Political Economy of Crime and Punishment Under Stalin

Public Choice (2009) 140: 463–478 DOI 10.1007/s11127-009-9430-2 Political economy of crime and punishment under Stalin Eugenia Belova · Paul Gregory Received: 13 November 2008 / Accepted: 12 March 2009 / Published online: 24 March 2009 © Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009 Abstract Why do dictatorships favor harsher punishments than democracies? We use a rational choice approach to explain the stylized facts of Stalin’s dictatorship—preference for harsh sanctions, higher incarceration r
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  Public Choice (2009) 140: 463–478DOI 10.1007/s11127-009-9430-2 Political economy of crime and punishment under Stalin Eugenia Belova · Paul Gregory Received: 13 November 2008 / Accepted: 12 March 2009 / Published online: 24 March 2009© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009 Abstract Why do dictatorships favor harsher punishments than democracies? We use arational choice approach to explain the stylized facts of Stalin’s dictatorship—preference forharsh sanctions, higher incarceration rates, greater use of capital punishment, low tolerancefor theft of state property and workplace violations. They are shown to be explained by thepreferences of a rational dictator, who does not internalize the social and private cost of punishment. Keywords Economics of crime · Comparative economics · Dictatorship · Socialism JEL Classification K4 · N4 · N14 · P2 · P3 1 Introduction The formerly secret Soviet archives yield the stylized facts about crime and punishmentduring the quarter century of Stalin’s rule, which we date to 1928–1953. In addition to ex-tremely high incarceration rates, these facts include forced labor camps in place of prisons,presumption of guilt, criminal offenses as political crimes, high rates of capital punishment,zero tolerance forcrimes againststate property, andcriminalization ofworkplace violations.Stalin’s law enforcement represents a case study of a dictatorial objective function unfil-tered by collective leadership or intermediaries. The mining of the archives has establishedbeyond a shadow of doubt the tight personal control Stalin exerted over repressive policies(Khlevnyuk 1996; Baberowski2003; and ISG2004: introduction). The archives rule out the E. BelovaHoover Institution, Stanford University, Galvez Mall, Stanford, CA 9435-6010, USAe-mail:ebelova@yahoo.comP. Gregory (  )Department of Economics, University of Houston, Houston, TX 77204-5882,  464 Public Choice (2009) 140: 463–478 “Stalin as an uninformed pawn” interpretation of repression (Getty1985). Stalin’s repres-sion policies, therefore, allow us to penetrate directly into the mind of a dictator, exercisingstrict control over a large society, military, and economy.Inthispaper,weadaptaneconomictheoryofcrimeframeworkasformulatedbyPolinskyand Shavell (1992,2000) to explain the facts of Stalinist justice. We are not the first to employ such models for this purpose: Becker (1968: 184) used communist countries as anillustration for a central point of his seminal article: “There was a tendency... even todayin many Communist and underdeveloped countries, to punish those convicted of criminaloffences rather severely, at the same time that the probability of capture and convictionwas set at rather low values.” In other words, a “rational” Stalin offset low apprehensionprobabilities with severe penalties.Section2presents the empirical findings and stylized facts. Section3presents the theory of crime and law enforcement and our extension of the standard model. In Sect.4we usethe model to explain the logic of Stalin’s law enforcement policies and draw some generalconclusions in Sect.5. 2 Specifics of Stalinist law enforcement 2.1 Preference for harsh sanctionsThe most notorious feature of Soviet law enforcement in general, and especially that of the Stalin period, is its strong preference for harsh sanctions—long incarcerations and ex-ecutions. Even labor discipline violations and managerial miscues were subject to harshpunishment. Fines were rarely used. In contrast, democracies have a strong preference forfines relative to prison sentences or executions. Fines in civil cases are mostly transfers froma wrongdoer to the wronged party. Only criminal fines are transfers to the state. In a so-cialist dictatorship, most crimes are against the dictator (the “owner” of all assets) and areinterpreted and punished differently.Figure1shows that Stalin’s Russia used fines infrequently relative to custodial sentencesand corrective labor sentences. Custodial sentences were used to punish political crimes,theft, and “more serious” violations of labor discipline, like unauthorized job changes. Cor-rective labor sentences were used to punish minor labor offenses such as tardiness, slacking,and poor work. They were comprised of two components—a reduction in pay and the possi-bility of being sent to remote locations or commandeered to construction projects. Notably,near the end of the Czarist period, less than ten percent of criminal convictions resulted inprison sentences. More than 90 percent were sentenced to “corrective punishments” otherthan prison. 