It is a mistake to suppose that all men, or at least all Englishmen, want to be free. On the contrary, if freedom entails responsibility, many of them want none of it. They would happily exchange their liberty for a modest (if illusory) security. Even those who claim to cherish their freedom are rather less enthusiastic about taking the consequences of their actions. The aim of untold millions is to be free to do exactly as they choose and for someone else to pay when things go wrong.

In the past few decades, a peculiar and distinctive psychology has emerged in England. Gone are the civility, sturdy independence, and admirable stoicism that carried the English through the war years. It has been replaced by a constant whine of excuses, complaint, and special pleading. The collapse of the British character has been as swift and complete as the collapse of British power.

Listening as I do every day to the accounts people give of their lives, I am struck by the very small part in them which they ascribe to their own efforts, choices, and actions. Implicitly, they disagree with Bacon’s famous dictum that “chiefly the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands.” Instead, they experience themselves as putty in the hands of fate.

It is instructive to listen to the language they use to describe their lives. The language of prisoners in particular teaches much about the dishonest fatalism with which people seek to explain themselves to others, especially when those others are in a position to help them in some way. As a doctor who sees patients in a prison once or twice a week, I am fascinated by prisoners’ use of the passive mood and other modes of speech that are supposed to indicate their helplessness. They describe themselves as the marionettes of happenstance.

Not long ago, a murderer entered my room in the prison shortly after his arrest to seek a prescription for the methadone to which he was addicted. I told him that I would prescribe a reducing dose, and that within a relatively short time my prescription would cease. I would not prescribe a maintenance dose for a man with a life sentence.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s just my luck to be here on this charge.”

Luck? He had already served a dozen prison sentences, many of them for violence, and on the night in question had carried a knife with him, which he must have known from experience that he was inclined to use. But it was the victim of the stabbing who was the real author of the killer’s action: if he hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have been stabbed.

My murderer was by no means alone in explaining his deed as due to circumstances beyond his control. As it happens, there are three stabbers (two of them unto death) at present in the prison who used precisely the same expression when describing to me what happened. “The knife went in,” they said when pressed to recover their allegedly lost memories of the deed.

The knife went in—unguided by human hand, apparently. That the long-hated victims were sought out, and the knives carried to the scene of the crimes, was as nothing compared with the willpower possessed by the inanimate knives themselves, which determined the unfortunate outcome.

It might be objected by psychologists, of course, that the deeds of these men were so heinous that it was a natural and perhaps even necessary psychic defense for them to ascribe the deaths of their victims to forces beyond their control: too swift an acknowledgment of responsibility would result in a total collapse of their morale and, possibly, in suicide. But the evasion in their own minds of the responsibility for their deeds was in no way different from that exhibited by lesser criminals: offenders against property or, more accurately, against the owners of property.

A few examples will suffice. A prisoner, recently convicted for the umpteenth time, came to me to complain that he had been depressed ever since his trouble came on him again. And what, I asked, was this trouble which came on him periodically? It was breaking and entering churches, stealing their valuables, and burning them down to destroy the evidence.

And why churches? Was it that he had been dragged as a child to tedious services by hypocritical parents and wished to be revenged upon religion, perhaps? Not at all; it was because in general churches were poorly secured, easy to break into, and contained valuable objects in silver.

Oddly enough, he did not deduce from this pragmatic, reasonable, and honest explanation of his choice of ecclesiastical burglary as a career that he was himself responsible for the trouble which mysteriously overtook him every time he was released from prison: he blamed the church authorities for the laxness of their security, which first caused and then reinforced his compulsion to steal from them. Echoing the police, who increasingly blame theft on the owners of property—for failing to take the proper precautions against its misappropriation—rather than on those who actually carry out the theft, the ecclesiastical burglar said that the church authorities should have known of his proclivities and taken the necessary measures to prevent him from acting upon them.

Another burglar demanded to know from me why he repeatedly broke into houses and stole VCRs. He asked the question aggressively, as if “the system” had so far let him down in not supplying him with the answer; as if it were my duty as a doctor to provide him with the buried psychological secret which, once revealed, would in and of itself lead him unfailingly on the path of virtue. Until then, he would continue to break into houses and steal VCRs (when at liberty to do so), and the blame would be mine.

When I refused to examine his past, he exclaimed, “But something must make me do it!”

“How about greed, laziness, and a thirst for excitement?” I suggested.

“What about my childhood?” he asked.

“Nothing to do with it,” I replied firmly.

He looked at me as if I had assaulted him. Actually, I thought the matter more complex than I was admitting, but I did not want him to misunderstand my main message: that he was the author of his own deeds.

Another prisoner claimed to be under so strong a compulsion to steal cars that it was irresistible—an addiction, he called it. He stole up to forty vehicles a week, but nevertheless considered himself a fundamentally good person because he was never violent towards anyone, and all the vehicles he stole were insured, and therefore the owners would lose nothing. But regardless of any financial incentive to do so, he contended, he stole cars for the excitement of it: if prevented for a few days from indulging in this activity, he became restless, depressed, and anxious. It was a true addiction, he repeated at frequent intervals, in case I should have forgotten in the meantime.

