Chris Blattman

Robert Heinlein would have made an interesting economist

In 1955, the great science fiction writer sent a colleague a letter full of story ideas. The first:

a society where there are no criminal offences, just civil offences, i.e., there is a price on everything, you can look it up in the catalog and pay the price. You want to shoot your neighbor? Go ahead and shoot the bastard. He has a definite economic rating; deposit the money with the local clearing house within 24 hrs.; they will pay the widow.

Morality would consist in not trying to get away with anything without paying for it. Good manners would consist in so behaving that no one would be willing to pay your listed price to kill you. Of course if your valuation is low and your manners are crude, your survival probabilities are low, too.

Down in Paraguay murder is a private matter, the government figuring that either his friends and relatives will avenge the deceased, or he was a nogoodnick and who cares? There is another culture in which if a man kills another man, accidentally or on purpose, he must replace the other man, even to taking his wife and his name. Obviously our own pattern is not the only way of looking at crime; maybe we are prejudiced.

Why criminal codes evolve becomes an interesting thought experiment. This civil-offences-only world is not inconsistent with the way crime works in some stateless societies.

I think you could make a good Oliver Williamson-like transactions cost argument, but it would not feel complete. Perhaps you need economic inequality violating fairness norms (rich people shouldn’t be allowed to kill more) but you have to explain where the norms come from. Deep deep down?

Or maybe you just need jealous states who find a monopoly of violence in their interests.

20 Responses

  1. In the current system poor people offend more because they suffer less from jail since their opportunity cost of time is lower. With the Heinlein system, rich people become the most likely to offend since the desutility of losing money must be lower for them. One would say things such as “I live in neighborhood full of rich people, it’s scary…”

  2. didn’t Tilly pretty much cover that:
    (also – greatest article title ever).

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