Punishment at Foundations of Economic Analysis

face of a prisoner

Punishment is a topic from the foundations of economic analysis. Like Socrates founding a republic to provide the greatest happiness for all, eighteenth-century proto-economists sought “to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and law.”^ Unlike in Socrates’ Athens, in eighteenth-century Europe, bloody, public, and widely publicized punishments provided a sensational counterpart to happiness. Crime and punishment were prominent topics of public discussion in Europe’s eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment. Seminal thinkers considered an individual’s physical experiences of pleasure and pain, the responsiveness of criminal behavior to rewards and punishments, and the interaction and aggregation of individuals’ responses. Analysis of inflicting pain to deter crime laid the utilitarian foundations for economic analysis.

Economic analysis has devalued prisoners’ communication with family and friends. The mutuality of communication fits awkwardly within the economist’s standard model of an individual responding to constraints and incentives. If economists consider communication among persons, they usually consider only a highly structured model of communicating information. Communicating with family and friends, in contrast, isn’t primarily about communicating information. In addition, economic analysis tends to put the economist on an abstract plain above the persons and circumstances being treated. From such a position, economists and others have an incentive to develop expertise in crime and in tools to treat prisoners. Prisoners’ communication with family and friend is a relatively unpropitious subject for developing social-scientific expertise. That helps to explain its devaluation in social-scientific deliberations about punishment.