April 29, 2008

Getting Crime Off Streets and Into Living Rooms

By: James Poulos

It’s Grand Theft Auto IV (that’s “Four”, not a heroin reference). Nick Gillespie reports:

As sales mount for the game, now set in New York-like “Liberty City” and (hopefully featuring a whore-banging, money-laundering, hypocritical pol a la Eliott Spitzer), expect the protests to mount against the game, which has somehow helped add to generally lower crime rates in the United States.

Sim crime up, real crime down: it’s utilitarianism for our age. This little phenomenon is a textbook example of the fighting retreat that conservatives, if not libertarians, often face: not even the argument that phony transgression inspires the real thing holds that much water, statistically speaking, anymore. But libertarians and conservatives alike have to recognize at some point that the demand for virtual vices itself may make good citizenship pointless and/or impossible. This should trouble political libertarians greatly. But cultural libertarianism seems dedicated to graphing the frontier at which maximum behavioral indulgence meets the minimum amount of active citizenship required for ensuring political liberty.

Even if the slope of that Pareto frontier (is there an economist in the house?) is well-established, however, determining where to situate oneself along it would devolve, I assume to ‘personal choice’. Yet we all know the power of public opinion in a democracy such as ours, and the power of the opinion of the pleasure industry in a chintzy aristocracy such as ours. Still, just when I’m about to lurch off in a paleoconservative fugue, I recognize the inherent wisdom in confronting your own culture with a rude truth: it all comes down to them anyway; we’re already always rolling the dice on ourselves anyway. What keeps a society from running off the rails into the ruin of corruption and decadence is prudential instinct, that thing inside that makes you save that money and time instead of blowing it on video game hookers.

A culture can succeed at shoring up the authority of virtue that generates prudential instinct. Trying to keep tidy after that’s fallen apart is a recipe for failure — because inevitably you find yourself reaching for the broom marked politics, and if there’s one thing for which politics is poorly suited, it’s getting people to stop playing Grand Theft Auto.

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