Bryan Caplan  

The Strange Political Economy of Kidnapping

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In the United States, stereotypical kidnappings are almost non-existent.  But in some Third World countries - especially Latin America - the problem's quite serious.  Mexico's up to 8000 reported kidnappings per year, and experts plausibly claim that over 90% of kidnappings aren't reported. The problem has improved drastically in Colombia - which peaked at almost 3600 in 2000, but in 2007 there were still over 500

Conceptually, the kidnapping problem is not hard to solve.  Kidnappers kidnap because the benefits exceed the costs.  The obvious solution is to raise the costs by imposing harsher, surer punishments.  So why hasn't this already happened?  Consider the standard explanations for dysfunctional policy:

1. Voter irrationality.  It's usually my favorite explanation, but in this case, it doesn't seem to work.  Don't voters in every country abhor kidnapping and support harsh punishments for it?

2. Elite malevolence.  Even if voters have no real say over policy, political leaders and other elites should be especially eager to solve the problem.  After all, the rich and their families are top targets.

3. Special interests.  Kidnapping is terrible for tourism, so at least one major interest group should enthusiastically support tougher measures.  Other than criminals, what special interests would be on the other side?

4. Corruption.  In Latin America, the police often turn out to be involved in kidnapping.  But conceptually, the corruption problem isn't that hard, either.  There's the Lee Kwan Yew solution: Raise the salaries of the brightest and cleanest bureaucrats, fire the rest, and impose draconian punishments on backsliders.  If that doesn't work, there's outsourcing to firms from higher-trust societies.  Bring in the Swiss, Swedes, or Singaporeans to run your internal affairs department.

So what's the right story?  Before you answer, ponder this striking fact: The tiny Green Party is Mexico's most vocal proponent of the death penalty for kidnapping.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
david writes:

There's a cap on how harsh punishments can be, because you can't execute a person twice and caning them (as in Singapore) is already considered barbaric.

And, of course, one wants to reserve the harshest possible punishment (execution) for the very worst crimes, like kidnapping and rape/murder rather than kidnapping alone. Otherwise there is no incentive not to rape your kidnapee.

So raising the costs is difficult, and countries are probably already close to the limit. Raising the expected cost, by increasing the ability of the police to identify and arrest kidnappers, is another solution but it is difficult and costly. Mexico has enough trouble arresting people when it has already identified them; in many areas it has already lost its monopoly on the use of force.

Pietro Poggi-Corradini writes:

Italy used to have a really bad kidnapping problem (as recently as the 80's). Mostly people were taken from the prosperous north and brought to some mountainous region in the south where they'd be kept for very long times (years even). This problem seems to have gone away on its own, but it points to a fifth explanation: dishomogeneity of conditions.

Gorgasal writes:

"Conceptually, the corruption problem isn't that hard, either. There's the Lee Kwan Yew solution: Raise the salaries of the brightest and cleanest bureaucrats, fire the rest, and impose draconian punishments on backsliders."

Sorry, but this misses the mark. For these measures to have an effect, you need an uncorrupted bureaucracy in the first place - otherwise, you won't know who is bright (the people who designate other people as "bright" will be bribed) or clean (the people who designate other people as "clean" will be bribed), who should be fired (the people...) and who is a backslider (the people...).

As for bringing in the Swiss: how would you induce a Swiss judge to spend years in Mexico and be quite probably the target of cartels who want to protect their kidnapping market? I for one (living in Switzerland) would not subject my family to this - especially as my kids would not even be safe back home; an assassination would be just a plane ticket away.

Henry writes:

I think David hit the nail on the head.

Latin American countries could raise the expected costs of kidnapping with more police funding, but why don't they? Probably for similar reasons to why they don't have more arts funding: they have limited resources and higher priorities.

Stan writes:

Could another explanation be ignorance? The kind of which is willful, but merely because of dumb prioritization.

Joey Donuts writes:

There is another reason for kidnappings. But, rather than reveal it here, I recommend watching the movie "Man on Fire" with Denzel Washington. The movie also provides an partial solution to the kidnapping "problem."

