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No Wonder There Was a Revolution

August 9, 2011

Most people assume that tougher penalties deter crime, but there is reason to doubt it.

Here is a case from before the French Revolution.

The copy monopoly in those days concerned fabric patterns. It was in France, prior to the revolution. Some patterns were more popular than others, and to get some additional revenue to the crown’s tax coffers, the King sold a monopoly on these patterns to selected members of the nobility, who in turn could charge an arm and a leg for them (and did so).

But the peasants and commoners could produce these patterns themselves. They could produce pirated copies of the fabrics, outside of the nobility’s monopoly. So the nobility went to the King and demanded that the monopoly they had bought with good money should be upheld by the King’s force.

The King responded by introducing penalties for pirating these fabrics. Light punishments at first, then gradually tougher. Towards the end, the penalty was death by public torture, drawn out over several days. And it wasn’t just a few poor sods who were made into public examples: sixteen thousand people, almost entirely common folk, died by execution or in the violent clashes that surrounded the monopoly. In practice, everybody knew somebody who had been horribly executed for pirating.

Here’s the fascinating part:

Capital punishment didn’t even make a dent in the pirating of the fabrics. Despite the fact that some villages had been so ravaged that everybody knew somebody personally who had been executed by public torture, the copying continued unabated at the same level.

I have doubts about these numbers. In any case, A.R.J. Turgot wrote the following in praise Gournay: “He could not see why this piece of cloth, for failing to conform to certain regulations, should be cut up into fragments of three ells in length, and why the unfortunate man who had made it should be ordered to pay a penalty, enough to reduce him and his family to poverty. He could not conceive why a workman, when making a piece of cloth, should be exposed to risks and expenses from which an idle man was exempt. He could not see of what use it might be that a manufactured piece of cloth should involve legal procedures and tedious discussions in order to establish whether it conformed to an extensive system of regulation, often difficult to understand, nor did he think that such discussions ought to be held between a manufacturer who cannot read and an inspector who cannot manufacture, nor that that inspector should yet be the final judge of the fortune of the unlucky man, etc.”

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