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The neglected nuance of Beccaria’s theory of punishment


Cesare Beccaria is widely acknowledged by the pioneers of the economics of crime as an important influence on their work, especially in terms of deterrence and proportionality of punishment. However, there is much more nuance to Beccaria’s writings that economists can learn from, including a unique psychological point of view that predates behavioral law-and-economics, as well as aspects of his prescriptions regarding criminal penalties that resemble retributivism, a theory of punishment often contrasted with deterrence. A deeper appreciation of Beccaria’s work may result in a richer and more humanistic economic approach to crime.

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  1. 1.

    Throughout this paper, the parenthesized references cite the chapter number as well as the page number from the Hackett edition of Beccaria (1764).

  2. 2.

    See Becker (1968, 1993) and Posner (1985) for recognition of Beccaria’s legacy. For more on Beccaria’s influence on mathematical economics as well as his own economic views aside from the topic of crime and punishment, see Harcourt (2014).

  3. 3.

    For instance, see Jolls et al. (1998) and Sunstein (2000). For the purposes of exposition, I will refer to Becker as well as the field of the economics of crime, noting only when later developments differed significantly.

  4. 4.

    It should be noted as well that Bentham acknowledged Beccaria’s influence on his thought, particularly in the chapters of the Principles discussing proportionality in punishment.

  5. 5.

    Cooter (1998) makes the analogy between Holmes’ “bad man” and the economics of crime explicit. See also Medema (1993), Cooter (2006), and White (2008) regarding incorporating moral principles into the models of decision-making in the economic approach to the law.

  6. 6.

    This connection has been cited by others, such as DePauley (1925) and Harcourt (2014).

  7. 7.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for making this point.

  8. 8.

    On the economics of nonmonetary penalties, see Shavell (1985).

  9. 9.

    To reiterate his opinion of the lower classes, he wrote that this direct association is “of the utmost importance if one desires to arouse in crude and uneducated minds the idea of punishment with the seductive image of a certain advantageous crime” (XIX: 36–37).

  10. 10.

    Becker (1968: 195–198) noted the impact of wealth on the impact of imprisonment when calculating the monetary equivalent of prison time. For an economic analysis of the impact of imprisonment on prestige, see Lott (1992).

  11. 11.

    For recent research on the subjective nature of punishment and its importance, see Kolber (2009).

  12. 12.

    One exception is the burgeoning literature on virtue ethics and the law; see Farrelly and Solum (2008) and Amaya and Lai (2013).

  13. 13.

    See Cottingham (1979) and Walker (1999) on the various meanings and interpretations of retributivism.

  14. 14.

    For recent work on retributivism, see Moore (1997), White (2011), and Nadelhoffer (2013).

  15. 15.

    For rare instances of productive work on economics and retributivism, see Wittman (1974), Avio (1993), and White (2009, 2015).

  16. 16.

    For a critique of this argument, see White (2004).

  17. 17.

    On the differences between revenge and retributivism, see Zaibert (2006).

  18. 18.

    On VI: 14–15, Beccaria outlines a practical method for ranking crimes and punishments separately and then ensuring that more highly ranked punishments are applied to more highly crimes, a common method for assigning retributive penalties as well (see for instance Davis 1983).


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White, M.D. The neglected nuance of Beccaria’s theory of punishment. Eur J Law Econ 46, 315–329 (2018).

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  • Cesare Beccaria
  • Gary Becker
  • Punishment
  • Economics of crime
  • Deterrence
  • Retributivism
  • Psychology
  • Philosophy

JEL Classification

  • K14
  • K42
  • A13