Bryan Caplan  

Polygamy Meets Economy

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Even if you think my earlier posts on HBO's Big Love were gratuitous, you can't deny the economic relevance of one of the latest story lines:

Bill hears about a new investment opportunity. A slot machine manufacturer wants investors, and doesn't care how many wives its investors have. Despite his moral scruples against gambling, Bill's intrigued.

What's going on? If Bill gets "outed," he thinks that his home improvement customers will take their business elsewhere. But Bill's not worried that slot machine patrons will respond in the same way. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense: If you've gotten over your moral objections to gambling, you're not likely to be fussy about the marital status of the owners of your slot machine.

This suggests a more general principle:
Any stigmatized group faces a lower marginal cost of doing stigmatized things. Thus, if people are anti-Semites and hate money-lenders, a Jew might as well be a money-lender. Given the treatment he gets just for being a Jew, the extra stigma he endures for being a Jewish money-lender is probably minimal.
What do you think?

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
dearieme writes:

And the gentile might be mistaken for a Jew if he becomes a money-lender.

James writes:

You are totally correct Bryan. I think a similar effect explains the high prevalence of drug-dealers among the urban poor.

Karl Smith writes:

I wondering about this effect for urban blacks who engage in crime. I do suspect that the stigma of being convicted of a crime prevents more crime than threat of jail.

This may be part of why women commit less crime.

Testable Hypothesis: There is a stronger neighborhood effect on female crime than male crime.

Also, has anyone done crime and skin color. Not race but skin color. Does anyone know?

8 writes:

Now you're starting to sound like a real cultural conservative. Is marijuana a gateway drug? Should high schools kick out pregnant teens? Should you trust someone who's cheated on their spouse less than someone who hasn't?

Cyrus writes:

There is truth in this, but it offloads an externality onto the other members of the stigmatized group. I do face less marginal stigma for doing the stigmatized thing, but if the stigmatized thing becomes associated with my stigmatized group, then eventually every member of the stigmatized group bears both stigmas, whether or not they do the stigmatized thing. The stigmatized group should especially discourage its members from stigmatized behavior (1) because it reflects badly on all group members; and (2) because if significant numbers of members of the group really do it, then it makes the group vulnerable to the broader culture's decision to restrict the stigmatized activity.

(For example, medieval monarchs could and did persecute Jews by restricting moneylending or the slave trade. Contemporary democracies can and do persecute the urban poor by vigorously enforcing narcotics laws.)

JJenx writes:

I dont think that diminishing stigmatization explains the urban poor. The term 'urban poor' is used for a demographic in a set location (the inner city). Demand-supply is a more likely culprit.

This marginal cost is based on a sort of 'guilt by association.' I am not sure if the conclusion necessarily follows. When a certain behavior is associated with one group, members of that group may take pains to avoid proving society's generalization. In other words, does Bill from big love treat his wives with affection, or does he feel that as a stigmatized polygamous he might as well play the stereotype due to a diminishing marginal cost?

Bruce Bartlett writes:

Blacks used to work often as strikebreakers. Since there is no law against strikebreaking, the only way unions can suppress it is by stigmatizing those who do it as "scabs." Since blacks have been called much worse, this had little effect.

Aaron Haspel writes:

If this is true, then it would seem to produce the interesting effect of reinforcing, and in a perverse way justifying, the original prejudice. One no longer hates Jews because they're Jewish but because they're moneylenders, or blacks because they're blacks but because they're scabs. Thus the prejudice would persist longer than one might otherwise expect because of the secondary consequences.

Caliban Darklock writes:

I've been saying similar things about drug legalisation for years. By making the drugs illegal, you make the users into criminals. Once one is a criminal, there is a nonzero amount of criminal activity which one has only avoided because one did not want to be a criminal. That activity is no longer worth avoiding.

So if you're going to be treated like dirt for smoking marijuana, you won't be treated much worse for shooting heroin... plus you get to take heroin. If you're going to lose your job for failing a drug test, you may as well lose your job for stealing tools... plus you get the tools. If you're going to go to jail for smoking weed, you may as well go to jail for robbing a liquor store... plus you get the money in the register.

This is why prohibition doesn't work. The prohibition itself actively turns normal people into criminals, where they are no longer socially enjoined from committing crimes.

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