Now the generally prevalent conception of an addiction is of an illness, characterized by an irresistible urge (mediated neurochemically and possibly hereditary in nature) to consume a drug or other substance, or to behave in a repetitively self-destructive or antisocial way. An addict can’t help himself, and because his behavior is a manifestation of illness, it has no more moral content than the weather.

So in effect what my car thief was telling me was that his compulsive car-stealing was not merely not his fault, but that the responsibility for stopping him from behaving thus was mine, since I was the doctor treating him. And until such time as the medical profession found the behavioral equivalent of an antibiotic in the treatment of pneumonia, he could continue to cause untold misery and inconvenience to the owners of cars and yet consider himself fundamentally a decent person.

That criminals often shift the locus of responsibility for their acts elsewhere is illustrated by some of the expressions they use most frequently in their consultations with me. Describing, for example, their habitual loss of temper, which leads them to assault whomever displeases them sufficiently, they say, “My head goes,” or “My head just went.”

What exactly do they mean by this? They mean that they consider themselves to suffer from a form of epilepsy or other cerebral pathology whose only manifestation is involuntary rage, of which it is the doctor’s duty to cure them. Quite often they put me on warning that unless I find the cure for their behavior, or at least prescribe the drugs they demand, they are going to kill or maim someone. The responsibility when they do so will be mine, not theirs, for I knew what they were going to do, yet failed to prevent it. So their putative illness has not only explained and, therefore, absolved them from past misconduct, but it has exonerated them in advance from all future misconduct.

Moreover, by warning me of their intention to carry out further assaults, they have set themselves up to be victims rather than perpetrators. They told the authorities (me) what they were going to do, and yet the authorities (I, again) did nothing; and so when they return to prison after committing a further horrible crime, they will feel aggrieved that “the system,” represented by me, has once again let them down.

But were I to take the opposite tack and suggest preventive detention until such time as they could control their temper, they would be outraged at the injustice of it. What about habeas corpus? What about innocence until guilt is proven? And they deduce nothing from the fact that they can usually control their tempers in the presence of a sufficiently opposing force.

Violent criminals often use an expression auxiliary to “My head went” when explaining their deeds: “It wasn’t me.” Here is the psychobabble of the slums, the doctrine of the “Real Me” as refracted through the lens of urban degradation. The Real Me has nothing to do with the phenomenal me, the me that snatches old ladies’ bags, breaks into other people’s houses, beats up my wife and children, or repeatedly drinks too much and gets involved in brawls. No, the Real Me is an immaculate conception, untouched by human conduct: it is that unassailable core of virtue that enables me to retain my self-respect whatever I do. What I am is not at all determined by what I do; and insofar as what I do has any moral significance at all, it is up to others to ensure that the phenomenal me acts in accordance with the Real Me.

Hence one further expression frequently used by prisoners: “My head needs sorting out.” The visual image they have of their minds, I suspect, is of a child’s box of bricks, piled higgledy-piggledy, which the doctor, rummaging around in the skull, has the capacity and the duty to put into perfect order, ensuring that henceforth all conduct will automatically be honest, law-abiding, and economically advantageous. Until this sorting out is done, constructive suggestions—learn a skill, enroll in a correspondence course—are met with the refrain, “I will—once my head’s sorted out.”

At the very heart of all this passivity and refusal of responsibility is a deep dishonesty—what Sartre would have called bad faith. For however vehemently criminals try to blame others, and whatever appearance of sincerity they manage to convey while they do so, they know at least some of the time that what they say is untrue.

That’s clear in the habit drug addicts often have of altering their language according to their interlocutors. To doctors, social workers, and probation officers—to all who might prove useful to them either in a prescribing or a testimonial capacity—they emphasize their overwhelming and overpowering craving for a drug, the intolerability of the withdrawal effects from it, the deleterious effects it has upon their character, judgment, and behavior. Among themselves, though, their language is quite different, optimistic rather than abject: it is about where you can obtain the best-quality drug, where it is cheapest, and how to heighten its effects.

I suspect (though I cannot prove, except by anecdote) that it is the same among prisoners. It is hardly a new observation that prisons are the universities of crime. Yet prisoners invariably describe to doctors and psychologists their difficult upbringings (which they bring out for the occasion almost like heirlooms), their violent or absent fathers, their poverty and all the difficulties and disadvantages to which urban flesh is heir. Among themselves, though, what must be the discourse, as they establish contacts, learn new techniques—and deride the poor fools who earn an honest living but never grow rich?

That their outlook is dishonest and self-serving is apparent in their attitude to those whom they believe to have done them wrong. For example, they do not say of the policemen who they allege (often plausibly) have beaten them up, “Poor cops! They were brought up in authoritarian homes and now project the anger that is really directed at their bullying fathers onto me. They need counseling. They need their heads sorted out.” On the contrary, they say, with force and explosive emotion, “The bastards!” They assume that the police act out of free, if malevolent, will.

