J. W. Coleman

American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 35, Issue 6, 827-836 (Jul/Aug92)

Abstract: Examines the relationship between crime and money. A theory of criminal behavior; Money as motivation; Money and opportunity; The future of money.

Keywords: WEALTH

Motivation and Opportunityin a Monetarized Economy

Does money cause crime? Throughout history, the quest for money has certainly been associated with avarice and the thirst for power. Hernando Cortez, the conquistador who destroyed the Aztec empire, explained his political adventurism by stating that «we Spaniards suffer from an affliction of the soul which can only be cured by gold» (quoted in Stavrianos, 1981, p. 53). Agricultural societies built around a complex network of traditional obligations and restraints are especially likely to see the lust for money as a profoundly dangerous and unsettling force. In the eyes of medieval European theology, for example, the sin of avarice presented a grave threat to the soul. This threat was all the more dangerous because, unlike carnal lust or gluttony, the appetite for wealth has no natural biological constraints (Lamb, 1992 [this issue]).

The capitalist cultures that have monetarized virtually every aspect of social life might well be expected to display a completely opposite attitude about money, but in fact they continue to show a great deal of ambivalence on the subject. On one hand, money has become the measure of all things and a nearly universally desired good. The theorists of capitalism even justified the traditional sin of avarice by arguing that private greed actually works to the public good by motivating economic endeavor. Adam Smith, who comes as close as anyone to being the prophet of modem capitalism, held that compared to war, politics, religion, and the other major occupations of man, the making of money was the least socially damaging (Galbraith, 1975, p. 3). Yet despite all this, money is still seen as a kind of dark force that lies at the root of a pervasive social malaise. The biblical warnings about the virtual impossibility of a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven or the love of money being the root of all evil still find a receptive audience in the capitalist world. The stories of modem-day criminals, from drug dealers to double-dealing savings and loan executives, are repeatedly told as a warning against the seductive lure of money, and populist politicians still warn of the corruption that money breeds in the political system. Such attitudes are even reflected by the Freudian psychologists who tell us that money is psychologically associated with retrained feces and that those obsessed with monetary gain arc likely to evince the symptoms of an anal-retentive neurosis (Doyle, 1992 [this issue]).

There is not much doubt that most people in the industrialized societies would agree that money plays a major role in the crime problem, even if they are not very clear about exactly what that role is. Criminologists are less inclined than the general public to see «crime» as one discrete entity. Most would, nonetheless, agree that the desire for financial gain is the principle motivation for rational, calculating crimes such as robbery, theft, or fraud. However, they generally assign a far smaller role to financial considerations in the crimes of passion, such as murder or assault. But as we will see, even this conception is far too simplistic. A real understanding of the relationship between crime and money must start with a more carefully considered notion of the forces that cause crime, and it is to this issue that we now turn.


A look through any criminology textbook will reveal so many different theories about the causes of crime that one might easily surmise that few solid conclusions have yet to be reached. Fortunately, this embarrassment of riches is more apparent than real. Despite the claims of some of their proponents, most of these theories are more complementary than contradictory. For the purposes of this article at least, the causal factors posited by these theories can be subsumed under two general categories, both of which must be simultaneously present for a crime to occur. First, one or more individuals must have the opportunity to commit a particular crime. Second, they must have the motivation for those acts. The concept of opportunity is a fairly straightforward one. In a particular social situation, certain kinds of behaviors are possible for a particular individual and others are not, and all of those options of which the individual is aware can be considered his or her opportunities (Coleman, 1989).

The concept of motivation is a more difficult one. Probably because of its sociological roots, contemporary criminology relies most heavily on the interactionist paradigm when it attempts to examine criminal motivation. Unlike most other approaches, classic interactionism sees motivation as a symbolic construct. We follow one possible course of action and not another because of the way we define the world and our place in it. If we define a particular criminal opportunity in a positive way, we are likely to pursue it, and more generally, if we define ourselves as criminals, we are more likely to seek out situations in which criminal opportunities are available. Although space does not permit an exposition of the diverse origins of these symbolic definitions, their principal sources include early socialization, social groups and contacts, and creative individual activity (Cressey, 1969; Foote, 1951; Mead, 1934; Shibutani, 1961).

This approach to motivation has much to recommend it. Our daily experience shows us that our ideas about the various opportunities that we confront have a great deal to do with the way we ultimately behave. This symbolic approach lo motivation can be applied in virtually any situation, it clearly links individual motivation to wider social and cultural forces, and it is far more easily used than theories that posit some inchoate subconscious origins for motivation. It is, nonetheless, hard to avoid seeing this approach as too bloodless and rationalistic to encompass the full range of human motivation.

