The Economics of Gypsies

My friend Pete Leeson is one of the most original and creative economists I know.? First, he wrote about pirate economics (he was even kind enough to write three guest posts on the Freakonomics blog).

Then he tackled “ordeals” — the medieval method of trial in which one’s guilt was assessed by whether?an arm that was plunged into boiling water got burned.? His conclusion: it was not a miracle when the accused emerged unscathed from the boiling water treatment.? As long as everyone believed that the boiling water would reveal guilt, it made more sense to confess than to have one’s arm get boiled and then be punished for the crime on top of that.? So the only people who were willing to go through the ordeal were those who were falsely accused.? Consequently, it appears that the people who carried out the ordeals didn’t really boil the water (it’s not clear whether they did this on purpose or accidentally — I suspect on purpose).

Now, he has moved on to gypsies.?? Apparently, gypsies believe in all sorts of strange things, like that the lower half of the human body is polluted and non-gypsies are spiritually toxic.? These bizarre beliefs, he argues, substitute for traditional institutions of law and order.? Like all of Leeson’s best work, when I start reading it I don’t really believe it, but by the end I’m not only convinced, I feel like running out and telling everyone I know about it.

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  1. met says:

    “As long as everyone believed that the boiling water would reveal guilt, it made more sense to confess than to have one’s arm get boiled and then be punished for the crime on top of that” I believe this argument applies for everyone, falsely or rightly accused. So I don’t follow why Steve says ” the only people who were willing to go through the ordeal were those who were falsely accused.”

    In any case, there are other problems with the proposed equilibrium. Assume that only those who were falsely accused would take the ordeal. Then it makes sense for the people carrying out the ordeals to avoid boiling the water. But then it makes sense for the guilty to choose the ordeal.

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  2. Brian says:

    The Gypsy community sounds a lot like the Mormon community.

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  3. Brian says:

    @ met

    That is why the belief in iudica Dei is so important. If the guilty believe that God will judge them (not the priest) then they will not want to undergo the ordeal. The reason for this is that on top of the punishment from whatever they were rightfully accused of, they would also have a arm that has been burned by the hot water or iron (because God would not protect the guilty) and that makes them worse off than just confessing.

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  4. David J. says:

    While I understand that they may seem like strange things to many, the beliefs you mention aren’t particularly unusual – as a matter of fact, I would argue that Orthodox Judaism effectively espouses nearly the same beliefs. Similar rules of cleanliness and “taboo” are common in all sorts of cultures, and I expect that a suitably enterprising economist would find the same kinds of regulatory effect from any system of norms.

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  5. Andrew says:

    Of course, another reason the water might not be boiling could have resulted from the fact that to test if the water was boiling would indirectly pose the risk of making you out to be a guilty individual as well. So the boiler, knowing full well that if the water was boiling would burn him, would say the water was ready anyway so long as it appeared to be, meaning the odds of it actually being boiling to burn would, probably, be lower than we assume.

    From my own experiences with boiling water while cooking pasta (20 lbs at a time), I know that very limited contact with extremely hot, appearing to boil water is not enjoyable but also does not tend to burn or blister…so, fun times indeed. Just my own partial theory, anyway.

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  6. Eric M. Jones says:

    I don’t see gypsies (I think they find the “G-word” offensive) as worse or more bizarre than dozens of other cults, religious groups, including Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Klingons, Romulans, Scientologists, Manicheans, etc.

    >blockquote>Maureen Dowd, Re: Catholics: ” ….men in dresses allowed our religious kingdom to decay and to cling to outdated misogynistic rituals, blind to the benefits of welcoming women’s brains, talents and hearts into their ancient fraternity.”

    Does Leeson believe that gypsies are weirder than his belief system? Or yours?

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  7. Brooke says:

    In reading the article linked from this post, I find the system interesting, but horrifying in the social implications for women. Yet another culture that clings to the idea that there’s something inherently impure about the female biology leads to restrictions on women’s behavior, dress, and activities. The sooner the “Western” idea of universal human rights penetrates these cultures, the better. Discrimination as a definition of group identity cannot be permitted in the modern age.

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  8. Sasha says:

    Or, like most all of Leeson’s work: utter nonsense.

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