Ancient law & economics: Sabbath-breaking edition

Ancient law often seems especially cruel to us moderns. Not only do ancient laws often condone and systematize things we find repellent—a topic for another day—but the punishments seem especially harsh. One famous example from the Torah*:

Exodus 31:12-17 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

The Sabbath Law

12 And the Lord said to Moses, 13 “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; every one who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.’” [emphasis mine]

One way to deal with this passage is to say that God said it, and God’s wisdom is greater than ours, so we don’t have to understand it, we just have to do it however harsh it seems. (As long as we’re in the population to whom the law applies, Jews in this case.) There are various other apologetic ways to look at it. I’m not inclined or qualified to discuss all of them, but they’re similar.

If one interprets this example as coming from a human document the analysis is very different. There must be some other justification intelligible to humans. A little law & economics can help here. The Torah law is incredibly thorough in its proscriptions. Some of them govern the minutest details of daily household life. The probability of detection for many of these infractions is very low. If a person is seen to commit an easily detectable infraction, it’s likely he is also committing and getting away with smaller infractions.

The logic of punishing things that are easier to detect because of an assumed correlation to things that are harder to detect (or prove) is apparent even today. Al Capone went to prison for income tax violations even though it was known by everybody that he was involved in many more serious matters. Structuring laws punish how people deposit and withdraw cash because this is much easier to detect than the illegal things they might do with the cash.

There was no science of forensics in the ancient world, no dedicated police force, and rarely any paper trails. In order to deter people from breaking the law when the chances of getting caught were slim, the magnitude of the punishments had to be ramped up. While we have no way of knowing it’s fair to assume violations occurred all the time without anybody else ever finding out about them.

The worthiness of the goals of these ancient laws, and indeed of parallel modern laws, is a separate topic. The goals of the Torah law may have been order and social cohesion among the people of Israel, or they may have been fabrications to shore up the power of the powerful at that time, or a combination. Readers of this blog know that I think the War on Drugs is a fantastically awful institution, for example, and it is one of the major justifications for structuring laws. But you can see how, given the ends, there is a logic to the legal means.

As a final note, though I don’t intend this as an apologia for any particular religious law, I suppose one could explain the passage by saying that God had the law & econ reasoning in mind when declaring the penalty for breaking the sabbath.

* I use the RSV here since the relevant passage in the Orthodox Jewish Bible is harder to follow for those not versed in it.


Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” pt. 1: politics and social media

Harry Frankfurt’s great essay “On Bullshit” was originally published in 1986 but has aged incredibly well. Briefly, for background, a lie depends on the truth, as the speaker of a lie intends to misrepresent something that is not true as something that is. In contrast, bullshit isn’t the misrepresentation of something false as something true; truth and falsity don’t really enter into the equation. Here’s a sample that is especially relevant today:

Why is there so much bullshit? Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased. Without assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact that it is currently so great.

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

As the scope of government has increased over time politicians are led to articulate positions about more and more things they don’t really know or care about. Most people can recognize these as bullshit at least some of the time, and many dislike it at least some of the time, but as Frankfurt says it probably is inevitable given the circumstances.

Social media is in large part about expressing the image of yourself that you want other people to have: how good/caring/special/smart/patriotic/etc. you are and what socio-political tribe you’re part of. Since it’s so low-cost to broadcast these messages to the world, people broadcast them constantly. But of course one can’t be expert in everything, and can’t deeply care about everything. Which leads to mountains of bullshit.

So here’s the tricky part: is there any end in sight to all the bullshit? I expect some adjustment to social media bullshit as people learn how meaningless it really is, but political bullshit seems unstoppable.

Bradbury remembers

Ray Bradbury:

The most beautiful sound in my life, dearly recollected, fully remembered, was the sound of a folded newspaper kiting through the summer air and landing on my front porch.

Every late afternoon from the time I was nine until I was fourteen that sound, and the thump it made hitting the side of the house, or the screen-door, or a window, but never the porch-planks themselves, that sound had an immediate effect upon one person inside the house.

The door burst open wide. A boy, myself, leapt out, eyes blazing, mouth gasping for breath, hands seizing at the paper to grapple it wide so that the hungry soul of one of Waukegan, Illinois’ finest small intellects could feed upon:


It’s hard to imagine that today’s 9–14 year olds will recollect their childhood treasures as breathlessly. There’s your Great Stagnation.

Non-Muslim Berbers in Spain?

From Early Medieval Spain by Roger Collins:

Unfortunately the question of the Berber contribution to the culture of Al-Andalus has received little attention. It is often assumed that they were thoroughly Islamicised by the time of their entry into Spain in the early eighth century. However, the Arab conquest of North Africa was hardly complete by that point. What is more, evidence of the continued use of Latin there can be found for as late as the tenth century, and substantial Christian communities were still in existence in Africa in the eleventh. It is thus highly improbable, particularly in view of the general indications of slow conversion to Islam on the part of the Arabs’ subject populations, that large numbers of Berbers were Muslims in 711, nor in view of their role would they have been required to be. A reference in Al-Makkarī to the religious practices of Berber rebels who besieged Mérida in 742 makes it clear that they were not Muslims.

