Crime as a Choice: Crime and Economic Conditions

By Ratakshi Sarvaria


In early societies, when resources were limited, the law of nature was based on survival of the fittest. The early exponents found crime in the conflicts of behavioural norms and saw crime as being rooted in “poverty, misery and depravity.”[1] As societies developed and money gained importance, it is safe to say that money became the sole determinant of a person’s social status in modern society. The history of the wars fought by nations reveals that international peace could not be achieved without economic cooperation.

Crime is commonly underpinned in the concept of good and evil where the population consists of “good citizens” who are law abiding, as opposed to the “bad citizens” who commit crimes unless they are incapacitated. The economic model of crime shifts the focus from character to the choices available to individuals.[2] While it is impossible to divorce character completely from crime, criminal activity represents a choice or set of choices that is available to everyone. The choice of whether to commit crime is driven by the consequences, which vary depending on the opportunities available to individuals. For example, a school dropout will have relatively poor opportunities to earn a legitimate living, but lack of schooling is no barrier to larceny or robbery. And on this basis, dropouts can be expected to be over-represented among criminals.[3]

Legal philosophers of all ages have accepted that economic conditions have a direct bearing on crime.[4] Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that crimes originate from poverty as they are committed not only for meeting the necessities of life but also for acquiring superfluous things. As per Elbert Hubburd, “criminal is a man who does by illegal means what all the rest of us do legally. In fact, it is the lust for materialistic gain rather than poverty which makes a man criminal.” It is also the view of Donald Taft that crime has been a mere phenomenon of prosperity rather than adversity.[5]

Due to rapid industrial and technological advancement and the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, the world is as materialistic as it could ever be. Those who are wealthy constitute the “elites” while the poor are looked down upon. Forced by circumstance and necessity, the poor often resort to criminality to overcome their helpless situation marked by disease, illiteracy, hunger, misfortune and anger.

The relationship between economic conditions and crime is based on two different assumptions.[6] The first view prescribes that the relationship between economy and crime is inverse; incidence of crime is low when economic conditions are favourable whereas in times of economic depression, crime rates increase. This view is finds support in all Marxist and leftist policies. The second view provides that there is a direct relationship between crime and economy; that is, criminality increases or decreases with rise or fall in economy. This view is developed by Fillips Polett as a supplement to the famous work of Enrico Ferri, “Law of Criminal Saturation”.

As per the Marxist view, crimes are a result of capitalist societies. In such societies, law is an instrument of the capitalists to further their interests in the economic order and thus, the poor sections remain oppressed and their discontentment generates crimes.[7]

However, the most significant propounder of economic theory is William A. Bonger,[8] who in his book, “Criminality and Economic Conditions” concluded that capitalism was one of the potential causes of crime because the system created an atmosphere for promoting selfish tendencies in men. Bonger’s study revealed that almost 79 per cent criminals belong to the non-profitable class.[9] He further elaborated that in an economy, inflation gives rise to bankruptcy and insolvency, and persons affected thereby are forced to lead an anti-social life and may even resort to criminality. He also asserted that poverty is an essential condition of crime because a person would do anything to get out of his miserable economic condition.

Gary Becker’s contribution was primarily in the normative realm.[10] He pointed out that the social costs associated with crime are the sum of the direct costs of victimisation and the indirect costs of efforts to control and prevent crime. If the goal is to minimise total social costs, then the optimal amount of crime is unlikely to be zero, since at some point the marginal costs of additional prevention will exceed the marginal benefit of an additional reduction in crime.

Therefore, the economic model of criminal behaviour is nothing but a mechanism wherein the individuals choose whether to undertake any criminal activity or any legal activity and the basis on which this decision is taken is the expected utility from those acts. A person may be inclined to undertake criminal activity depending on factors like expected gains from crime as opposed to a lawful activity, risk of conviction along with extent of punishment and scope of opportunities in legal activities. In other words, it all comes down to the returns from one decision vis-à-vis returns from the other decision.

