Church Life and Pastoral Care, Public Life

Economists vs. F.M. DostoyevskyThe Role of Christ’s Church in Crime and Punishment

Published on: June 16, 2023
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Image: Vladislav Ribnikar Elementary School, Belgrade (Credit: Nikolina Šepić)

It was Garry S. Becker who, in his seminal 1968 paper, introduced economics to the area of crime and punishment. Academic economists, who disagree among themselves about so many issues, concur about crime and punishment. Out of four main universally accepted motives of punishment (retribution, incapacitation, rehabilitation [i.e., resocialization], and deterrence), economists agree that deterrence is pivotal—that harsh punishment deters potential offenders from committing a crime. For economists, it is all about incentives for people not to commit crimes in the future, and the fate of the individual who already committed one is irrelevant. They agree that if a prison sentence is an inefficient one, that it does not produce results, then it should be replaced by substantial fines, stipulated not in absolute terms but as a percentage of the wealth of the offender. It is the role of the government (state) to promulgate statutes with harsh punishments and to increase the probability of punishment enforcement to deter people from committing crimes.

Another view was published more than one hundred years before Becker’s paper in F.M. Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It is the words of Father Paissy in his fictional debate with Ivan Karamazov on ecclesiastical courts and the scope of their rights (Book II, Chapter 5: “So Be It! So Be It!”) that provide a thorough analysis of punishment in 19th-century Russia and stipulate the foundation of desirable (just and efficient) punishment, perhaps Dostoyevsky’s own views on the issue. Let us learn it from Father Paissy:

If it were not for Christ’s Church, indeed there would be no restraint on the criminal in his evildoing, and no punishment for it later, real punishment, that is, not a mechanical one such as has just been mentioned, which only chafes the heart in most cases, but a real punishment, the only real, the only frightening and appeasing punishment, which lies in the acknowledgement of one’s own conscience (p. 52-53).

This passage builds the ground for desirable punishment which is in “acknowledgement of one’s own conscience.” Desirable sanction is an internal one, as moral norms are violated by the crime.

All this exile to hard labor, and formerly with floggings, does not reform anyone, and above all does not even frighten almost any criminal, and the number of crimes not only does not diminish but increases all the more. […] And it turns out that society, thus, is not protected at all, for although the harmful member is mechanically cut off and sent far away out of sight, another criminal appears at once to take his place, perhaps even two others (p. 53).

Quite a succinct diagnostic of incarceration in 19th century Russia. It “does not reform anyone,” meaning that there is no rehabilitation/resocialization; it “does not even frighten,” meaning that no deterrence is accomplished, and although incapacitation is achieved as the “harmful member is mechanically cut off and sent far away out of sight,” it is not effective, as “another criminal appears at once to take his place, perhaps even two others”—exactly crime supply substitution—so it is evident why “the number of crimes not only does not diminish but increases all the more.”

What is the way out of this vicious circle? According to Father Paissy, “Thus, the modern criminal is capable of acknowledging his guilt before the Church alone, and not before the state. If it were so that judgment belonged to society as the Church, then it would know whom to bring back from excommunication and reunite with itself.” (p. 53). As to the diagnostics of the effects of incarceration as punishment, economists are not far away from Dostoyevsky’s Father Paissy.

It is Father Paissy who describes the secular, non-ecclesiastical courts that make sure that “Society cuts him [the offender—auth.] off from itself quite mechanically by the force that triumphs over him, and accompanies that excommunication with hatred (so, at least, they say about themselves in Europe)—with hatred and complete indifference and forgetfulness of his subsequent fate as their brother” (p. 53). Based on the reference to the contribution of economic analysis of crime and punishments and the views of Dostoyevsky’s Father Paissy—not only those quoted in this paper—a short table disclosing the main differences follows:

Becker
(economists, his followers)
Dostoyevsky
(Fr. Paissy)
Sources of the ruleStatute – Penal CodeMoral – Ethical norms
Type of punishmentFineInternal (moral) sanction
Mechanism of punishment specificationStipulated by statutes, equal for every offenderDifferent, bespoke for each offender
Management of punishment policyMagnitude of the fine and probability of punishmentSpreading out Christianity, i.e. the ethical norms, to more people
AuthorityGovernment/StateChrist’s Church
Fate of the offenderIrrelevantCentral

The bottom line is that an individual who committed a crime for economists has only instrumental value, nothing else. By harsh and highly likely, almost certain punishment, the government/state signals that the crime does not pay; deterrence is achieved.

It is Dostoyevsky who deals, especially in Crime and Punishment, with the offender, offering him an opportunity for admitting the crime, for catharsis, redemption, rebirth, and new life, as on the last pages of the novel.

Economics does not deal with notions of guilt, redemption, atonement, and rebirth. It will not start soon.

Although the table simplifies, as human dilemmas and choices are more much complicated, I had this very table in my mind standing in front of elementary school Vladislav Ribnikar in Belgrade, Serbia, a day after a May 2023 massacre in which a 13-year-old student deliberately and in cold blood killed nine of his peers and their guardian. That was my elementary school; I graduated in 1970. In the ultimate silence of the place, I chose one of the table columns. Which one would you pick?

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Boris Begović

    Boris Begović

    Professor of Economics (retired) at the School of Law, University of Belgrade

    Boris Begovic (1956) is a professor of economics at the School of Law, University of Belgrade (retired) and a senior fellow at the Center for Liberal-Democratic Studies (CLDS), Belgrade, Serbia. He received his education at the University in Belgrade, London School of Economic and JFK School of Gove...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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