Without in any way being expert on the topic of the expansion of Islam this runs counter to what I thought. Probably the biggest first-pass lesson I get out of reading history is that the most common mental error in thinking about history is to project today backwards onto yesterday. I doubt I am alone in this.

Price/Scholer on Biblical ambiguity

In discussing Colossians 1:24, Robert M. Price paraphrases his Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary professor David Scholer:

When there are loads of different interpretations of a Bible verse, it’s probably because the meaning is obvious. That is, so obvious—and offensive—that people will try to make it mean anything else.

This is from The Human Bible podcast, episode 3, starting at around 37’20”.

Cooking in a developing America

There’s a nice illustration of the ups and downs, but mostly ups, of economic development in the introductory paragraph to Alice McLean’s Cooking in America, 1840–1945:

This cookbook covers the years 1840 through 1945, a time during which American cookery underwent a full-scale revolution. Gas and electric stoves replaced hearth cookery. The time of year and location became decreasingly connected to the ingredients used in home cooking; canned, bottled, and eventually frozen products flooded the market, and trains began to transport produce and meat from one end of the country to the other. During two World Wars and the Great Depression women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and household servants abandoned low-paying domestic jobs to work in factories. As a result of these monumental changes, American home cooking became irrevocably simplified, and cookery skills geared more toward juggling time to comb grocery store shelves for the best and most economical products than toward butchering and preserving an entire animal carcass or pickling fruits and vegetables.

Heath on “normative sociology”

Here’s an excellent piece about “normative sociology” by Joseph Heath. Some intro:

The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one. Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B. This can lead to a situation in which denying that A is the cause of B becomes morally stigmatized, and so people affirm the connection primarily because they feel obliged to, not because they’ve been persuaded by any evidence.

My favorite part, in the sense that I think this error is particularly harmful to good, useful, helpful social science:

2. Worrying about “blaming the victim.” The most common confusion between the moral and the causal order occurs when people start thinking about responsibility. There is an enormous tendency to think that if person X caused A to occur, then X is responsible for A. As a result, when people don’t want to hold X responsible for A, they feel a powerful impulse to resist any suggestion that X’s choices or actions might have caused A. This is, of course, a confusion, since whether or not X caused A is just a factual question, which doesn’t really decide the question of responsibility. And yet I’ve often heard academics being challenged, after having made an entirely empirical claim about the source of a particular social problem, by people saying “aren’t you just blaming the victim?” One can see here a moral concern intruding where it does not belong. If we follow this line of reasoning, we wind up talking about what we would like the cause of problems to be, rather than what they actually are.

Just to explain this a bit: A causal relationship to an outcome is typically a necessary but not sufficient condition for an attribution of responsibility. That is because of the phenomenon of “too many causes.” If I throw a beer bottle out my window, and it strikes a pedestrian below, it is clear that I have caused an injury to this person. But that person also caused the injury, by deciding to take a walk and to pass by my house at that precise moment. And who knows, many others may have contributed as well, by allowing that person to go for the walk, or by selling me the beer, and so on. Thus the question of who is responsible is really a separate question from the question of causation. So it should be possible to have a conversation about what causes what that is completely separate from the question of who is to blame for what – it is perhaps a prelude to the latter conversation, but definitely concerns that arise in the latter should not be allowed to intrude into the former.

To pick just one obvious example of this, there is an enormous reluctance to believe that underdevelopment could be largely due to domestic conditions within poor countries. There is a pressing need to treat this poverty as some kind of harm inflicted upon the poor by rich countries, or else a consequence of past harms (e.g. a “legacy of colonialism”) — not so much because any of the mechanisms being posited seem all that persuasive, but rather that doing anything other involves “blaming the victim,” or treating the poor as somehow responsible for their condition.

This particular criticism will resonate with anybody who has taught economic development.* Many nations have institutions that are not conducive to economic development. It’s not that they are stupid or ill-intentioned—the institutions must have arisen to solve or mitigate other problems, and they are very costly to change—but these endogenous internal factors do have consequences beyond what they evolved for. It’s not “victim blaming” to acknowledge this. In fact, it’s counterproductive to evade finding these causal relationships if anybody wants conditions to change sooner rather than later.

The entire thing is brilliant and well worth your time.

Via Alex Tabarrok

* That is, anybody who has taught development via economics. I notice there is a mountain of literature out there that treats economic development as something other than an economic issue. This relates to my Calculus of Dissent post on neoliberalism.

Steven Cheung:

The process of arriving at a useful concept of analysis is not only slow and painful, but may also go astray and attain nothing useful. Someone begins with one example or observation, followed by a theory which is intuitively plausible. A theoretical term associated with a vague concept is coined. Examples of a seemingly different type emerge, which call for another theory. The process goes on. As examples and theories continue to accumulate, the different categories under the same heading of analysis serve only to confuse and each associated theory becomes ad hoc. Such has been the fate of the concept of “externality.”