The prisoner’s public presentation of himself often takes on a curious resemblance to the portrayal of him by liberals. “You want me to be a victim of circumstance?” he seems to say. “All right, I’ll be a victim for you.” With repetition of his story, he comes to believe it, at least some of the time and with part of his mind. Denial of guilt—both juridical and moral—thus becomes possible in the presence of the most minute memory of the circumstances of the crime.

Man has always had a capacity for deceit of others and for self-deception, of course. It was Nietzsche who famously observed that pride and self-regard have no difficulty in overcoming memory; and every psychic defense mechanism known to the modem psychologist makes its appearance somewhere in Shakespeare. Yet one’s impression nonetheless is that the ease with which people discard responsibility for what they have done—their intellectual and emotional dishonesty about their own actions—has increased greatly in the last few decades.

Why should this occur just when, objectively speaking, freedom and opportunity for the individual have never been greater?

In the first place, there is now a much enlarged constituency for liberal views: the legions of helpers and carers, social workers and therapists, whose incomes and careers depend crucially on the supposed incapacity of large numbers of people to fend for themselves or behave reasonably. Without the supposed powerlessness of drug addicts, burglars, and others in the face of their own undesirable inclinations, there would be nothing for the professional redeemers to do. They have a vested interest in psychopathology, and their entire therapeutic world view of the patient as the passive, helpless victim of illness legitimizes the very behavior from which they are to redeem him. Indeed, the tangible advantages to the wrongdoer of appearing helpless are now so great that he needs but little encouragement to do so.

In the second place, there has been a widespread dissemination of psychotherapeutic concepts, in however garbled or misinterpreted a form. These concepts have become the currency even of the uneducated. Thus the idea has become entrenched that if one does not know or understand the unconscious motives for one’s acts, one is not truly responsible for them. This, of course, applies only to those acts which someone regards as undesirable: no one puzzles over his own meritoriousness. But since there is no single ultimate explanation of anything, one can always claim ignorance of one’s own motives. Here is a perpetual getout.

Third, there has been a widespread acceptance of sociological determinism, especially by the guilt-laden middle classes. Statistical association has been taken indiscriminately as proving causation: thus, if criminal behavior is more common among the poorer classes, it must be poverty that causes crime.

Nobody, of course, experiences himself as sociologically determined—certainly not the sociologist. And few of the liberals who espouse such a viewpoint recognize its profoundly dehumanizing consequences. If poverty is the cause of crime, burglars do not decide to break into houses any more than amoebae decide to move a pseudopod towards a particle of food. They are automata—and presumably should be treated as such.

Here the subliminal influence of Marxist philosophy surfaces: the notion that it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. If this were so, men would still live in caves; but it has just enough plausibility to shake the confidence of the middle classes that crime is a moral problem, not just a problem of morale.

Into this rich brew of uncertainty and equivocation, social historians are inclined to add their dash of seasoning, pointing out that the middle classes saw crime as a moral problem even in the eighteenth century, when for many malefactors it really was quite another thing, since sometimes the only way for them to obtain food was to steal it. To say this, of course, is to overlook the fundamental change in life chances that has occurred since then. In Georgian London, for example, the life expectancy at birth was about 25 years, whereas it is now 75. At the height of the Victorian era, the life expectancy of the Royal Family was 50 percent lower than that of the very poorest section of the population today. Surely to cling to explanations that might once have held some force but are no longer plausible is, in the most literal sense, reactionary.

The very form of the explanation offered by liberals for modern crime—from social conditions direct to behavior, without passing through the human mind—offers those who commit crime an excuse in advance, an excuse which with part of their minds they know to be false but which is nonetheless useful and convenient to them in dealing with officialdom.

Finally, consider the effect that the mass media’s constant rehearsal of injustices has upon the population. People come to believe that, far from being extremely fortunate by the standards of all previously existing populations, we actually live in the worst of times and under the most unjust of dispensations. Every wrongful conviction, every instance of police malfeasance, is so publicized that even professional criminals, even those who have performed appalling deeds, feel on a priori grounds they too must have been unjustly, or at least hypocritically, dealt with.

And the widespread notion that material inequality is in itself a sign of institutionalized injustice also helps foster crime. If property is theft, then theft is a form of just retribution. This leads to the development of that most curious phenomenon, the ethical thief: the thief who prides himself on stealing only from those who in his estimation can stand the loss. Thus I have had many burglars tell me in a glow of self-satisfaction that they would not steal from the old, from children, or the poor, because that would be wrong.

“In fact, you’d steal only from people like me,” I say to them. (A house opposite mine has been burgled four times in two years, incidentally.)

They agree; and strangely enough they expect my approbation of their restrained feloniousness. That’s how far things have gone.

Photo: Nantapok/iStock


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next