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The Liberty Fund web site – and David Friedman on the economics of mugging

Unlike most of the psychotic telephone bullies who hang yelling and screaming from the tits of our current British Government, my friend Tim really is a Spin Doctor. He spends his day using media messages actually to change (without being in any way a member of it) British government policy, health policy being his stamping ground. And the other sign that he’s a real Spin Doctor is that if I told you the rest of his name you probably wouldn’t have heard of it. Anyway, he emailed me today to tell me that Liberty Fund have launched a superb web site for libertarians/classical liberals. Check it out, he said. I did. It looks good.

I checked out in particular a piece by one of my favourite libertarian gurus, David Friedman, on the economics of crime. Here’s how it starts. It sounds familiar doesn’t it? But he didn’t get it from us any more than (until now) we got it from him. This particular truth is simply out there to be got, by anyone.

Economists approach the analysis of crime with one simple assumption—that criminals are rational people. A mugger is a mugger for the same reason I am an economist—because it is the most attractive alternative available to me. The decision to commit a crime, like any other economic decision, can be analyzed as a choice among alternative combinations of costs and benefits.

Consider, as a simple example, a point that sometimes comes up in discussions of gun control. Opponents of private ownership of handguns argue that in violent contests between criminals and victims, the criminals usually win. A professional criminal, after all, has far more reason to learn how to use a gun than a random potential victim.

The argument is probably true, but the conclusion—that permitting both criminals and victims to have guns will help the criminals—does not follow. To see why, imagine that the result of legal handgun ownership is that one little old lady in ten chooses to carry a pistol in her purse. Further suppose that, of those who do, only one in ten, if mugged, succeeds in killing the mugger—the other nine miss, or drop the gun, or shoot themselves in the foot.

On average, the muggers are winning. But also on average, each one hundred muggings of little old ladies produce one dead mugger. Very few little old ladies carry enough money to be worth one chance in a hundred of being killed. Economic theory suggests that the number of muggings will decrease—not because the muggers have all been killed, but because some of them have chosen to switch to safer professions.

If the idea that muggers are rational profit-maximizers seems implausible, consider who gets mugged. If a mugger’s objective is to express machismo, to prove what a he-man he is, there is very little point in mugging little old ladies. If the objective is to get money at as low a cost as possible, there is much to be said for picking the most defenseless victims you can find. In the real world little old ladies get mugged a lot more often than football players.

This is one example of a very general implication of the economic analysis of conflict. In order to stop someone from doing something that injures you, whether robbing your house or polluting your air, it is not necessary to make it impossible for him to do it—merely unprofitable.

As you can see, if you need a quick high quality ‘fix’ of dispassionate rationality, it is well worth checking out the Liberty Fund website.

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