15. Crimes of the Powerful

15.1 Crimes of the Powerful are White-Collar Crimes

Michael Brandt, MA

The idea that heads of corporations, the military, or leaders of countries (or those that work closely with them) can actually be criminals (and in some cases, killers) may seem outrageous. I recall discussing former U.S. president George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 with an acquaintance. Declared illegal by then U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Bush’s decision resulted in widespread injury and death (MacAskill & Borger, 2004). I suggested the large number of deaths in the context of an illegal invasion made the U.S. president a serial killer just like Robert Pickton. Someone nearby overheard our conversation and became outraged. They could not believe I was “making a moral equivalence” between the actions of a U.S. president and a serial killer. I actually said what the president of the United States did was arguably morally worse than what Pickton did, based on the number of people killed: Bush’s invasion, it is estimated, resulted in the deaths of 288,000 people, mostly civilians (Iraq Body Count, n.d). The death toll attributed to Pickton: 49 (CBC/Radio Canada, 2007). Government actions, not the actions of individuals acting alone, are responsible, by far, for most injury and death on the planet. Indeed, wars resulted in over 350 million deaths in the 20th century alone (Friedrichs, 2007). The actions of corporations in their pursuit of profit have led to injuries and death that far exceed those associated with the “crime problem” as commonly understood. And the actions of senior members of the military have resulted in widespread fraud and the inability to account for trillions of dollars in spending (Michigan State University, 2017). Despite often being ignored, there is overwhelming evidence that:

[b]y every possible measure—money wasted, property destroyed, lives ruined, people killed—the affluent are more dangerous than the poor. Authorities wreak more havoc than their subjects. The “average” Canadian is more likely to suffer at the hands of government, elected and appointed officials, business organizations, [or] professionals […] than from all the street thugs, youth gangs, home invaders, illegal (im)migrants, pot growers and squeegee kids that our society can produce. (Menzies, Chunn, & Boyd, 2001, p. 13)

Criminologists use a variety of terms to describe such “crimes of the powerful,” each referring to a subset of harmful conduct. The most widely known term, white-collar crime, was originally defined by American criminologist Edwin Sutherland as, “a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation” (Sutherland, 1983, p. 7, emphasis added). The important feature of white-collar crime is that the individual is able to use their occupational position and socio-economic status to commit their offence and avoid detection. Sutherland (1983) focused on the most senior occupational positions — business managers and executives — as they possess the power to cause the most harm. Sutherland (1983) excluded powerful people’s crimes that are not connected to their occupational role. Thus, a corporate executive convicted of killing his spouse would be guilty of murder, a crime, but not a white-collar crime. He included within his definition of white-collar crime regulatory offences as well as civil offences, as he saw no reason to segregate harms that can cause as much (or even more) harm from those acts officially designated as crimes. Including these noncriminal offences has caused some to replace the term white-collar crime with the concept of white-collar deviance (Thio et al., 2013, p. 365). This chapter focusses on several types of harmful behaviour including the traditional forms of white-collar crime, occupational crime and corporate crime — as well as other forms of white-collar crime, including financial crime, political crime, and the form of crime responsible for most human suffering, injury, and death: state-organised crime.



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Michael Brandt, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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