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WTF! An Economic Tour of the Weird

The first thing to say about this podcast is that we discover that the dismal science isn’t always dismal. In this Economics Detective Radio podcast  the host, Garret Peterson, discusses the economic reasoning behind some of history’s strangest practices with Peter Leeson, the author of WTF?!: An Economic Tour of the Weird.

I found this podcast enjoyable and fascinating, not least because I listened whilst carrying out a spring cleaning job I really hate – cleaning the inside of the conservatory.

One thing I’ve learned over the years listening to economists, more so than reading their books, is that economics isn’t really a subject; it’s a way of thinking. Economists look at the world differently and Peter has that skill in abundance. We’ve all heard about trial by ordeal and trial by combat at school from our history teachers, but I’ll bet none of them ever gave an explanation why they could be not only rational but make society quite productive.

Trial by ordeal sounds quite as brutal and medieval as it was but in Peter’s analysis it’s quite a rational way to get to the big problem for courts, the private information about whether the accused is innocent or guilty which is only held by the accused.

To understand why trial by ordeal rational we need to start from the position that everyone believes not only in God, but that he will intervene to prevent the injustice of an innocent man having his arm boiled off. It is also worth noting that the trials were carried out by priests.

So how did Peter rationalise it? The guilty man isn’t going to have his arm boiled off and take whatever punishment is due as well, and so is incentivised to admit the crime because there’s no way God will protect them. On the other hand the innocent person, believing that God will spare him, will opt for the boiling water. But to work it also has to be seen to work and although we know that God won’t be intervening, the practice was around for quite some time so it must have been trusted, and this is where the priest comes in. We know from our history lessons that quite a few did also get their arms boiled off but for the system to work Peter speculates that if the priest believes the accused they would dial down the temperature.

Trial by combat gets the same treatment. I’d forgotten that it only took place over land disputes and that the combatants didn’t usually die. Peter’s solution for this practice being popular and lasting is quite straight forward; it’s effectively an auction to discover who values the land the most. The difference being that they aren’t paying directly for the land but the best champion and so the land goes to the most productive use. The interesting part of this section is the discussion around how the State is kept out of the process and therefore can’t find a way to push up the price.

In the third section Peter discusses wife auctions during the time of the industrial revolution. The background to these was that whilst women could own wealth and property once they go married it became their husband’s. There probably wasn’t much wealth anyway because this only took place amongst the lower socio economic orders but what there was transferred. This lack of property rights for married made it difficult for them when they were stuck in unhappy marriages because divorce wasn’t an option.

The solution that evolved was wife auctions. This may sound brutal and have undertones of slavery but as Peter points out it really was quite different because the wife got to veto the buyer. There was some speculation that the buyers were really the woman’s lover but Peter has found evidence that some men used agents to find them a suitable wife. The discussion on what was paid is quite amusing, although Peter reckons it is really hard to get to the bottom of the value paid for these women he did point out that one woman went for a flagon of ale and a few pence, others for a few animals.

The final section discussion is the real WTF part of this podcast. I hadn’t heard this before but in early Renaissance Italy, Switzerland and France rodents and insects were legal persons and could find themselves in the dock whenever infestations or swarms occurred. Cases weren’t always accepted but when they did start they went the whole 9 yards, giving the defendants legal council, sometimes quite senior and well known people, and trials could last months.

It gets even more bizarre when we learn that if found guilty that the defendants were excommunicated and anathemas issued, presumably they believed the defendants had been excommunicated. They even went to the extent of putting written notices in woods notifying them that they had been found guilty and asking for the message to be passed on.

So how does Peter rationalise this behaviour?

I really haven’t got the skill to get this one across in a few words and do Peter justice, so you’ll have to go and listen, from about 45 minutes. Suffice to say it would make Richard Murphy proud, he of the tax campaigning notoriety, because its to do with tax  tithe evasion.

THE BOOK WTF?!: An Economic Tour of the Weird by Peter Leeson

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Arthur the Cat
Arthur the Cat
6 years ago

For those interested in the odder parts of history and why they made sense to people at the time, I can recommend “Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds” by Darren Oldridge.

As an example from the book, if you believe medieval Christian eschatology then atheists look to you like zombie plagues look to the modern world, and of course it makes sense to kill them on sight before they can spread the deadly infection.

6 years ago

The sub-plot of The Merchant of Venice is about a sort of wife auction. Portia tells Bassanio not to take the test but rather live in sin with her.

So Much For Subtlety
So Much For Subtlety
6 years ago

The problem with this is that it is based on an almost perfect lack of knowledge about Confession. Why would the priest tell? Why would the priest know? Why would the priest care? Why wouldn’t he assume what everyone else does – that God will know His own? Why would no one talk and leave us with some evidence this is what happened? Why would the priest be in charge – the same priest what is more? This looks like a modern Middle Class intellectual’s effort to rationalize the past. It couldn’t have been that bloody and brutal! They must… Read more »

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