Law and Order: An Economics (sunk cost) Perspective

A raging debate is going on over at Colin Espiner’s blog on National’s new law and order policy. Given that people are making lots of arguments on both sides, I thought it might be worthwhile laying out an analytical framework for how an Economist might view the justice system. I’m not going to go into whether or not I think National’s policy is good or bad, that’s for you to decide.

Before we go any further we need to understand the concept of a sunk cost, as this will be crucial to my discussion. I’ll let you read the wikipedia definition, but put simply a sunk cost is one which cannot be recovered after it has been incurred. Therefore economic theory states that ex ante you should take into account the sunk portion of the cost of an action but that ex post the sunk portion should be ignored.

I’m going to use the term cost quite loosely here, it can refer to someone being impaired financially as the result of a robbery or suffering emotional harm as the result of a crime. This is not a discussion about the financial cost of running a prison system or anything like that (although I acknowledge that is an important issue).

Now, Let’s talk Justice

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