The Economist, the Rabbis, and Crime

By Knepper, Paul | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Economist, the Rabbis, and Crime


Knepper, Paul, Journal of Markets & Morality


Gary S. Becker, the Nobel economist known for extending microeconomic analysis to nonmarket behavior, has offered an influential theory of crime. His "economic approach" to crime enlarged the concept of a person within the rational choice model but leads him, regrettably, to overestimate what can be accomplished with police and prisons. The concept of a person within Judaism offers a better basis for understanding crime and for fashioning a meaningful response. All persons possess a dual nature with inclinations for good and evil, because they understand that individuals possess neshamah, the breath of God, they rely on the system of restitution provided under Jewish law. Economists are needed in criminology to explore the economic context of restitution.

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John J. DiIulio Jr., has invited economists to help criminologists solve public policy dilemmas concerning crime. DiIulio, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Jerry Lee Institute of Criminology, has posted a sign reading: HELP WANTED. He appreciates Gary S. Becker's "economic approach." Becker received the 1992 Nobel prize in economic science for extending microeconomic analysis to nonmarket behavior, including crime. DiIulio praises Becker's work for bringing scientific rigor to the problem of crime. Yet, criminologists need to go "beyond Becker," DiIulio insists, because the criminals in Becker's models resemble middle-aged economics professors more than the actual predators who prowl real city streets. (1)

Becker became the first economist to study crime, and his work has inspired further economic analyses. (2) Becker explains criminal conduct within the framework of microeconomics, that is, with models of individual choice expressed in linear equations. He wants to make scientific claims about criminal conduct, yet his starting point is decidedly metaphysical. His analysis assumes "individuals who maximize welfare as they perceive it." (3) A theory acquires a scientific character, not because of its use of mathematics but because it expresses ideas in terms that can be falsified. Becker's starting point does not express a scientific statement because it cannot be tested empirically. (4) Assessing Becker's work does not require a search for refuting empirical evidence but a straightforward look at his concept of a person.

The purpose of this essay is to contrast Becker's concept of a person with that of Rabbinic Judaism. Becker has tried to enlarge the economic person with an extended discussion of maximizing values and preferences, and social constraints. His effort leads him to overestimate what can be accomplished with public policy and a commitment to current criminal policy. The concept of a person within Judaism yields a better basis for understanding crime and for fashioning meaningful public policy concerning crime. The strategy is to review traditional concepts of a person discussed by the rabbis with particular emphasis on scriptural text. (5) English, it is said, is the language of international commerce. Mathematics, economists say, is the language of economic theory. The language of crime and justice, the rabbis say, is Hebrew. (6)

The Economist

For more than two centuries, Becker maintains, the mistaken view of crime as a moral issue has hindered scientific understanding of the subject. In his Journal of Political Economy article of 1968, "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," he rebuked economists for failing to see that crime should be understood as an aspect of economic life. (7) His approach to crime references three aspects of the rationality of human conduct: maximizing calculation, values and preferences, and social constraints.

Becker's view of human beings, like that of John Stuart Mill, assumes that people are always trying to maximize their general happiness. People try to anticipate the consequences of their actions and take these expectations into account in deciding how to act. …

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