Crime and Punishment

August 3, 2010

My sister’s car (not the same sister whose dog we are looking after!) was stolen out of our driveway last night, which puts me in mind of nothing so much as the economics (or perhaps sociology) of crime and punishment.

I say sociology because I’m not really thinking of Becker’s “rational crime” model, though of course I do think that criminals respond to incentives. So here’s the deal: this morning, my dad got up early to play a round of golf. We had borrowed my sister’s car the night before for this purpose, but when he went outside, the car was gone.

In the yard, we found two bicycles, apparently left behind by the people who took the car, trading their four (combined) wheels for four other wheels. The fact that they left the bikes suggests that these were not professional car thieves. So we’re thinking some kind of joyride situation.

Now, there is exactly one person in our small neighborhood who has previously been in trouble with the law. We live on a cul-de-sac, so there is very little opportunity for random passers-by on bicycle to commit this kind of opportunistic crime. There just aren’t that many people riding through on bicycles between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am.

So I personally think it about 80% probable that this person stole the car. But it occurs to me that we can’t possibly prove this by any standard that you would reasonably want in a state-run legal system. Which is why I said to my dad, “If this were the South, we’d just get a posse together, go to his house, and beat him up.”

Obviously, the trade-off is certainty of punishment against error rate. As my dad pointed out, we don’t actually know that this person is responsible. Which is true. But we do know that he is a troublemaker, and that we don’t want him in our neighborhood. In effect, what we’re saying is “every time a crime is committed in this neighborhood, you will be punished as if you had committed it.” Under such a regime, the singled-out individual has a strong incentive to leave the community.

It’s not a perfect or even a very good system. For starters, what if there is more than one suspicious person in the community? Such a system is also unacceptably vulnerable to problems of racism and xenophobia.

The level of precaution in my neighborhood is very, very low. The thieves were able to take the car because it was unlocked and (apparently) my sister kept a valet key(!) in the center console. So precaution is another margin for trade-off here, and probably one that is a necessary complement to formal law enforcement.

Anyway, we’re still looking for the car. But those are my thoughts on communities and security.

Oh, and here’s what Harold Demsetz had to say about auto theft in “The Exchange and Enforcement of Property Rights”:

Given any definition of the rights that accompany ownership in an automobile, the price mechanism will ration the existing stock of automobiles. But the total private value of this stock will depend on the degree to which auto theft is reduced by our laws and police. If we pass a law prohibiting the arrest and prosecution of auto thieves, and also prohibiting the use of private protection devices, the bids that persons subsequently offer for the purchase of automobiles will fall below the social value of automobiles. The lower bids will result from the reduction in control that a purchaser can expect to exercise over the use of a purchased auto and, in addition, from his ability to “borrow” at no charge those autos which are purchased by others. The bids submitted after the passage of such a law will underestimate the social value of autos, for we can assume for our purposes that the usefulness of an auto remains the same whether it is used by the purchaser or by the legal thief.

In other words, the value of a product is determined by what you purchasers can expect to do with it.


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