Question of the Day: Should We Just Let Murderers Do Their Thing?

A reader named Mark Kozel writes to say:

I heard that Chicago will be pouring up to $14 million into police overtime to prevent murder and violent crime.

It got me thinking: is it cheaper to prevent this kind of crime, or to just let it happen and clean up the mess afterwards?

It would be hard to find many people, even economists, who would arguing that “just letting it happen” isn’t an outcome that society should even think about accepting.

On the other hand, this is the kind of question that economists do tend to pose. It also reminded me of a recent Marginal Revolution blog post that mentioned John Broome‘s new book, Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World, and highlighted this excerpt:

What is the role of experts in democracy?…Their views, supported by arguments and evidence, help individuals and their representatives to form judgments.

This is not how economists typically see their democratic role.  They do not see themselves as participants in public deliberation, helping people to make their judgments.  Instead, they think their role is to help ensure that the preferences of the people prevail.  They do this by basing their valuations on market prices, which reflect people’s preferences.

It strikes me that Broome is obviously correct in writing that economists pay a lot of attention, maybe even too much, to people’s preferences; but it strikes me as obviously incorrect that “they do not see themselves as participants in public deliberation.” In fact, the world seems absolutely brimming with activist economists of one stripe or another.

Anyway: what do you make of Mark Kozel‘s question?

Addendum: This post was written and scheduled before we became aware of the recent Colorado shooting; we regret the timing.

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  1. Tariq says:

    The “mess afterwards” is more than just bodies, it’s the loss of expectation and reliance on others, especially the state, to watch each others’ backs. That kind of social capital is difficult to value accurately and to regain fully, e.g. failed states.

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    • Joe J says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Tom says:

        So if the police ‘just let it happen’ the people may begin policing themselves more.

        And then we realize policing, like everything else, benefits from specialization, people get together to pool their resources to hire police, create a system to prevent free-riding on these police, and presto! we’re right back where we are now.

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  2. foosion says:

    We are better off with fewer homicides and other violent crimes, unless you place a very low value on human life and health.

    It’s not plausible that cleaning up the mess would change behavior in a way that would reduce violent crimes.

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  3. Michaluk says:

    If the police aren’t paid to stop crime, individuals will start paying to stop it themselves. This would probably cost more than funding the police department, not work as well, result in more innocent people getting shot, etc. Law enforcement definitely seems to be one of those areas where government is more efficient than the free market.

    As to the question of should we just let crime happen, it already does. There’s not much police can do to prevent a person intent on murdering someone from doing so, especially with the ease with which someone can get a gun. If we were serious about actually preventing crime, rather than just jailing criminals after the fact, we’d push for having better inner city schools.

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  4. Simon K says:

    Curious. A related point, in some way, is prison policy: should we be rough-handed, intending to punish criminals, or should we be easy on convicts, attempting to rehabilitate them? As Scandinavian countries tend to find, it is in fact on an economic level cheaper, in the long run, to splurge on rehabilitation programmes and comfortable prison existences – e.g. Norway’s Halden – so as to not further alienate and embitter people who have committed crime. Criminals who have been treated such tend not to fall back into crime and become productive citizens instead.

    Of course, it does very much bother you on a philosophical level: the victim of a crime may very well leave the court room back to a more difficult life, whereas the criminal will go to a state-afforded hotel. You want to feel like people get what’s coming to them, in some way. But pragmatically, it makes no sense to do as the people would prefer.

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    • Ken Arromdee says:

      You just unintentionally argued “why Europe should institute the death penalty”.

      If you execute murderers, you avoid the philosophical problem you describe of criminals being treated better than the victims, yet you don’t have to worry about the criminal falling back into crime.

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      • Neil (SM) says:

        Not everyone is in jail for murder though. Do we execute for drug possession and and theft also?

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      • Simon K says:

        Ha, yes, I suppose in a way you could say that. In some way, it’s much like how I argued we should just execute the victims as well – surely that solves our philosophy, too? It is similar, after, all: the unjust killing of one party in a philosophically untoward inequality…

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  5. Herman Brodie says:

    I guess there would be a lot more crime once we decide to just ‘let it happen’, so it is not possible to estimate those costs

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    • Nick says:

      I would argue that we already “let it happen”. Police generally are just reacting to past crimes.

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  6. David Bley says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Stephen Horner says:

      David, for every doctor who has one diagnosis, there is another who thinks differently. But this doesn’t lead you to think you should let your cousin Billy-Bob cut you open. Do you really think that governing a massive nation is less complex than taking out an appendix? What scares me is that your message got 4 thumbs up and only 2 thumbs down. Small sample size, but that means most people agree that lack of knowledge is an important qualification for being able to govern…

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  7. Adam says:

    If it comes back to cost per life then things like making driving safer, or preventive medicine are the better option. There is also the issue that while maybe not contributing to a large reduction in murders the number of police officer deaths could rise. The money could also be used for education as to reduce poverty and the lower the associated risk of drug abuse. 61.2 percent of murders (FBI stat) get solved so it would be interesting to see if cleaning up the rest would help society better off then spending more to limit the initial murder rate.

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  8. A says:

    Well, the lower limit on “letting it happen” is a simple back of the napkin calculation. Insurance companies tend to value a human life at ~10x their annual income. Median income in the US is ~$30k. So for a person killed, society loses ~$300k of value. So if the $14mil poured into police overtime saves >40 lives, it’s worth it. That of course only counts loss of productivity by the person who got killed. If you consider other factors, like time spent by police investigating, loss of productivity by the victim’s family members, etc, far fewer lives than that need to be saved for the investment to be worth it. Let’s call it 20. In 2012 so far there have been 286 homicides, so to be effective, over the rest of the year, the $14mil needs to lower homicide rate by 7%.

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    • Tom L says:

      You are making the assumption that the average murder victim is an average citizen. I suspect, given that a large number of murders are gang on gang, that the average life value of murder victims is lower than $300k. It could even be negative, given all the damage to society drug dealers and so on do.

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      • James says:

        Drug dealers in and of themselves do little if any damage to society. Virtually all the damage – drug gang-related murders and so on – is a side effect of trying to suppress drug dealing by making it illegal.

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    • Steve O says:

      That’s a good place to start, but the 10x annual income, used in the context of life insurance, is simply a person’s “financial” value to their family. That does not take into account the lost productivity at work, pain and suffering, or any calculation of a person’s intrinsic value. I would dare say our government values people (and therefore protecting them) more highly than their earnings.

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      • Steve O says:

        Well, this is embarrassing. Disregard my last comment. I read the rest of your post…

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