Monday, 23 May 2016

Can You Think Of A Victimless, Rational, Morally Good Crime?

After reading the recent news bulletin about how in Italy it may now be legal in the eyes of the courts to steal food if you're poor and hungry, I was reminded of a debate I had a few years ago. On a cafe forum for debating I once posed the following question; Can anyone think of a victimless crime, where 'victimless crime' means a crime committed whereby in the general sense there is realistically no possibility of anyone other than the agent in question being a victim or coming to harm?

Just to be clear; you can’t say something like “I could make a call on my mobile phone whilst driving (which is illegal), and then hang up with no one harmed” – because although in the specific instance no one was harmed, in the general sense someone could easily be harmed (if you lost control and had a crash).

Despite lots of evidently faulty suggestions (see below), one that came close was “smoking weed on your own in your own house”. I felt compelled to add the caveat; if you are growing the drugs yourself, then fine, that's a candidate for a victimless crime. But if you are buying the drugs from a drug dealer, then there are costs (you are aiding someone else in committing a crime).

But even the growing of the drugs yourself and smoking them on your own still does not really qualify for there being "realistically no possibility of anyone other than the agent in question being a victim or coming to harm", because if the effects of weed smoking in excess are true, then eventually for some people there will be negative externalities - if, for example, you end up imposing an excessive burden on the health service, or addicted to harder drugs, or becoming dangerously paranoid and volatile. If any or all of those things happen then others will feel the effects of your drug-taking. Here are some of the other suggestions I got (with my comments included):

1) Downloading music or films from pirate internet sites

My Comment: No, the victims are the artists/companies that are losing money through loss of revenue. Of course, there's no guarantee that they always incur a loss, if, for example, sales increase due to dissemination of information - but some will.

2) Jaywalking

My Comment: No, this has every potential to cause harm to others. One car swerves to avoid the jaywalker, hits another, and *biff*.

3) Suicide

My Comment: What a bizarre choice, as this manifestly doesn’t qualify. Suicide destroys entire families left behind.

4) Speeding on an empty highway

My Comment: I think that's stretching it a bit, and I don't think I can allow it, because the crime is 'speeding', which won't generally qualify as "a crime committed whereby in the general sense there is *realistically no possibility* of anyone other than the agent in question being a victim or coming to harm". Moreover, I don't think we can grant omniscience to a driver and give him or her any kind of certainty that the highway is empty.

5) Bigamy

My Comment: Again, no, bigamy potentially imposes costs on one of the wives, and one other prospective husband.

6) Polygamy

My Comment: No, polygamy imposes costs on other men and other women. Some people asked the question; what if all people involved in bigamy or polygamy are aware of the costs and the arrangement is entirely mutual between all parties? Even then it is not enough because the cost is still incurred on those whose chances of finding a partner are minimised by the practice. Technically that is true of marriage as well - when John marries the girl you love he imposes a cost on you because your sweetheart is no longer free to marry you. But in marriage the social benefits outweigh the social costs, which is why we don't opt for a world full of unmarried people, which would then reverse the cost-benefit situation.

7) Walking nude in the street

My Comment: No, that's not an argument with much economic utility - a practice becomes prudent if the social benefits outweigh the social costs. Evidently, the costs of allowing public nudity far outweigh the benefits as it imposes costs on anyone that doesn't want to see nude people walking around the streets.

As you can see, it proved very difficult to find a suggestion for a crime committed whereby in the general sense there is realistically no possibility of anyone other than the agent in question being a victim or coming to harm. 

The only good one was, ironically, related to marriage. One contributor proposed the following; “A victimless crime is finding a way to gain the legal benefits of being married to a person of the same sex in a place where same sex marriages are illegal”. That's a good one; there I can see no reasonable grounds to call anyone else a victim. Cleary, as well, I think it is also ironic that the one valid suggestion put forward is one that most pressingly involves the need for a law change. This shows that laws are predominantly about protecting potential victims as well as potential felons.

(Note: If you have any other suggestions to proffer, you're quite welcome to email me)

Now we’ve considered that, I want to consider three corollary questions in terms of economic analysis; one, concerning a crime with an unaware victim; two, concerning whether there is such a thing as a rational crime; and three, whether there such a thing as a morally good crime. 

