One interesting thing I noticed during my stay on the small island of Koh Chang Noi in the Andaman sea (see my blog post ‘My small island retreat‘), was that there is virtually no crime on the island. The resort where I was staying employed an honours system for food and drinks. You could order whatever you wanted from the kitchen and take drinks as you pleased from the ice box, as long as you wrote it down in a ledger. At the end of your stay you’d pay for what you had written down. This would of course be open to fraud, both from customers and from the staff, but everyone was honest enough to adhere to the system.
When I asked if there was anywhere I could recharge my phone or laptop, I was pointed to the cluster of light sockets behind the bar of my resort. This was a pretty open place, where effectively anyone could come and go. It would be a disaster if my laptop or my phone got nicked. I have backups of most important data, but it would take a lot of time and effort to buy new gear, get my software set up, and change all my passwords. The owner reassured me, though, that everybody used it and that nothing had ever been stolen. After a day I was comfortable leaving my phone in the charger and my laptop just on a table in the restaurant while I went for a walk.
One of the long-timers told me that there was just one policeman on the island. Even that was a minor office, as his main job was manager of one of the bigger resorts. Apparently that was enough police force to keep crime from both the local population and the tourists under control.
The causes of crime
This made me wonder what it is that brings about crime in a place. Why can I safely forget my laptop on the table of a restaurant in Koh Chang Noi, while if I leave as much as my t-shirt on one of the beaches in Barcelona (Spain) when going for a swim it’ll be gone when I get back? Without having studied the matter, I came up with three basic hypotheses:
- Differences in wealth. On the small island, everybody seems to live a more or less similar lifestyle, a bit above subsistence level. I’ve seen no beggars or people who were really down to survival level. There is probably a substantial difference between how much the resort owners and the local fishermen make, but it doesn’t show. Even I, a wealthy Western tourist, live in a wooden hut with no hot water. Nobody needs much more than they have, and there is little reason to envy another person’s wealth.
- Anonymity. I would guess that everyone who lives on Koh Chang Noi knows pretty much everyone else. The island community would have a sense of just how well off each person is. Private houses are mostly open-style, with everybody being able to peer inside. If someone would suddenly got hold of new found riches, it would show. You just couldn’t come by a MacBook Air all of the sudden without the rest of the island noticing. If a tourist reported their MacBook Air as stolen, it wouldn’t take long for the lone policeman to put one and one together.
- Culture. I hate the word culture, because it is so broad and can be used to refer to pretty much anything. In this case I use it specifically to refer to the norms that a society adopts regarding private property and how it should be treated. Note that this is very different from a society’s laws, which may or may not be congruent with its culture. When in Japan, it always struck me how honest the people were, and how you could safely leave your belongings somewhere out in the open without anyone taking it. While Japan has a fairly egalitarian society, there is plenty of anonymity to get away with crime. But it just isn’t part of the culture. In the same way I’ve always found Spain to be a country where crime is socially acceptable. If you have the opportunity to get an advantage by screwing someone over, you’d be a sucker not to take it. The small island in the Andaman sea might well have evolved its own unique culture over the decades, diverging from the culture on the mainland. Because everyone enjoyed the open environment and laid back lifestyle so much, its culture developed in such a way that crime is simply not done.
Size does matterSo does the level of crime have anything to do with population size? It always seems like bigger cities are more dangerous and rife with crime, whereas small villages are peaceful and safe. When I was living in Barcelona, I wouldn’t leave my home without making sure that it was triple locked. On the small island of Koh Chang Noi I wouldn’t worry too much about leaving my laptop out in the open while going for a swim. Of course there are plenty of counter examples. Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world, but one almost devoid of petty crime. It does seem like population size plays some role, though.
I think that the answer can be found in the relationship between size and the three hypotheses I offered. The first two hypotheses are at least somewhat correlated with community size. A large metropolis is bound to bring about larger differences in wealth* and more anonymity. Culture is less related to size, but a larger population can more easily give rise to multiple sub-cultures, each with slightly different norms. For example, I’ve found the people in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to be largely honest and trustworthy, but the sub-culture of taxi drivers formed a stark contrast with the rest of the population. It only requires a few groups of criminals to create a base level of crime in a city.
I’m curious what you, my readers, think of these explanations. Do you agree with me? Are there more factors in play that I’ve overlooked? Let me know in the comments!
* I find it obvious how a larger community creates greater differences in wealth, ceteris paribus, but it is not self-evident. If desired, I could expand on it in more detail.