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Researchers find law-abiding majority to be more than willing to engage in illegal and unfair practices in the market place

Research published today in The British Journal of Criminology suggests that the respectable middle section of society is actively and widely involved in deviant activity as a response to their perceived unfairness of market practices.

Professor Susanne Karstedt and Dr. Stephen Farrall analysed survey results from nearly 4,500 people aged 25-65 living in England and Wales, the former Western Germany, and former Eastern Germany in 2002. In this economically active group of respectable citizens they found what they described as ‘crimes of everyday life’ to be commonplace. They argue that such illegal and immoral activity is so easily engaged in and widely accepted that the idea of the law-abiding majority needs to be challenged. Indeed they suggest it is a chimera. What they instead found to be widespread are cynical attitudes towards rules and laws, and the endorsement of selfishness.

The researchers reached these findings by examining how neo-liberal market reforms are experienced by citizens/consumers. A range of questions sought to test respondents’ perceptions of feeling victimised as a result of unfair and immoral market practices, their fears of becoming a victim of big and small business as well as of their fellow citizens, and their ensuing mistrust in markets. They also explored both intention to offend and actual offending*, linking these behaviours with an exploration of a seeming collapse in the effect of traditional ‘holding mechanisms’ such as a belief in the rule of law in markets, belief in citizenship values, and in the common good. Instead, selfish attitudes and egotistic strategies are becoming dominant. The authors argue that these attitudes and behaviours are signalling an in-built lawlessness, or ‘institutional anomie’, in the contemporary market place.

In essence the researchers found respondents prepared to bend rules, lie, and cheat in a variety of situations. These crimes of everyday life included inflating insurance claims, falsely claiming benefit, paying cash in hand and thus avoiding VAT, falsely claiming refunds when not entitled to, or not disclosing faults in a second-hand sale. Although not all such behaviour is strictly illegal much of it is certainly dubious and immoral. The authors argue, ‘Consumers and businesses, as well as citizens, seem to be engaged in a vicious cycle of unfair behaviour, erosion of good practices and normative standards’. This behaviour also resulted in real financial loss with, for example, the Department for Work and Pensions estimating over £573 million in social security payments being based on fraudulent claims.

Citizens and consumers were prepared to act in this way because they felt victimised by unrestrained market forces and pursuit of profit at all costs. They believed that businesses, and the state, were no longer behaving in line with accepted norms and therefore felt justified in responding in kind to perceived injustice. For example, in Western Germany following the removal of state health insurance cover for expensive glasses frames, almost 90% of claims to household insurers were estimated to be fraudulently inflated. The researchers also found in their interviews in Britain that citizens felt exercised by small print, and obscure rules, and were willing to ‘hit back’ when feeling treated badly by their insurance companies or banks.

Results across all three regions chosen for the research indicated that 75% of all respondents had experienced at least one victimisation, and 64% had engaged in illegal or shady practices. England and Wales had the highest rate of victimization (82%), and the lowest rate of offending (61%). West Germans reported the highest rate of offending (70%), and the strongest intent to offend or seriously consider it. The threat of those market reforms to state welfare provision appeared to engender a strong sense of injustice, disempowerment and disadvantage in Western German citizens. This in turn fuelled a willingness to engage in the crimes of everyday life.

The engagement in illegal activity appears to be fostered by two connected processes. The first is what consumers and citizens perceive to be unrestrained and unfair commercial practices that ‘rip-off’ people, with the perpetrators unpunished by law or even encouraged by government policies. The unrestrained pursuit of profit in these market economies is perceived as being unacceptable by citizens. Simultaneously they are urged to look after their own self-interest in all realms of life. As a result, citizens feel perfectly justified in behaving in a similar fashion, and pursuing their own self-interest even with illegal and morally dubious strategies. The second is the impact of market anomie on traditionally restraining influences such as belief in the law, trust in one’s fellow citizen and business, and a sense of security in the market place that one will get a fair deal.

The research found that communication about victimisation and successful offending was widespread and this in turn fuelled the belief that ‘everybody does it’. The authors found citizens prepared to discuss and justify the crimes of everyday life with considerable ease, thus creating a moral climate that encourages such behaviour. The question for governments is perhaps whether their economic policies will inevitably result in such behaviour on the part of its citizens, especially for those it regards itself as protecting from ‘real criminals’. The authors offer a response to this, ‘Markets are not in permanent state of anomie per se, and neither is the moral economy immoral by definition. However, permanent encouragement of entrepreneurial comportment and pursuit of self-interest has its price in terms of market anomie which shows itself in the centre of society, not at its margins. The law abiding majority which politicians like to address is a chimera’.

*The authors use the term offending for behaviours that many might regard as somehow less serious than ‘real’ crime. However many of these are technically crimes (fraud etc) just like the white-collar crimes, which are acknowledged as particularly harmful today

Professor Susanne Karstedt | alfa
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