8 writes:

Death penalty must be reserved for murder. If there's a death penalty for less than murder, it would be strategic to murder witnesses and victims of death penalty crimes.

It also needs to be enforced, or the punishments must be stratified. In a state such as CA where you get life in prison for kidnapping, but they rarely execute death row inmates, it also makes sense to execute the victims and witnesses.

North Strand writes:

3a. No politician wants to be the one to take on this issue for fear of making themselves or their families a target for kidnapping.

5. Kidnapping is seen as a rich person's problem, class warfare is entrenched enough that poor people punish politicians they see as helping the rich, and the gains to politicians from helping the rich don't offset the costs of angering the more numerous poor.

Disclaimer: both of these are pure speculation

Prakhar Goel writes:

@David and 8,

Your argument against harsh conditions for non-murder crimes is very much dependent on specific conditions. For example, consider the following:

a) There are X kidnappings per year and 50% of them result in the murder of the kidnapee.

b) If the death penalty were reintroduced for kidnappings, the incidence of kidnapping would reduce by 50% (i.e. get cut in half).

At that point, introducing the death penalty for kidnapping cannot possibly result in an increase in murders.

thruth writes:
And, of course, one wants to reserve the harshest possible punishment (execution) for the very worst crimes, like kidnapping and rape/murder rather than kidnapping alone. Otherwise there is no incentive not to rape your kidnapee.

or murder your lawmakers.

Hunter writes:

Punishment does need to be surer. If you're unlikely to get away to spend your ill-gotten loot the propensity to kidnap will decrease. That's really the only way unless you can get everyone to not pay off the kidnappers which flies in the face of game theory.
So, avoid paying for as long as possible to give a dedicated police force a chance to find the kidnappers and keep hunting them even (especially) after they get any ransom.

libert writes:

Sorry, this is off-topic, but I wasn't sure where else to put it. I'd really like to hear EconLog's take on the latest Supreme Court ruling on patents. If you haven't heard about it, the Wall Street Journal explains:

"The court's conservative majority said business methods weren't categorically excluded from patent protection...[leaving] the door open for inventors of other new ways of doing business to get protection"

Colin K writes:

Use the Canadian healthcare approach and make payment of ransom a crime. The police seem much better at arresting and prosecuting mostly law-abiding citizens anyway.

Doug writes:

The explanation I think really has to do with the political orientation of the kidnappers. Virtually all kidnappings in Latin America have at least a loose association to left-wing guerilla rebels. Latin Marxist rebels represent the most sympathetic/coolest criminal organizations in the world, to a generation of DC policy-makers and wonks who grew up wearing Che T-Shirts and listening to Rage Against the Machine.

If it was a bunch of, say, radical evangelical Christian groups running around kidnapping the children of dignitaries you can bet that pretty much everyone in that group would find themselves in a ditch with a bullet in their head in about a week. And we also know that left-wing guerilla groups can be easily suppressed if the political will exists. Pinochet did it, Fujimori did it, Noriega did it, even United Fruit did it. But what they all had in common was that the "international community" screamed bloody murder.

The US has a tremendous influence on Latin America, and most of those people in those positions of influence view the criminal organizations that perpetrate the kidnappings as noble struggles of indigenous people against neoliberal oppression, rather than thuggish, murderous criminals. If you challenge them on this they'll respond with some trite throwaway like "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." The one right-wing influence on Latin America from the US, the DEA, doesn't give a shit about kidnapping, which is why most rebel groups have moved away from drugs into kidnapping.

The political economy of Latin American kidnapping is no more strange than the political economy that caused the white run nations of Southern Africa to transfer power to a bunch of ravenous, incompetent, thuggish murderers and rapists back in the 80s. The decisions aren't being made there, the decisions are being made in DC, and the consideration basically comes down to what's going to make some State Dept. or NGO bureacrat look like he's "keepin' it real" and standing up to the man at the Georgetown cocktail party circuit.

gabriel rossman writes:

i'm not surprised that a society with endemic kidnappings would have political entrepreneurs pushing severe punishment. what i find amazing about this is that it's the green party that is doing it. it's almost like a latin american version of the republican party taking up opposition to medicare cuts.

