It is easy enough to say that “crime does not pay,” but the real question is: Does not pay whom—and compared to what?
It is doubtful whether Bill Gates could have done nearly as well as he has by becoming a burglar or even a hit man for organized crime, but those who do pursue these criminal occupations are unlikely to have had the same alternatives that Bill Gates had because of his particular talents and circumstances.
Given the low educational levels of many who become career criminals, crime may well be their best-paying option. Given the short time horizons of many of those who make crime their occupation—especially young people and people from lower social classes—such things as selling drugs may be very lucrative in stage one, whether or not it leads to prison in stage two or perhaps never living to see stage two.
The rationality of the career criminal is demonstrated in many ways, including a variation in the amount and kinds of crime committed as the costs of committing those crimes vary. These costs include not only the legal penalties but also the dangers faced from potential victims of these crimes. For example, burglary tends to be affected by the proportion of people who have guns in their homes.
The rate of burglary is not only much higher in Britain than in the United States—nearly twice as high—British burglars are far less likely than American burglars to “case” the premises before entering, in order to make sure that no one is home.
Even if someone is home in Britain, there is far less danger that the person at home will have a firearm, given the far more strict British gun control laws. British and American burglars are both behaving rationally, given the respective circumstances in which they operate.
While 13 percent of burglaries in the United States occur while the home is occupied, more than 40 percent of the burglaries in Britain, the Netherlands, and Canada occur while the home is occupied.
These latter three countries have much lower incidences of gun ownership than the United States, due to more severe gun control laws. After the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw passed an ordinance requiring heads of households to keep a firearm in their homes, residential burglaries dropped by 89 percent.