The most common question that viewers, listeners, and readers ask me is why I became both a psychologist and a lawyer. Here’s why: I was raised to find my God-given strengths, develop those, and use them to make the most valuable contributions I could make to things larger than myself. And I concluded that the most valuable contribution I could make to my community, country, and world would be to help people live together as peacefully and prosperously as possible. That meant I had to understand three key things: how human behavior works, how destructive behavior is best discouraged, and how constructive behavior is best encouraged.
So, I studied psychology (because psychology explains behavior in general); I studied law (because the law is society’s way of defining and discouraging destructive behavior); and I studied business (because business is geared more toward encouraging constructive behavior — incentives, productivity, the creation of unique value, etc.). Meanwhile, I traveled around the world to see and compare how well different forms of government and different economic systems worked with respect to peoples’ peace and prosperity.
And here, in a nutshell, is what I’ve learned:
Humans are most peaceful and most prosperous when they have both 1) personal liberty, to choose whether, what, and how to contribute to things larger than themselves, and 2) personal responsibility, for the consequences of their choices — credit for (and accordingly, the rewards of) their constructive choices, and accountability for their destructive choices. This combination of personal liberty and personal responsibility best facilitates the realization of each individual human’s potential, and thereby best facilitates the realization of a nation’s potential.
And that’s why the United States of America, within just a couple of centuries of its founding, became the greatest, freest, most powerful, productive, and prosperous nation in human history — because a republican form of government and a capitalist economic system best facilitate the maximization of both personal liberty and personal responsibility within a society. But a funny thing happened on the way to today — we’ve backed off on the personal responsibility part, which is essential to our greatness, which is why I think presidents, legislators, and citizens alike could use a refresher course in behaviorism. Fortunately, my classroom is right here at the intersection of people, policy, and productivity, so here goes:
From parenting to law enforcement to national security, simple principles of behaviorism explain a lot. People’s behavior can be destructive, constructive, or neutral (i.e., if it’s not destructive, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s constructive). Both to discourage destructive behavior and to encourage constructive behavior, consequences are key. People tend to engage in constructive behavior when they desire the expected consequences — i.e., the rewards — thereof. So, if we want to encourage, for example, innovation, then we want innovators to reap the rewards thereof; therefore, we want to tax those rewards as little as possible.
Conversely, people tend to refrain from destructive behavior when they fear the expected consequences thereof. Just as kids tend to misbehave less when they fear parents, criminals tend to misbehave less when they fear judges, and our global adversaries tend to misbehave less when they fear our presidents. And by “fear,” I don’t mean that the kid, criminal, or global adversary must or should expect abusive or excessive punishment for misbehavior — I mean that the kid, criminal, or global adversary must expect that a credible threat of punishment sufficient to discourage misbehavior exists.
On the national security front, President Reagan referred to this basic principle as “peace through strength,” and President Trump, up to now, has seemed to understand and embrace it similarly. Since he took office, despite some saber-rattling by Iran and North Korea, things have been relatively quiet — we haven’t heard much from ISIS, North Korean missiles no longer are being launched in the direction of Hawaii, Russia hasn’t annexed any more of its neighbors, etc. Unfortunately, after applying this principle successfully with respect to external threats to our national security, the president seems poised to abandon it with respect to internal threats, i.e., criminals.
He — and potentially a majority of our legislators — appear ready to embrace “criminal justice reform,” whereby the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences, the imposition of sentence enhancements (e.g., so-called “stacking,” which adds time to prison sentences for crimes committed by criminals in possession of firearms), and sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine all would be reduced (the latter ostensibly to fix a racial disparity between sentences for crimes involving crack vs. powder cocaine). In other words, the president seems poised to reduce the consequences of committing federal crimes.
Making/keeping America great requires making/keeping America safe — from internal as well as external threats. And anyone who tells you that the criminals whose sentences would be reduced by this “criminal justice reform” aren’t threats (i.e., that they’re “nonviolent” offenders) is either profoundly misguided or profoundly dishonest. We do not have lots of inmates languishing in prison solely for using illegal drugs — if they’re languishing in prison, then they dealt illegal drugs, and that is a violent offense. Horrific violence occurs all along the supply chains for illegal drugs sold in the U.S.A., and voluntary participants in those supply chains are accessories to that violence (yes, including users — they may believe that their use is harmless to others, but it actually fuels untold violence).
Furthermore, anyone who feels compassion for incarcerated drug dealers is misdirecting his or her compassion. How much illegal drug dealing have you done? Zero? And how hard has that been? Not hard at all, right? If someone doesn’t want to risk languishing in prison for dealing drugs, then that’s very easy to avoid. Accordingly, our compassion belongs first, foremost, and always with crime victims, not with criminals (and no, I don’t want to hear about how hard it is for criminals’ families while those criminals are in prison — that’s the criminals’ responsibility).
But even those who have compassion for criminals need to understand that part of how we steer young people away from crime is by showing them that it doesn’t pay — which is why reductions in consequences (e.g., the proposed “criminal justice reform” as well as “banning the box” — making it easier for convicts to get jobs upon release from prison — about which I wrote a piece here earlier this year) won’t work. The magnitude of one’s incentive to do something (e.g., to commit a crime) is the extent by which the expected gain from doing it exceeds the expected cost of doing it, so when the expected cost is reduced, the incentive actually increases, and vice versa.
(And speaking of costs, I don’t want to hear about how reducing sentences could “save us money” either. Like all government undertakings, we surely could make it more efficient, but our penal system represents a national security expense here on the home front, and national security is our president’s/government’s foremost responsibility. Accordingly, I’m frankly not troubled at all by the idea of “mass incarceration” — what troubles me is the idea of mass victimization of law-abiding Americans.)
So, Mr. President (and legislators, and citizens), remember Dr. Brian’s “Silver Rule” (the golden one is already spoken for): You don’t get less of a behavior by reducing the negative consequences of it. If you want less crime, then make its consequences worse — e.g., more and tougher mandatory minimum sentences, more “stacking,” fewer plea bargains, no concurrent sentences — only consecutive sentences... (and if in fact criminals of one race are receiving shorter sentences than criminals of another race for exactly the same crime, then that would be all the more reason for long, color-blind, mandatory minimum sentences — don’t shorten the longer sentences; lengthen the shorter ones).
Mr. President, when it comes to criminal justice, America has gotten weak — don’t make it weaker; make America tough again!
Brian Russell wanted to learn how people could live together as peacefully and prosperously as possible, so he studied what makes us tick (and got a Ph.D. in clinical psychology), how public policy keeps us in line (and got a law degree), and what motivates us to do our best (and got an M.B.A.). Then, he put theory to the test, practicing both psychology and law, starting his own small businesses, consulting with business leaders and lawmakers, and traveling the world comparing what does and doesn’t work in 40 societies. Now, he shares his expertise in people, public policy, and productivity on national television and radio, in his book, "Stop Moaning, Start Owning: How Entitlement Is Ruining America and How Personal Responsibility Can Fix It," and here on Newsmax. Learn more at DrBrianRussell.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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