Isegoria writes:

If kidnappers have your daughter, do you quietly pay them $100,000, or do you trust the Mexican police to get her back? Even honest police probably care more about getting the bad guys without getting shot in the process than about rescuing your loved ones unharmed.

The kidnapping industry follows a well-worn script. Everyone says they won't negotiate with kidnappers, and then they quietly negotiate with kidnappers.

Collectively, we want to be tough on kidnappers, but when we have the chance to save our own loved ones, it's well worth the money to get them back.

Justice is a public good.

agnostic writes:

Saying the problem is conceptually simple is like saying it's conceptually simple to launch an object into space -- I mean, all that keeps it here is that the forces pointing toward the earth exceed the forces pointing away. So duh, just raise the forces pointing away!

Then before the mid-20th C., why didn't the irrational, corrupted, etc. engineers just do so? Therefore, it's conceptually difficult, not simple. The same is true for cutting crime. No one knows how to "raise the costs" to reduce crime on an annual or decade scale. It just cycles on its own, like a population of predators and prey.

To see how ineffective the standard cost-raising measures are, read The Great American Crime Decline by Zimring, which devotes chapter 5 to a comparison with Canada. They had a similar crime wave from roughly the '60s through the '80s, followed by a steady decline of similar magnitude as in the US up through today.

However, Canada didn't greatly change its rate of imprisonment or of policemen per capita (p.121):

"For the period 1980-2000, the imprisonment rate tripled in the United States and increased by 4% in Canada."

"The number of police officers grew only 3,000 in 20 years after 1980, failing by far to keep pace with population growth. During the 1990s [when crime steadily fell], the employment of police per 100,000 population fell from 204 to 183, almost exactly 10%. No precise numbers are available on the expansion in police in the United States, but there is universal agreement that there was an expansion. The estimate used in chapter 4 was Stephen Levitt's 14% for the 1990s."

The only big similarity was a change in the share of the population filled by males aged 15-29. To a first-order approximation, crime happens or doesn't, goes up or down, based on local interactions among criminals and victims, and outside attempts to influence those interactions are remarkably ineffective.

agnostic writes:

Thus, the main reason that Mexico and Colombia are high kidnapping rates compared to the U.S. is that the former are "natural states" (in North, Wallis, & Weingast's phrase) where there is no central and neutral control of the military. It's various powerful factions competing often violently against one another, like Europe before circa 1750 or 1800.

Indeed, kidnapping of the wealthy or powerful was incredibly common in Europe during its natural-state days. Without a pacified population and a concentrated, neutral third-party military, though, who's going to police the myriad factions who would use violence to achieve their goals?

Much of the discussion so far totally ignores the fact that no one is in charge of the factions in a society like Mexico, Colombia, or 17th-C England and France, and that it's like a scene from Machiavelli where a bunch of powerful factions are always jockeying with each other for status, resorting to violence if necessary. So even if there were a proven way to raise the costs to criminals (which there is not), what power would the central governments have -- other than write a letter to Santa Claus?

icr writes:

The Green Party of Mexico appears to be a corrupt racket run by a single family:

Matt writes:

This may seem like a dumb question, but aren't all crimes high in Latin America? I know I've heard a lot of stories about kidnapping but I've also heard of a lot of stories of murder, police brutality and rape.

Also, maybe the death penalty is not congruent with most Latin Americans sense of justice. I don't care how bad car vandelism gets in America, I would never support a 15 year sentence for it. It's simply out of my limit for acceptable punishment for that crime.

I think a better solution would be to, very publicly, task a Special Forces teams to track down the kidnappers and retrieve the victims by "any means necessary (wink, wink)." The public would see this as the kidnappers sentencing themselves to death instead of their justice system. The government takes the position; we won't be so cruel to punish kidnappers to death, but we will use lethal force against any who threaten the safety of our citezenry. It would be a big symbolic expenditure.

Mr Econotarian writes:

The level of Kidnapping in Chile is very low.

I suspect the real cost/benefit analysis in Venezuela, Colombia, and Mexico is whether you can get a better job than kidnapping due to lack of economic freedom. Not Colombia is getting safer from kidnapping, while Venezuela is getting worse.

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