Poverty does not cause crime and terrorism

Posted: Oct 30, 2001 12:00 AM
One of the basics of liberal dogma is that poverty is the root cause of crime and terrorism. In the liberal worldview, people do not kill and steal because they are evil, but because they are deprived of material things. This view is sometimes used as a rationalization for blaming society for the misdeeds of criminals and terrorists. However, I think most liberals really do believe that if poverty were eradicated, crime and terrorism would largely disappear. Unfortunately, there is simply no evidence whatsoever to support this theory. If there were any truth to it, then crime and terrorism would rise during economic depressions and fall during boom times. Crime should also be higher in places where poverty is worst, and least where living standards are highest. In fact, the opposite tends to hold. The recent terrorist attacks on the United States confirm this observation. Although some liberals are wringing their hands about the poverty of Afghanistan as a cause of them, this conveniently ignores the fact that 15 of the 19 men who hijacked planes on Sept. 11 were from Saudi Arabia, a wealthy country. Nor were the hijackers poor. They were, in fact, highly educated and from well-to-do families. The problem, I think, is that the terrorists were frustrated by an economic system that did not value their talents as highly as they did. This is a common problem in the Middle East, where the largely socialistic and state-centered economic systems do not provide sufficient opportunities for work and wealth creation for the people. Unable to channel their energies into jobs, businesses and entrepreneurship, many well educated young Arabs look for an outlet among radical groups like al-Qaeda. Although there is nothing in Islam per se that requires a socialistic economic system, it has been argued that the geography and history of the Middle East have pushed countries in that direction. Historian William Polk explains: "In the great river basin economies of the Near East, the role of the state in economic life was not only predominant but both minute and active. The state controlled water, the state set the standard in taxation and rent of land, the state decided what should be planted and when; in industry, the state owned the factories, bought the raw materials, employed the worker, set output quotas, and collected and distributed the production; in commerce, the state was often the sole merchant, monopolizing virtually all distribution of imports and exports. This was a pattern common to the ancient pharaohs, the Mamluks, and Mehmet Ali and is today the pattern adopted by 'Arab socialism.'" Hence, from the very beginning, economic life was centered around the state in places like Egypt for reasons that did not exist in Europe. The discovery of oil in the 20th century encouraged further state centralization in Saudi Arabia. As the State Department's latest report on economic policy and trade practices notes, "Parastatal enterprises, such as Saudi ARAMCO (oil) and Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC-petrochemicals), and utilities, among others, dominate the economy." Consequently, there is little entrepreneurship in the Saudi economy. Oil wealth provides a good education for any Saudi male who wants one, but lacking opportunities for careers outside government, few study business, economics or engineering. Many pursue degrees in Islamic studies and are unemployed more or less permanently after graduation. Generous government benefits provide for their needs and foreigners do most of the manual labor, leaving large numbers of Saudis with nothing to do except bemoan their condition and look for scapegoats to blame for it. If the liberal worldview was correct, Saudis should be the most peaceable people on earth. They are well-educated and well-fed by the state, which can afford such generosity thanks to the fortuitous location of large deposits of oil. And to be sure, most Saudis are peaceable. But their system also has created a breeding ground for terrorists like Osama bin Laden, who was born into wealth and privilege in Saudi Arabia. He is proof that it is not poverty that causes terrorism. Of course, the lack of democracy in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia also contributes to radicalism and resentment. Dissent cannot be channeled into elections, party politics and other democratic institutions. Nevertheless, I believe that the Saudi economic system, based on state control rather than free markets -- what liberals are always trying to impose here -- deserves some blame for the events of Sept. 11.