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January 22, 2009


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If imprisonment leads to a substantial and permanent decrease in happiness that does not depend on length or frequency of incarceration, what incentive does a single offender have not to become a repeat offender? What does he stand to lose? If he stands to lose very little, the specific deterrence effect (i.e., the deterrence affecting an offender's own behavior) is minimal. One solution is to design punishment to inflict substantial but non-permanent decreases in happiness.


The debate is once again the confusion of gross (“may the punishment fit the crime”) and marginal conditions (marginal deterrence), a common error in the application of economic analysis. If we knew each criminals´ preferences, we could tailor the punishment to meet the requirement that the marginal deterrence for the criminal equal the relevant marginal social and incarceration costs for that criminal (“may the punishment fit the criminal”). Maybe pre-sentencing reports could be retooled in this direction, instead of being so cupatorily oriented. Retribution is too base a feeling to be permitted to mess up the analysis so.


There seems to be a missing link here (at least in this post, for those of us who were not at the talk). For reduced happiness to have much to do with deterrence, we have to assume that people act in a sufficiently happiness-maximizing way. Did the authors argue for this? There seems to be plenty of evidence that people do not act very rationally in terms of maximizing their own happiness, so I'm not sure why we would expect happiness-loss to translate neatly into deterrence.

Mark "the bird" Fetridge

Do the results of this research also apply to the happiness (or lose thereof) of the victims? If so, is proportionality at issue here? Wouldn't the victim not be affected as much as we once thought by the criminal act? I guess we would have to study the loss of happiness experienced by the victim in relation to the loss of happiness experienced by the criminal. I get the feeling that both of these people are running on similar "happiness treadmills" and that victims of crimes return to a level of happiness

I think if looked at this way, the question of deterrence is no longer at issue. This insignificant punishments may do little to deter prisoners from committing what we find through the application of hedonics to be insignificant crimes.

I think that we are making a mistake by looking at victimization (either as individuals or as a society) through a prism of "perceived" loss of happiness, but looking at the punishment from an "actual" loss of happiness perspective.

I think we should study the loss of happiness of the victims in comparison to the offender, and then the "perceived" loss of happiness of the victim in comparison to the offender. Actual loss will determine proportionality, perceived loss will determine deterrence.

Kimball Corson

How does one maximize happiness? The best I can do in that regard is avoid vexatious people and find something interesting to do or engage in, occasionally more or less with others. The mix of elements is hard to obtain and so therefore is maximizing happiness. I mean I do not want to work at it too hard.

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