To flesh out this approach, we must bring our emotions back in (see Kemper, 1987). Some would achieve this end by positing a rigid distinction between the rational-intellectual side of our nature and its emotional-instinctual dimension and then exploring the critical points where the domination of one mode succumbs to the domination of the other—for example, when the emotions «overpower» the intellect. However, this kind of dualistic understanding does a poor job of accounting for most of our daily behavior. Ideas and emotions are not independent phenomena but intimately interrelated aspects of the human psyche. Ideas and symbols take on varying degrees of emotional charge, so that the invocation of those symbols invokes a particular emotional response; conversely, different emotions tend to call up certain kinds of ideational patterns. Symbolic and emotive processes work together: one providing the energy and the other guidance for individual behavior. Thus even someone who is «swept away» by emotion and is behaving in a highly irrational manner is still guided by his or her symbols and definitions. It is just that the emotions aroused by some particular ideas or events have become so strong that they dominate the individual’s thought processes and crowd out consideration of the long-term consequences of his or her behavior.

Although the issue is seldom discussed by interactionists, decades of research by psychoanalysts and psychologists makes it clear that, however difficult it is, our understanding of motivation must also include the ideas and feelings that arc not easily accessible to the conscious mind. Some ideas may simply be too vague or confused to come to conscious attention, but others are suppressed because they threaten our construction of reality or are charged and strong aversive emotions. Whatever their origins, such subconscious motivational forces play an important part in determining our behavior. But it should be made clear that this fact does not diminish the importance that interactionism has traditionally given to the symbolic definitions and meanings learned in our interactions with others. The dynamics of these emotionally charged symbols and ideas are certainly different at the subconscious than the conscious level (subconscious thought being more «magical» and conscious thought more linear and rational), but socially learned symbols still kc at the heart of both processes. Therefore, motivation can best be conceptualized as a network of symbols and definitions that are charged with varying amounts and kinds of emotional investment and about which individuals have varying degrees of conscious awareness.


If crime, as we have argued, results from the confluence of a compatible motivation and opportunity, then money clearly plays a major role in both sides of the equation, but most especially as a motivator of behavior. Lane’s (1954) research on the causes of white-collar crime, for example, revealed an overwhelming belief that the desire for money is the most fundamental motivation for this type of crime: «Most businessmen and most responsible government officers, at least from the sample interviewed, believe that businessmen run afoul of the law for economic reasons—they want lo `make a fast buck'» (p. 90). And there is little doubt that the same desire for a «fast buck» is equally as important in more mundane thefts, robberies, and burglaries.

It can, nonetheless, be argued that the criminals’ reel goal is not money at all but the things that money enables them to buy; money itself is therefore merely a symbol that is of little intrinsic importance. However, this line of reasoning overlooks the fundamental difference between money and virtually all other objects of desire—its extreme impersonality and objective calculability. As Weber (1946) put it, money is «the most abstract and `impersonal’ element that exists in human life» (p. 331). By assigning a specific numerical value to everything from a heart transplant to a cup of tea, money creates a universal standard of value based on impersonal economic judgments. In the world of money, everything not only has its price but its value is nothing other than its price. According to another of the great German sociologists, money transforms the world into an «arithmetic problem» (Simmer, 1978, p. 412).

Thus money is certainly a means to other ends, but it also reflects and promotes an impersonal, calculating worldview remote from the realm of personal obligation and responsibility. This distant calculating attitude is a powerful force in neutralizing the ethical restraints that often serve to inhibit criminal behavior. If economic exchange is a competitive sport whose object is to accumulate the most monetary points, crime is just another strategy of the game to be pursued if the benefits outweigh the risks. In contrast, the exchange of items seen as having a unique personal significance promotes a broader sense of the consequences of our actions and a greater feeling of responsibility toward the others involved in it. We feel a far stronger revulsion toward the criminal who steals the gold from his victim’s teeth then from her purse because the former is personal—part of the victim—whereas the latter is «just money.»

There is, moreover, another serious new with the notion that money is nothing more than a means to acquire luxuries, services, and material goods. Take, for example, the case of Michael Milken, the so-called junk bond king. Milken built a huge empire selling high-risk, high-interestbonds in the 1980s. At the peak of his power, he was reported lo have had a personal income of over half a billion dollars in a single year. To make such staggering sums, Milken not only worked virtually around the clock but committed a number of felonies as well. (In April 1990, Milken pleaded guilty to six felony counts and at the time of this writing is in the federal penitentiary [see Paltrow, 1990].) Yet during much of this period, he lived inLos Angeles’ unfashionableSan Fernando Valleyand drove an aging Oldsmobile (Bruck, 1988). Why risk your future by breaking the law in a shady business deal when you already have more money than you can possibly spend? Although a complete answer to such a question would have to be as complex as human motivation itself, it is obvious that money often takes on enormous importance that goes far beyond its mere exchange value.

