“Beccaria was an adamant regulator”


Cesare Beccaria

From Harper’s:

You suggest that members of the Chicago School, particularly Richard Posner, have drawn on the eighteenth-century Italian philosopher-statesman Cesare Beccaria in a way that falls short of fully understanding him. What did they miss?

 They missed his economics! It’s not entirely surprising, given that Beccaria’s economic writings have been forgotten by history and never translated into English. But Beccaria was primarily an economist. Joseph Schumpeter referred to him as the “Italian Adam Smith” — but in importance only. His economics, as you will see, were radically different than Smith’s. Beccaria was an adamant regulator, not just of proportional punishment, but of commerce and trade as well. The same year he published On Crimes and Punishments, he was computing algorithms for the optimal tariffs to augment the wealth of the prince. There was a perfect consistency in Beccaria’s thought that led him from his cameralist beliefs to a regulatory conception of criminal law, and that allowed him to see that markets are policed in the same way that we police the streets. He would teach his economics students about policing and finance in the same breath. Becker and Posner drew heavily on Beccaria’s punishment writings. In fact, Beccaria had articulated most of the important law-and-economics insights in the criminal area by 1764 (from marginal deterrence, to the trade-off between length and certainty of punishment, to the use of mathematical algorithms to solve criminal law questions). But they missed his cameralism and mercantilism, and as a result embraced an internal inconsistency: a strict, Beccarian regulatory framework for criminal law, but a hands-off approach to free-market exchange.

You show us that Le Mercier talked about limiting the role of government in the marketplace, yet when he was dispatched to govern Martinique he proved heavy-handed. Likewise you seem to think that libertarians, especially right libertarians, talk a good game about small government, but that if they got their hands on the rudder they might be harsh rulers. What’s your evidence for this proposition?

True-blooded right libertarians have never gotten their hands on the rudder in part because they eschew the kind of political compromise that’s required for electoral politics. Thinkers like Hayek, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, and for that matter Richard Epstein have had extraordinary intellectual influence, but have never been given the opportunity to steer the ship. To predict what would happen, you’d have to look at someone like Ronald Reagan, the rhetorical champion of small government — which would confirm my point. President Reagan was the great initiator of our national debt crisis. He tripled the debt, increasing it by $1.9 trillion, and set us on our present course of massive deficits. More to the point, he oversaw the prison buildup and the war on drugs. He and his attorney general, Edwin Meese, put us on the path to mass incarceration. Reagan spoke of limited government, but put into practice that paradoxical — and expensive — alchemy of purported privatization and the police state.

““The Illusion of Free Markets”: Six Questions for Bernard Harcourt”, Scott Horton, Harper’s