Thursday, October 16, 2014

Zahi Hawass and the theory of deterrence

Zahi Hawass calls for Egypt's Antiquities Law to be amended to provide for harsher punishment for antiquities crimes, arguing that this will deter looters. But the law, according to the article, already calls for a minimum three year sentence.

Would ratcheting that sentence up to five or more years make any difference? That depends. As Gary Becker and Michel Foucault in their very different ways have both noted, deterrence only works if three things are all true: the risk of being caught is substantial; punishment is severe and certain enough to induce fear; and criminals know the risks of being caught and the price they would pay. The key point for Egypt, presumably is that if the risk of being caught continues to be low, then making an already substantial penalty more severe is not going to change the calculations of looters.

We have evidence for this from 1990s Iraq. Saddam introduced the death penalty for looting after the US established no-fly zones that made it impossible to effectively police the archaeological sites and looting soared. Even though ten looters were beheaded on national television, the Draconian penalties did little to slow down the looting.

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