Anthropological research has shown us that money plays a major role in the ritual systems of many cultures (see Crump, 1992 [this issue]), and closer to home, psychologists have found a thick layer of the meaning associated with money that has little to do with its value as a medium of economic exchange. Doyle (1992 [this issue]) points out that at a psychological level, money is often seen as a kind of talisman or magical charm to help ward off an individual’s deepest fears. To the hard-driving achiever, money wards off the fear of being found incompetent, and for the more socially oriented, it is a talisman against the-fear of losing affection or self-esteem, whereas the analytical personality uses money to sooth the fear of losing control.

Although such psychological differences have deep roots in an individual’s unique personal history, our society as a whole defines money as more than simply a symbol of wealth. Monetary wealth is also seen as the proof that one has been victorious in the competitive struggles that lie at the heart of what I have elsewhere termed the «culture of competition» (Coleman, 1987). Rooted in the economics of capitalist exchange, this culture of competition defines the social world as an association of autonomous individual actors, each pursuing one’s own economic self-interest and each struggling to best the other. As Wuthnow (1976) put it in describing the origins of this culture: «Becoming successful was more than simply one path a person could choose. It was in a very real sense a badge of one’s intrinsic worth» (p. 105). Although there are different standards to measure success, nothing else can match the objectivity and universality of money. The world may not understand the status order of your profession or appreciate the skill with which you dispatched your competitors, but everyone knows what it means to be rich. The precise calculability that is the essence of money also promotes comparisons that almost inevitably lead to frustration and discontent. For example, one of the most common reasons that employees give for stealing from their employer is that they arc being paid less than they actually deserve and they are doing nothing more than simply bringing their wages up to the level of those doing comparable work (Mars, 1974; Zeitlin, 1971).

Because the provision of an objective, calculable standard of evaluation, whether of economic exchange or position in a status hierarchy, is such a basic function of money, many criminologists have come to view it almost entirely in rationalistic terms. As a result, they see money as a prime motivation only in the calculated and dispassionate crimes. However, as we have seen, money also tends to take on a powerful emotional charge that can, in turn, trigger the more irrational crimes as well. It is obvious to anyone who has watched the reactions of the grand prize winners on a TV game show or seen someone who has just found out they have a winning lottery ticket that there is something more in their response than just the calculation of the exchange value of their winnings. More relevant to criminal behavior than those displays of exaltation arc the anger and desperation engendered by the loss of a sum of money that someone feels is rightfully theirs. Ironically, this kind of emotional investment transforms the ultimate instrument of rationality into a source of uncontrolled impulsive behavior. Studies of family life, for example, have long noted that money is the most common subject of marital disputes, and it has certainly been a factor in countless murders and assaults.

But while the passions that money elicits often play a role in such crimes, it is a far less unique one than in the calculated crimes. There seems little doubt that the monetary orientation of our society contributes to a weakening of the bonds of personal responsibility that help discourage many property crimes. However, there is far more justification for claiming that money is only one of many objects of emotional investment and that the emotional explosions it sometimes engenders could in many cases just as well be caused by something else.


At first glance, money may appear to have much less influence on the opportunities for criminal behavior than it does on its motivation. But closer examination reveals many significant ways that monetary considerations help structure an individual’s menu of opportunities—both legitimate and illegitimate. In some cases, it is clear that the monetarization of our economy helps make the criminal opportunities far more attractive. But before exploring this point further, one definitional issue must be resolved. In everyday speech, an opportunity generally refers to something an individual wants to do. One speaks of the opportunity for a new business venture, not the opportunity for heart surgery. At least for the purposes of this article, an opportunity simply refers to a possible course of action. Virtually all accountants have the opportunity to embezzle, even if some of them might have a very slim chance of getting away with it. Thus the attractiveness of an opportunity is a separate issue from its existence. This being so, the problem of the relationship between money and criminal opportunity resolves into two related questions: How does the prevalence of the monetary economy affect the distribution of criminal opportunities, and how does it influence their attractiveness?

Concerning the former question, it is obvious that a heavily monetarized economy contains far more economic opportunities of all sorts. Indeed, money is so fundamental to the operation of the contemporary economy and the opportunity structure it creates that it is virtually impossible to find some kind of comparable nonmonetary economy that would allow us to evaluate the relative strength of the two systems’ criminogenic forces. For example, foraging societies without monetary exchange also lack governments and laws and therefore have no crime (i.e., no violations of the law). But unfortunately that fact does not shed much light on the role of money in contemporary criminality.

