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.


"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.


The Gypsy community sounds a lot like the Mormon community.


@ 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.

David J.

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.


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, fun times indeed. Just my own partial theory, anyway.

Eric M. Jones

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: " 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?


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.


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


And what about that some gypsies or travelers believe that theft is better than working for a living...


The Gypsy mystery I'd like to learn about is how they can afford to keep a fortune telling business in a relatively expensive locations while having no customers - at least I've only seen 2 in 20 years that I've passed by such locations.


"Orthodox Judaism effectively espouses nearly the same beliefs"

Similar in the sense that there's an idea of ritual impurity ("tumah"), but the rules about it are very different and except for the laws of niddah - which Orthodox Jews still follow and basically boil down to not having sex or touching during menstruation - most of it isn't applicable now.

The main upshot to having tumah is that you couldn't go into the Temple while you were in a state of tumah (and priests couldn't eat the food that constituted their wages while in a state of tumah).

If you ever go to Israel and see some of the Temple Era (pre-Vespasian Rome and earlier) excavations, there are multiple ritual baths (mikvahs) in every home for the purpose of purifying items that had contracted tumah (you get rid of tumah by dipping something or yourself completely under running natural water).

Dealing with tumah and the laws of tumah was one of the major day-to-day features of Judaism but that whole set of laws simply hasn't been applicable for a couple of thousand years now. Nowadays, we all have tumah.



Yosh, David J. may be thinking about taharat hamishpacha, etc., but the parallel is much more striking in terms of social control when you consider segulot, asking certain "tzaddikim" for brachot, the demonization of outside society by most chareidim (we're not talking Modern Orthodox, here)... think about it. I did.


I can't speak to whether that's true in, say a more closed chaddish community like Satmar where I don't have much experience (although I'd argue they have plenty of other forms of social sanction and don't need to rely on whether or not you get a bracha from the Rebbe) but in my experience segulot aren't really a vehicle for social control or really even emphasized all that much even in haredi communities.

No one will refuse to socialize with you if don't get a blessing from a big rabbi or don't, say, go to the Kotel to pray for a spouse for 40 days.

In more haredi communities, especially in Israel, clothing is definitely a form of social control and in many ways, the laws of kashrus (keeping kosher) are a semi-formal method of social control directly embedded in the Torah.

However, none of that is anywhere near the same level of social control as the gypsies' system and it's hard to imagine that even the laws of tumah and tahorah (what I described above) which have certain similarities to the gypsies' system, was the main method of regulating legal interaction. Halacha has plenty of other ways of doing that which are mostly similar to legal systems in other societies (it formed the basis for modern legal systems).

It's just interesting that the gypsies' system parallels some, but definitely not all, aspects of the laws of tumah.

And I have thought about this, I'm a BT (not born to a religious family). Ultimately everyone has the choice on their own however - I'm not any different than any FFB (born in a religious family) in that.



So, can I use any of this to keep the gypsies from pestering me when I go to italy again? I've a mind to rip out my menstual pad, wave it at them threateningly, and make them tell all their friends.

Tracy W

I agree with Leeson that these rules may substitute for traditional law and order, but I don't see any argument in the article that the Gypsy culture is an efficient substitute for law and order, or better in any objective way than, say, abandoning the culture and integrating with wider society. (By objective I mean something that can be measured, eg life expectancy, or income per capita, as opposed to something incomparable like the psychic benefits of group identity).


I'm just going on the abstract, but it seems like he's using economics to rehash Durkheim. Which is great - I like Durkheim and all - but proving things that have been established among social scientists for a century or so doesn't seem like a good use of your time.

And I'm not sure what 'superstitions' or 'bizarre beliefs' are as analytic categories. Being openly contemptuous of your research subjects is at best bad form, and at worst makes for bad analysis.


Leeson's paper gave me a few insights into one of our current French "issues":

Juan Camilo Esguerra

As in all the cultures "weird" believes and sacred books are behavior canons even health canons, like in the firts books of the bible where it says that a menstruating woman is dirty and the man who knows that lady on that days will get dirty too... is just disease prevention (Levitico 15: 19-29)


Agreed with justaguy. Prof. Leeson would benefit from a intro course in anthropological or sociological theory to generate more meaningful analytic categories, and if only to cut down on his need for the word 'bizarre'.