Why are the Truly Disadvantaged American, When the UK is Bad Enough? A Political Economy Analysis of Local Autonomy in Criminal Justice, Education, Residential Zoning

58 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2013

See all articles by Nicola Lacey

Nicola Lacey

London School of Economics - Law School

David Soskice

University of Oxford

Date Written: May 14, 2013


In terms of key criminal justice indices such as the rate of the most serious violent crime and the imprisonment rate, the United States not only performs worse than other advanced democracies, but does so to a startling degree. Moreover these differences have become more extreme over the last half century. For example, the imprisonment rate, which was double that in England and Wales in 1970, is today five times higher, notwithstanding the fact that the rate in England and Wales has itself more than doubled during that period. And while, at between four and five times the English level, the American homicide rate is broadly comparable today with that in 1950 (when it was nearly six times the English level), it reached ten times that level in the late 1970s. These differences are widely recognised. What is less often recognised in comparative criminal justice scholarship is that these differences in criminal justice variables sit alongside stark differences in other key social indicators, notably in inequality of educational outcomes and in residential socio-economic and racial segregation, where the United States also does worse than other liberal market countries with similar economic and welfare systems. The comparison with other Liberal Market Economies such as the UK and New Zealand is even more striking in the light of their own poor performance on all these variables as compared to the Co-ordinated Market Economies of Northern Europe and Japan. In this paper, we present a thesis about what explains each of these distinctive American outcomes, and about how they relate to one another. Our core argument is that the decentralised American political system, which accords a distinctive degree of autonomy to localities, and which governs a distinctively wide range of decisions about education, zoning and criminal justice through local electoral politics, produces a polarising dynamic in which it is impossible to garner stable political support for integrative, let alone redistributive policies. The key ‘median’ voters in local elections are, disproportionately, home-owners who vote for policies which will maximise their own property values and the quality of services and the environment in their immediate area, and who are reluctant to vote for costly public goods whose benefits are not so restricted. In this light, it is rational for local governments to form policies based on zoning: whether of good schools, of community policing, of public housing, or – the most extreme example – of offender populations into the prison system. These dynamics, moreover, have become particularly strong since the collapse of Fordism and disappearance of many manual jobs which formerly provided a bridge from education to employment for the low-skilled. It follows from the dynamics of American democracy that it is virtually impossible to construct political coalitions at the local level in order to construct alternative bridges in a post-Fordist world. Our argument leads to the sobering conclusion that, within the American political system as currently structured, the opportunities for reversing the trend towards ever greater punitiveness, or combating continuing high levels of violence and inequality, are limited. In particular, our argument implies that a diagnosis of the ‘collapse of American criminal justice’ in terms of the federalisation of criminal policy by an activist state is, at best, a very partial one, while recent arguments in favour of a revival of local democracy as a solution to the ills of American criminal justice are seriously misconceived. Notwithstanding their relatively poor performance in comparison with the co-ordinated countries, the relatively strong framework for national policy development and implementation in other Anglo-Saxon countries has provided mechanisms countering some of the polarising and inegalitarian dynamics of a Liberal Market system.

Suggested Citation

Lacey, Nicola and Soskice, David, Why are the Truly Disadvantaged American, When the UK is Bad Enough? A Political Economy Analysis of Local Autonomy in Criminal Justice, Education, Residential Zoning (May 14, 2013). LSE Legal Studies Working Paper No. 11/2013, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2264749 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2264749

Nicola Lacey

London School of Economics - Law School ( email )

Houghton Street
London WC2A 2AE, WC2A 2AE
United Kingdom

David Soskice (Contact Author)

University of Oxford

Mansfield Road
Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 4AU
United Kingdom

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