands and fathers of people who have money invested in land and in breweries. There are other widows and orphans, however, who have no intimate friends in Parliament, and whose condition cannot appeal so powerfully to the imagination of Ministers because they belong to another class. The trouble is that the measures that would aid one set of widows and orphans would hurt the other; and even when legislation is passed its action is delayed out of tenderness to existing interests.

There are many men in every Parliament who are anxious to remedy the bad conditions they see around them, and they are not confined to any side of the House ; but there is no popularly elected body in the country where the private member has so little power. In a Town or County Council he has a vote in the election of the executive, and if he is not pleased with the conduct of those whom he helps to office he can let them know the fact pretty effectively. The Member of Parliament finds the Government formed without any consultation with him on the subject, and if he belongs to the same political party it is disloyalty for him to criticise Ministers unfavourably. He is, however, allowed to praise and defend them, and this usually keeps him tolerably busy. For the re*st, he must never vote against them except on a subject that they count of little importance and on an occasion where they are quite sure of having a majority without him. He must keep his own side in, no matter how much he disapproves of their conduct of business ; and he must recognise in practice that the men who lead are the party. The people who sent him there may replace him at the first opportunity, but he will have the consolatory reflection that if the other side has got in it is only to behave in the same way. Some other members of the families whose hereditary genius for governing the country has made us the great nation we are will fill the posts their relatives have vacated ; and the electors will continue to have the shadow of representative government while the substance remains with their betters.

Whatever the laws may be, much will depend on their administration. The more the Parliament is occupied in discussing legislation the less attention can it pay to administration. The real executive power thus passes into the hands of the permanent officials ; and the tendency is that they should direct, as well as carry out, policy. As the public departments extend their activities they are brought more closely into contact, and it may be into conflict, with the lives of the citizens ; and it is all the more necessary that the powers given to them should be exercised in consonance with the views of the representatives of the public, or the public servant may become the master of those he serves. A man may be both able and zealous, but if his ability and zeal are employed in the wrong direction he is a greater danger than a stupid and lazy man would be; yet if he is not guided and directed in the path he ought to go he can hardly be blamed for following his own judgment.

The only security that public departments will act in accordance with public opinion lies in their intimate supervision by representatives of the public. At present it is notorious that only a nominal supervision exists, and this is bad for everybody concerned ; bad 1 for the Member of Parliament, for his constituents will not separate administration to which they may object from legislation which they may approve, nor his votes from the acts of the departments; bad for the officials, for the desire for power grows with its use, and the heads are in peril of confusing their will with the public interest and their prejudices with the good of the service, while their subordinates will be tempted to a servility that is fatal to faithful discharge of duty, if they get the idea that their comfort and their promotion depend without appeal on their chief ; bad for the public, for it is a poor exchange to overthrow the tyranny of an arbitrary monarch and to live under the unchecked dominion of a Board. This condition of things may seem far off yet to many, but it has arrived already so far as some of the poor are concerned, for they are hurried and worried and prosecuted by zealous officials for doing things they cannot avoid doing; and for my part I do not believe that that is in accordance with public opinion, though I do not attribute blame to the officials concerned, who are only acting according to their light.

Where there are an enlightened public opinion and a real public interest in affairs it is better for all concerned; and though Parliament may fail to deal with those whose interests conflict with public needs, there are many things that private citizens can do to mitigate existing evils, even although there were no new legislation passed. Officials could be aided and encouraged to aim at the prevention of wrongdoing rather than at the punishment of the wrongdoer. We might set about to see that more opportunities of reasonable recreation are provided, and to find out wherein and why our present provision fails. Employers might take a greater interest in their workers, and if they sought to learn from them would be in a better position to teach them. The Churchman might easily come more closely into contact with some less fortunate member of the congregation and give kindly aid and counsel; or receive it, perhaps, where he would least expect it. All of us might see, if we looked a little less to our own business and pleasure, that there are many around whose struggle is a sore one, and whom a friendly interest would help far more than any gift. Many there are who, although neither able to pay nor to pray, could do much good and gain much by personal service. It would help as nothing else can to a better understanding between us and our neighbours, and a more acute apprehension of the evil surroundings in which so many are compelled to live.

Men go wrong and keep wrong for the lack of good fellowship; and the conditions which keep them struggling in a crowd hinder the fraternising of man with man. The man who is comfortably seated in a theatre has time and opportunity to look around him and to observe his neighbours if he choose. He will not bo uncivil to them, even if he take no interest in them. Put him in a crush at the door, and in the effort to get into the place or out of the crowd, he will not have the chance, even if he had the will, to keep his elbow out of the ribs of his neighbour, though that neighbour were his dearest friend. How many are crowded together struggling to get out of the welter and too busy to take much interest in others! I do not forget that there are many good people who are interested in the poor and fallen; but it is those who are in danger of falling that get least attention. There are mothers who are struggling on to save their sons from the ruin to which they are tending, and children who are trying to redeem their wayward parents; in face of all failures striving with a patience as admirable as it seems futile; but there are few to help. Let a father turn his daughter out for her misconduct and shirk his duty as a parent; let her go headlong to the gutter; and when she is sufficiently stained there will be rescuers tripping over each other to aid her. The pity is that so often they should be more interested in trying to make people conform to their ideals than in helping men and women for their own sake. Most of us have not been so brilliantly successful in ordering our own lives that we are justified in directing the lives of others; but by interest in those who are having a harder struggle to live than has fallen to our lot we may not only encourage the individual to better effort, but we shall see more clearly what needs to be done by us as a community, not to make men, but to remove those conditions which tend to enslave them.


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