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Reading For the Electoral Season

Getting Tough On Crime, and Big Brother

Book Reviews by Brent Kendall


The first Tuesday in November is little more than a month away and electoral politics are business as usual. The most intriguing story this year may not focus on any one race, but on just how few people get out and vote. Yet with all the political apathy created by the Clinton/Lewinsky saga, there has been one positive development in Washington - the bipartisan agreement to forbid all candidates from attacking the personal, private lives of their opponents. My guess is the absence of slander will give politicians more time to preach on two continually prosperous issues - crime and the size of the government.

Drugs, guns, cops, jails, mandatory sentences, and the death penalty are consistently at the forefront of most electoral discussions on "the issues." The underlying crime debate questions the purpose, efficiency, and fairness of our criminal justice system. Cesare Beccaria's Of Crimes and Punishments (Marsilio Press, 1996) is one of the most enduring works on the subject. Originally written in 1764, the Italian philosopher's essay remains pertinent today. Beccaria writes that justice is a manmade construct, a means to enforce a social contract we enter to ensure the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Punishments are necessary as they provide incentive for people to adhere to the contract; their sole purpose is to dissuade citizens from bucking the system by committing crimes.

From this foundation, Beccaria argues that excessive punishments are ineffective as crime prevention and that social revenge plays no practical role in protecting society. He believes the best method to ensure that the fewest people will break the law lies in the expediency and consistency in which punishments are administered. In other words, the criminal is more persuaded by the assurance that he will be punished than by the possibility that he might be punished severely. Recently re-released by Marsilio Press, this new edition contains a forward by Mario Cuomo and an introduction by a prominent criminologist, Marvin Wolfgang. Cuomo uses Beccaria's arguments to question the wisdom of "get tough" political rhetoric while Wolfgang notes that Beccaria's essay refutes the notion that the death penalty deters crime.

The ideal criminal justice system outlined in Of Crimes and Punishments contrasts with an American system that sentences criminals unevenly and kills people arbitrarily and vengefully. The book would be a great campaign contribution to your favorite "tough on crime" candidate.

When crime isn't the issue, the size of the government often is. Should the government do more, or do less, or do more for less? Where is the fine line between public issues worthy of governmental consideration and private issues that are none of Uncle Sam's business? William Murchison has some thoughts in his latest book There's More To Life Than Politics (Spence Publishing, 1998).

The book's title is somewhat deceptive.

Though this collection of recent Murchison columns isn't overtly political, it makes an inherently political argument; namely that modern, secular society erroneously views the government as a panacea for a multitude of human ills. Furthermore, he argues that this view over-inflates a government intent on legislating and nationalizing every facet of our lives. It takes only a couple of pages to figure out that Murchison is quite conservative (he's a big fan of Ronald Reagan for starters) and at odds with most progressive viewpoints. Yet he raises issues that are very worthy of consideration.

The book attempts to focus beyond politics, entreating the reader to understand that society's biggest problems are human, not political and that any attempt to fix these must emerge from institutions stronger and deeper than our government. He asks, "how do we invigorate our community-based institutions, how do we persuade people to do good, or at least refrain from doing bad?"

For Murchison, the political arena is the wrong place to look for the answers. He instead shifts the focus to morality, values, friends, family, and community, suggesting that individual time investment in these areas is both influential and rewarding. The book has strong religious undertones (Murchison is a devout Episcopalian) which will obviously resonate differently with various readers. But regardless of one's faith, There's More To Life Than Politics is an engaging read for those left empty by the promises of American politics.


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