In response to my post about some of economist Gary Becker’s views on crime, “russ” leaves a comment with a couple of interesting points:
I would think the failure of the war on drugs is the evidence AGAINST Becker’s idea that increased punishment reduces crime.
Just because criminalizing drugs hasn’t made them go away completely doesn’t mean that criminalization has no effect at all. After all, we’ve seen what happens when criminalization is undone: Certainly more alcohol was sold after prohibition was repealed than while it was in force, and the home-brewed beer industry exploded after that was legalized. I assume that criminalization is suppressing a lot of drug sales and consumption that would be occurring if drugs were legalized.
Becker is just saying that if you punish people for engaging in certain behaviors, people will be less likely to engage in that behavior. It’s just another variation of the general economic assumption that people will respond to incentives. Since Becker started studying the problem, economists have generally discovered that criminals are making the same kinds of risk/reward decisions as everybody else does. In other words, the movie Trading Places has a lot of truth to it: If you took a bunch of Wall Street bond traders and stuck them in the same circumstances as poor, uneducated inner-city minority youths, they would make many of the same life choices, and some of them would choose the high-risk/high-reward life of a crime. If you changes people’s incentives, you change their behavior. It happens all the time.
Of course, maybe the problem is that only those with a vested interest in prosecution consider the drug trade a crime. After all, non-fraudulent transaction between willing buyers and willing sellers are not really crimes.
I’m right with you there, although it’s more than just police and prosecutors and prison guards lining their pockets. There’s some genuine social disapproval of a lot of consensual crimes. People are busybodies, and they assume that anything that they don’t like is probably not important.
The death penalty was supposed to deter crime but there is no evidence that it has. Perhaps Becker’s theory that crime is subject to a cost-benefit analysis only applies to theft/fraud crimes.
I’ve heard mixed reports about the effectiveness of the death penalty. Some studies find a deterrent effect, and others do not. I’ve heard that in those studies that have found an effect, much of it goes away if you drop Texas from the data set. On the one hand, that doesn’t prove the study is wrong — of course the results of a study will change if you cherry pick the data — but it’s interesting that it all depends on the state with the most executions. Perhaps the deterrent effect doesn’t show up unless you execute a lot of criminals.
More generally, I believe studies have shown that deterrence effect is not as sensitive to the severity of the punishment as it is to the immediacy and certainty of the punishment. This would be consistent with the idea that the criminal personality includes a high tolerance for risk and that criminals discount the future heavily. So if we want to fight crime, it’s more important to make the punishment swift and sure than it is to make it harsh.