What does seem clear is that by contributing to the great profusion of economic opportunities of all sorts, the monetary economy creates a host of new criminal opportunities as well. Without money, the horizons of white-collar crime, for example, would certainly be enormously restricted—no bank embezzlement, no financial frauds, and so on. Indeed, without money, there might well be no white-collar class to commit those crimes. However, countless legitimate opportunities would vanish along with the illicit ones. So, the overall impact that the opportunities created by the monetarization of the economic economy have on criminal behavior is still hard to judge.

The critical question may therefore concern how monetarization affects the relative attractiveness rather than the availability of criminal and noncriminal opportunities. The opportunities created by money are not much of a factor in most murders and rapes, but money does significantly increase the attractiveness of many types of property crimes. It is not so much that money increases the relative rewards of criminal opportunities (the monetary economy may well increase the total rewards of criminal activity, but it could be expected to increase the rewards of legitimate opportunities as well). Rather, the use of money reduces the risks of punishment, and once again, this is principally because of its impersonality. Because one dollar or one yen is interchangeable with any other and can be concealed and transported with relative ease, the criminal who steals money has a far better chance of avoiding legal sanction than the thief who takes such things as fine art or jewelry. The impersonal interchangeability of money has much the same effect on the informal networks of social control that have always been society’s first line of defense against criminal behavior. The teenagers in a small midwestern town who don’t want their friends to know about their criminal activities can hardly drive the car they stole from the local grocer back and forth to school, but they can easily spend the money they took from his wallet.


Although we have examined several ways by which the use of money encourages particular types of criminal behavior, this conclusion may not appear to have many practical consequences. We are obviously not going to reduce the role of the monetary economy in our social system in order to bring down the crime rate. But whereas the importance of money in our economy and our society is extremely unlikely to change, money itself is undergoing a remarkable physical transformation. Originally, such things as shells or stones were used as money. They were replaced by the use of precious metals that were eventually coined into uniform denominations, and then coins themselves were largely supplanted by paper script. In all these forms of money, individual units are interchangeable and each possesses a high degree of anonymity. Except for the very largest dominations, it is virtually impossible to trace the history of a particular piece of money and almost as difficult to prove how a particular individual came to acquire it.

However, the latest monetary revolution might well change all that. As paper money and coins are being replaced by checks, credit cards, and electronic fund transfers, the circulation of money is becoming far less anonymous. The ever expanding capacity of computer technology to record and retrieve such transactions is creating an increasingly detailed record of our monetary activities. Up to this time, these changes have not had an enormous impact on the attractiveness of criminal opportunity. There is still more than enough cash in circulation to meet the needs of criminal business, and elaborate «money laundering» schemes have been created to cover the trail of large-scale illegal transactions. But as electronic money increasingly replaces its physical predecessor, that may not always be the case. A truly «cashless» society might make it far harder for tomorrow’s criminals to conceal their illicit profits.

This prospect recently prompted one official of the Drug Enforcement Administration to propose the elimination of all bills with denominations larger than $20 so that drug dealers would be forced to enter the more visible world of electronic finance. Amsel (1976) went a step farther, holding that «it is necessary to abolish money» (p. 182), by which he meant the elimination of all cash. Given the past history of human ingenuity in constructing criminal schemes, no one can say if such a move would really reduce the crime problem, but it is a distinct possibility. This fact does not, however, necessarily lead to the conclusion that we should strive to create a network for the storage, retrieval, and analysis of financial information that would be capable of detecting questionable transactions. Such a system would promote an unprecedented centralization of power and might well lead to even greater abuses than the ones it was designed to prevent. As money loses its anonymity, some loss of personal privacy is probably inevitable. But there is a real danger that these technological developments will make privacy into a commodity available only to those with the power to protect it. In deciding the future of our monetary system, it is therefore essential that members of elite groups and organizations not be allowed to shield their activities from the same kind of public scrutiny to which average men and women are subjected. Otherwise, this monetary revolution will merely help trade a reduction in «street crime» for an increase in white-collar crime. But aside from its direct impact on crime, the relentless improvements in information gathering and communication technology in the context of a new cashless society might well make modern industrial nations into the «house of glass» long dreamed of by totalitarian rulers and religious zealots. Changes in the criminal law are therefore crucial to make the unauthorized transmission of confidential personal information a serious offense. But even with such legal safeguards, the continued use of cash exchange is still essential. Despite all the ways that an anonymous and interchangeable currency can facilitate criminal behavior, it remains essential to individual freedom and privacy in a mass society.


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