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October 1, 2005
Bill Bennett's Bogus Journey

The blogosphere and talk radio have pulled apart the unfortunate two minutes of Bill Bennett's "Morning In America" broadcast in which he attempted a clumsy reductio ad absurdum argument involving a hypothesis about aborting all black babies. Most of the commentary has predictably been inflammatory, although Matthew Yglesias, Brad DeLong, Jeff Goldstein, and Dafydd ab Hugh all offer excellent analyses of Bennett's commentaries.

When one looks at the entire context of the remarks made by Bennett in discussing the Freakanomics argument that three decades of abortion lowered violent crime in America (an argument that suffers by the fact of the violent death of 43 million feti, wouldn't one think?), it should be obvious to reasonable people that Bennett neither argues for aborting black babies nor does he agree with the Leavitt and Dubner hypothesis. Anyone who spends time with Bennett, either listening to his radio show or reading his works, knows that Bennett is no racist.

However, he makes one mistake in his reductio ad absurdum argument that he should have avoided, one which gives fuel to the entire argument: he assumed that lowering the African-American population would result in a lower crime rate, without any other conditions being met. Here's Bennett's statement:

But I do know that its true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you couldif that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down.

Do we know that the crime rate would go down, any more than if we aborted every white baby in America? No, we do not, and that mistaken assumption creates the much smaller but legitimate criticism of Bennett's remarks. At the heart of that assertion, Bennett has to assume that all other things being equal, blacks are more likely to commit crime than non-blacks as part of their innate nature, and not as part of an environment.

First mistake: using blacks as an example. Had he said "poor", he would have been much closer to the mark. The poor do not have an innate compulsion to commit crime either, but the environment in which they enter the world creates more pressure towards criminal behavior. That does not hold true for "all black children" -- only for those born into that environment.

Jeff notes some interesting data from the Department of Justice on racial statistics on crime showing that for the past thirty years, showing that murderers tend to be black more than white, which would tend to support Bennett's assumption. But why? Looking at the breakdowns, white murders outnumber blacks in all but a handful of categories: gun, argument, felony, and drugs. It looks like absent drug prohibition, the numbers might tend to normalize somewhat, although probably not enough to reach equality.

Less convincing is Dafydd's argument supporting Bennett's assumption. Dafydd says this:

If half of all violent Asian criminals were to reform, turn over a new leaf, and become honest citizens, it would slightly lower the violent-crime rate of the United States; but if half of all violent black and Hispanic criminals were to cease committing crimes, it would drastically lower the national violent-crime rate.

But part of that argument's veracity comes from the fact that the Asian population accounts for 3.6% of US population as a whole, while blacks and Hispanics account for 24.8%. Dafydd's argument is obviously true, and just as obviously irrelevant. And Bennett still would have been better off choosing white babies as a way to lower crime, because they would account for roughly three-quarters of all births and could contribute much more to the lowering of the crime rate. In 2003, white births outnumbered black births 6-1.

I don't think that Bennett chose his example wisely, and he should expect some criticism for it. The White House stupidly injected itself into this nine-day wonder of a controversy, but at least they got the temper of their criticism correct; the remark was "inappropriate". If Bennett wants to talk about race and crime, then let him argue, as Jeff does, from real data and real issues, instead of playing around with it in the indirect manner Bennett does. Injecting it as a hypothetical for what would otherwise have been an excellent reductio ad absurdum refutation of Leavitt and Dubner amounts to a moment of uncharacteristic rhetorical folly for Bennett. That doesn't make him a closet racist; it just makes him mistaken.

UPDATE: Now, this is racism, but we won't hear that from the people screaming for Bennett's job.

UPDATE II and BUMP: We'll be discussing the Bill Bennett issue on the Northern Alliance Radio Network on AM 1280 The Patriot at 1 pm CT. Listen on the stream at the Patriot and call us at 651-289-4488 to join in the conversation. We're discussing Judy Miller right now.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 1, 2005 12:26 PM

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