India is one of the fastest emerging economies, but is also facing the problems of widespread poverty, inequality and crime. There is a wide rural-urban divide in terms of differential wages, job opportunities, availability of resources, basic infrastructure and social development in India. Furthermore, the high cost of living, lack of appropriate jobs, material dissatisfaction and proximity to crime in informal sector are some of the factors that can force the poor migrant to commit a crime.

 Reference can be made to the case of In Re Maragatham,[11] wherein the accused husband and wife were starving for about ten days as they had no food or work. They determined to put an end to their lives and their female infant. They tied themselves together with a rope and jumped into a well. The couple was rescued but unfortunately, the infant drowned and died. The court convicted the accused persons for attempt to murder of the child and committing suicide under section 307 read with sections 34 and 309 of the Indian Penal Code.

In another case of Shreeangyee v. State of Madras,[12] the accused was a mother of five children who had been deserted by her husband. Due to her financial condition and inadequate earnings, she was unable to support her kids. When she lost all lawful means of earning money, she drowned all five of her children and jumped into the well. Her children died but she was somehow rescued and convicted under section 302 of the IPC for killing her children. In this case, the court held poverty not to be a defence for the murder of innocent children.

Any theory of crime must be tested on the anvil of two premises namely, “What acts should be punished?” and “To what extent?” However, the economic theory of crime does not offer a reasonable explanation on certain material grounds. The view that capitalistic pattern of society is responsible for criminality fails to explain why socialisation as a solution to eliminate economic factors of crime has proved a breeding ground for generating crimes of political nature.[13] Prof. Cohen has asserted that honesty is not the monopoly of only the rich persons as even people with poor financial conditions lead an honest and virtuous life.

Despite the numerous views discussed, economic conditions only have a relative significance on crime. Even though economic phenomenon influences certain types of crimes but criminality as a whole cannot be attributed only to a single cause. Bonger’s theory fails to elucidate why people with sufficient means like business tycoons, high-ranking officers, ministers and entrepreneurs commit crimes. There is rampant corruption in India right from the grass root level to the upper ranks, and it can only be attributed to greed and temptation of man and not to any economic factor. It is equally in line to mention that there is no relationship between terrorism and poverty as studies reveal that most terrorist leaders are financially well-off and are well educated.[14] It is true that necessity motivates a person to commit crimes but the current influx of modernisation and excessive materialism has changed the way we look at crimes. There is an all-time rise of socio-economic crimes like hoarding, black-marketing, adulteration, tax evasion as well as white collar crimes. The current penal provisions have failed to keep a check on these non-traditional crimes and hence, there is a need for stricter regulatory and enforcement measures for socio-economic offences to bring punishment in line with the changing pattern of criminal behaviour.

[The author is a fifth year law student at Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, affiliated with GGSIPU.]

[1] Sutherland, Cressey&Luckenbill : Principles of Criminology (11Ed. 2013) p. 71.

[2]  Lessons from the Economics of Crime : edited by Philip J Cook, Stephen Machin, Olivier Marie and Giovanni Mastrobuoni.

[3] Olivier Marie (2010) ‘Reducing Crime: More Police, More Prisons or More Pay?’, CEP Policy Analysis No. 12 ( pubs/download/pa012.pdf).

[4] Goswami P. : Criminology (1964) p. 163.

[5] Donald Taft: Criminology (4th Ed) p. 125.

[6] Prof. N. V. Paranjape: Criminology, Penology, Victimology (17th Ed.).

[7] Quinney Richard : The Social Reality of Crime (1970, Boston) p. 131.

[8] Bonger, W.A. : Criminality and Economic Conditions, 1916.

[9] Causative Factors of Crime: Review of Studies, p. 49 (

[10] Gary Becker (1968) ‘Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach’, Journal of Political Economy 76: 169-217.

[11] In Re: Maragatham and Anr. v. Unknown, AIR 1961 Mad 498 (The Madras High Court).

[12] (1973) 1 MLJ 205.

[13] Taft Donald: Criminology (4Th Edition) p. 133.

[14] Example: The Al-Qaeda members were found to be highly educated possessing modern knowledge of cyber terrorism techniques and their Chief Usama Bin Laden was a professional civil engineering contractor.

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