Saturday, August 13, 2011

Can the London Riots Help Us Understand How to Deter Antiquities Looting?

Ed Glaeser has a post (at - I cannot figure out how to put in links using the iPad I am working on right now) summarizing some of what historical research and statistical studies tell us about how riots start and end. There is, as always with this kind of research, a lot to treat with skepticism (i.e., Glaeser's claim that because riots were less common in the South than in northern cities in the 1960s, and more common in ciies that had more government spending, we can say that there is not much of a link between unrest and either inequality and poverty), and Glaeser's failure to attend to political concomitants (i.e., the perception on the part of poor people that society is unjust in myriad ways, including of course the rewarding of massively anti-social criminality on the part of the financial class, for whose destructive behavior the rest of us, and particularly the poor, are to be punished by austerity). But one of Glaeser's points is of interest to readers of this blog, who worry about how best to deter looting not by rioters but by tomb or cave painting robbers:

The lesson: Light penalties widely applied and serious penalties applied to a few can both deter unlawful behavior. This is a central conclusion of Gary Becker’s path-breaking economic analysis of crime and punishment. But in the case of riots, it is awfully hard to actually prove wrongdoing and extremely important to clear the streets. Arresting widely and temporarily can be far more effective.

The same conditions hold for antiquities looting and trafficking: it is very difficult to prove wrongdoing and extremely important to clear the sites of looters. So a policing strategy of more arrests and fewer major prosecutions might make sense for antiquities looting, at least where the looters are doing so opportunistically. For the professionals, whether looters or fences/middlemen/dealers or receivers of stolen goods/collectors, on the other hand, it might be insufficient deterrent to arrest widely and temporarily. There are not that many of them, innocent dealers and collectors might get swept up (which could of course also happen in riots), and unlike poor rioters, the dealers and collectors are powerful enough to go after the police chief or prosecutor who opted for such a strategy. For the pros, then, serious penalties applied to a few -- i.e., Fred Schultz -- is probably the better course. The best course, though, would be to harden the sites to make looting more difficult and dangerous for the would-be looter.

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