What about a crime situation whereby the victim has no awareness that a crime has taken place?
Suppose Frank sees that Jack has a wallet full of money. Feeling confident that Jack won't notice a missing £40, Frank steals it while Jack is asleep, spends £39 on junk food, and then bets the last £1 on a 40/1 winning horse, enabling him to surreptitiously return Jack's £40 before he wakes up. Being completely unaware of any crime, it could be argued that it's hard to call Jack a victim of crime. In fact, suppose that with the last £1 Frank bets on a 60/1 winning horse and returns all the money to Jack's wallet while he sleeps. Here we have a crime in which both Frank and Jack have benefitted (Frank with free food and Jack with an extra £20). Yet even then I wouldn't feel happy with the events that took place because theft is theft. That's a good example of a situation in which everyone benefits yet still there are things of which we disapprove.

Or suppose an admin clerk in a large Pension fund organisation with 1 million clients hacks into the computer system and takes one penny from each account, and then donates the £10,000 to charity - is that a victimless crime, or is it a crime with one million victims that did not notice they'd been the victims of an astronomically small theft? Technically I suppose the latter is true - and either way, it still doesn't make stealing right, even if the net gains surely exceeded the net costs.

Is there such a thing as rational crime? 
From an economic perspective, yes. A man who illegally parks on a single yellow line might find benefits of the crime over the year outweigh the annual costs. Suppose Bob works 250 days per year, and the only car-park within walking distance charges £4 per day - that's £1000 per year. If the road on which Bob parks illegally only generates a £30 parking fine every 4 weeks due to a feckless traffic warden, then it could be argued that Bob is committing a rational crime, as his total fine expenditure throughout the year amounts to £390 (13 x 4 weeks x £30) leaving him £610 ahead against the annual car-parking expenditure of £1000. That’s not to say that we should endorse a crime even if it is rational, but it is rational by any standard definition in economics (see Gary Becker’s Rational Choice Theory* for more on this).  

Is there such a thing as a morally good crime?
It depends on your perspective, but at an individual ‘singular’ level, quite possibly. If you, like many of us, place a higher premium on helping the people most in need in the world (people desperate for drinking water and food) over the people with not such urgent needs (like having smoother tarmac on the road, or searching for alien life) then it could be argued that any singular crime that involved you withholding income tax money from the government and giving it to much more desperate people in Africa is actually a morally good crime. I say ‘singular crime’ because clearly if everyone in the country tried this then many of the nation’s vital services would be severely impaired. 

But the man who is fed up with the government's profligacy in relation to injudicious foreign policies, expenses scandals and excessive wage bill, and decides that he will take it upon himself to give the money directly to those for whom it will do the most good, must in some way be more mindful than most.  Here is a situation in which the law is being put up against a man's conscience, with the conscience coming out victorious.  Although we may be right to disapprove, it should be said that in terms of net good, the man's act is positive and has improved the well-being of the planet overall. 

As you may have noticed, the underlying commonality that runs through the above considerations is that irrespective of whether there is a victim (or victims) in those scenarios the agent committing any bad acts or having bad intentions is the one that bears the costs of the outrage on his or her conscience.

Which leads us full circle back to the person who steals food legally because he (or she) is poor and hungry. Intrinsically the theft may well be rational - at least in that it is rational to steal food and risk punishment rather than risk starvation. But where there is not even any punishment, there is a great incentive for many to steal who are not all that poor in the hope that they can get away with it on grounds that they are poor. In other words, what the lifting of this law does is create an incentive of increased theft, which passes the main bulk of the costs/risks onto shopkeepers, and will therefore probably have more negative unintended consequences than is ideally desired.

* Gary Becker's famous rational crime theory involved weighing up the costs and benefits of crime, and trying to ascertain whether some instances of criminal behaviour are rational. For example, Becker considered whether parking in an illegal but convenient spot was a rational thing to do once the probability of getting caught is measured against the benefits of a convenient parking spot. Becker famously spoke of goals in the sense of our being rational actors engaged in a diligent cost-benefit analysis of whether crime pays. Some criminal activities involve reasonable goals if the benefit from the act is perceived to be greater than the probability adjusted weight of being caught and paying a penalty. Developing this David Friedman has argued that "The amount of the punishment should equal the damage done by the crime". The point being, that if crimes are committed when the value to the criminal is greater than the societal harm, only efficient crimes will be committed.