Saturday, February 11, 2006

Let the eye fit the tooth

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; let the punishment fit the crime; let the cliché fit the occasion! Questions of crime and punishment, and law and order, are always hot topics: presently within the rubric of the Muslim response to the (infamous) Danish/Mohammad cartoons. Rather than rake these hot coals, I want to consider a more general point of view.

In addition to commentary about the Muslim Mayhem, two (synchronistic) low-key media events raised questions of offence/punishment at the more general level this past week. First, Phillip Adams spoke with philosopher Ted Honderich about the morality of punishment (Ted's homepage is here). Next, the Australian ran the headline: Doubling jail time would cut burglary ; which was mostly a re-hash of a NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics press release.

Ted was spruiking the re-release of his 1969 book, Punishment. He believes that punishment can only be justified by its effects; though because he doesn’t believe in the utilitarian theory of justice – he wheeled out the familiar Holocaust critique: would it have been OK if it maximized utility? – he doesn’t much believe in punishment. He views property relations as a political construct, and therefore doubts the argument for their enforcement.

The criminologists found that the doubling the incarceration rate for convicted burglars would reduce the direct loss associated with burglary by about $156m, or that doubling the sentence length for the current proportion of convicted burglars would cut the cost by $104m per annum. Annual cost of the present prison population is $78m per annum, resulting in an annual net benefit of (approximately) $78m from locking more of them up, and $26m from getting tougher on the worst ones. These are static estimates, and my guess is that the benefit would be greater still, as some criminals would probably be put off by a doubling of the probability of punishment, or the severity of punishment.

So I guess we should both goal more of them, and goal them for longer: it seems like a pretty good deal – if you’re not a communist philosopher who’s squeamish about imposing your politically derived system of property relations on the criminals.

Before going on, I should declare a prejudice: I find it difficult to come to terms with a man whose thinking leads to conclusions such as: ‘ I think it gives the Palestinians a moral right to their terrorism ’. Notwithstanding this, he’s very clever, and his comments demand attention, as they are the product of rational inquiry. A way into the limits of his brand of moral philosophy is suggested by the bottom line of his controversial 2002 tome After the Terror: he concludes that ‘We [the west] can be held partly responsible for the 3,000 deaths at the twin towers and at the Pentagon’. Why? I hear you ask: because are complicit in the impoverishment of the third world via the American-backed globalization policies on the part of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.

My punt is that Prof Honderich doesn’t get economics.

It’s not capitalism’s fault they’re poor: except in so far as the cold war is concerned. And while we may bear some responsibility for electing Government’s that supported corrupt middle eastern oppressors (but hey, we won the cold war, and prevented a nuclear holocaust!), it’s not capitalism’s fault – so the twin towers were not a morally acceptable target.

Similarly, he doesn’t appreciate that the wealth we enjoy is the product of our system of economic relations. Refusing to punish property crime would erode property rights, and reduce wealth in both capitalist and developing countries … thereby creating more terrorists? It’s strange that Prof H, who seems to think that unpunished property theft – by corrupt mid-east governments – went a long way toward getting us in this mess in the first place, would support a policy that essentially amounts to more of the same.

Well functioning, wealth creating, capitalism requires clearly defined and enforced property rights. To the extent that poverty and corruption explains Islamofascism, it's more punishment of property crime that we need.


Matt Canavan said...

Don't know much about this Ted fella, but for a guy who doesn't believe in punishment, he seems awfully sanguine about the medieval way the terrorists 'punished' the capitalists.

Ty Webbs said...

So law is to be strictly enforced when it suits your point of view, but when it doesn't you encourage corruption?

Matt Johnson said...

No. Why would you say that?

Tom N. said...

My guess is that those 'loss associated with burglary' estimates are mainly transfers from victims to thieves; not true economic costs. If so, that changes the equation a bit.

PS: hi!

Matt Johnson said...

Good point. I was troubled by the merry-go-round of transfers on this very question. The estimates are drawn from insurer estimates of claims. So the robber gets the gear, the loss is (partially) compensated by the insurance company, premiums etc alter to the extent that crime exceeds or falls short of ex ante expected costs.

The only 'true' (monetary) economic cost is the administration required to process the forms etc so long as ex post crime is equal to ex ante expected crime. Welfare losses etc are harder to quantify.

It is this sort of thing that philosophers - such as TH - point out when they question the validity of punishing property crime. The most powerful economic argument is from dynamics, and comparison with lawless nations, such as the many poor nations of Africa. But these suffer from a lack of empirics.

This question does raise a point about what it means for the punishment to fit the crime. For example, if i steal $10 from you, and the punishment is to return the $10, than it fits the crime in a sense, and the welfare loss is analogous - in that it is the cost of the circle of transfers that is the only net loss.

Now, if this was the full punishment, there would always be an incentive to steal, so long as the chance of getting caught was low enough to compensate for the loss associated with getting caught on the tooth of the law. In extremis, where there are no 'processs costs', it is profitable to steal (on average) so long as the chance of getting caught is less then 100%.

So there may be a case for setting ill gotten gains outside the general welfare analysis, if we might like to approximate the dynamic 'lawlessness' argument. I think that this has been a common practice in the calculus of law and order.

PS Hi! Hi! :)

Matt Canavan said...

I'd add that there are other welfare costs including the increased cost of protecting our property. In a world without theives we could spend less on locks, alarm systems, etc. This is related to the ideas behind social capital: if we all trusted each other then transaction costs would be lower and welfare higher.

Also, I don't agree that stealing is largely a transfer. It all depends on the relative valuations of the stolen goods. For example, I may value great-grandmother's wedding ring at $2000, even though it's market value may only be $1000. Now if the thief steals and sells it there has been a welfare loss of $1000. Note that if instead of stealing the thief negotiated to purchase it from me, there would be no chance of a similar welfare loss since I would not accept less than $2000.

Further, I'd argue that most stealing involves such welfare losses, since if the thief valued the product at the same amount or greater than me, why wouldn't he just buy it from me?

Matt Johnson said...

If you are right, Matt, then the insurance company estimates are a lower bound of loss in terms of welfare - as they pay only fair/market value in most cases.

They are lower bounds for other reasons, also, as there are non-trivial costs. Ask anyone who lives next door to someone who has been robbed.