1 The high frequency of the death penalty, euphemistically called the “highest measure of social defense”, is the starkest evidence of the preference for harsh punishment. From 1940to 1953, the Soviet Union executed an average of 19,000 people per year. If we add in theGreat Terror of 1937–1938, executions rise to almost 54,000 per year. Executions sloweddown in the last eight years of Stalin’s rule to 918 per year (if we accept the unlikely claimof no executions in 1948 and 1949). These high rates of capital punishment representeda break with the Czarist past, despite its waves of political assassinations and rebellions.Between 1901 and 1912, 4,191 persons were executed, yielding an annual average of 349(ISG2004: 607). 1 Statistichesky Ezhegodnik Rossii (1913): IV, 5.  Public Choice (2009) 140: 463–478 465 Fig. 1 Fines, corrective labor, and custodial sentences Table 1 USSR criminal statisticsNumber Per100,0001. Institutionalized population in camps, colonies and prisons, 1953 2 , 621 , 000 1 , 5582. Institutionalized population plus special settlers (excluding children) 4 , 301 , 000 2 , 6053. Prison sentences per year (1940–1953) 7104. Average annual executions (1940–1953) 18 , 9005. Average annual executions (1937–1953) 53 , 500 Sources: Zemskov1991; Poliakov2001: 180–183; Luneev2006 2.2 High rates of incarcerationAt the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, the institutionalized population was over 2.5 million,or 1,558 prisoners per 100,000 population (Table1). This incarceration rate was ten timesthat of the United States for the same year. 2 On the eve of the October revolution in 1917,there were fewer than 100,000 persons incarcerated in a country of roughly the same size. 3 The Soviet incarceration figure does not include deportees to remote regions. Such “specialsettlers” technically were not imprisoned, but they were forbidden to leave their settlements 2 Available from 3 Statistichesky Ezhegodnik Rossii (1913): IV, 9.  466 Public Choice (2009) 140: 463–478 and were deprived of rights of citizenship. If we add adult special settlers, the 1953 insti-tutionalized population rises 67 percent to a rate of 2,605 per 100,000 population. Annualprison sentences (1940–1953) were 710 per 100,000, five times the US rate for the sameperiod.2.3 Criminalization of economic behaviorThe Stalinist regime criminalized managerial failures, engineering mistakes, industrial ac-cidents, and work discipline violations. Such actions are not criminal offenses in marketeconomies, but materialize as losses to business owners, as firings, or as judgments in civilsuits. Only rare and extreme cases, such as security fraud, bribery, theft of company assets,insider trading, serious vandalism or hooliganism, and the like are punished by criminalsanctions.Throughout Stalin’s rule, managerial errors and accidents were investigated as possi-ble criminal acts punishable as treason. Counterrevolutionary acts were defined to include“weakening... the fundamental economic, political, and national gains of the proletarianrevolution... undermining state production, transport, trade, monetary relations or the creditsystem, or likewise cooperative trade, done with counterrevolutionary purposes,” or “failureto perform defined duties or their intentionally negligent fulfillment, with the purpose of weakening state authority” (Cunningham2000). Such a broad definition expanded the poolof potential counterrevolutionaries. Even if we exclude the dekulakization (1930–1932) andGreat Terror (1937–1938)campaigns, treason convictions averaged 53,000 per year between1929 and 1953. In most societies, treason convictions are rare, numbering in the tens or hun-dreds. It is difficult to break the 53,000 average into “economic” and “political” crimes (of-ten the distinction was blurred), but economic counter-revolution accounted for a substantialportion, perhaps a third. 4 For rare years in which occupational data are available (such as1950), almost half of those arrested by state security worked in state enterprises or planning(Mozokhin2006: 424–426). Managers and officials could also be convicted for lesser “oc-cupational violations” or “nonfulfillment of state obligations” by regular courts. Between1937 and 1953, 2.1 million people were convicted of occupational crimes by regular courtsfor an annual average of 125,000 (ISG2004: 613–615).Work-discipline violations were turned over to the criminal courts starting in 1940 afterearlier being subject to administrative sanctions, such as loss of housing or ration cards.The landmark June 26, 1940 decree criminalized workplace offenses by mandating shortprison terms for workers changing jobs without permission and imposed “corrective labor”sentences for unauthorized absences, slacking, and tardiness. Other decrees criminalizingwork place behavior followed shortly thereafter, and the number of criminal convictionssoared. Justice ministry statisticians had to add explanatory notes to explain the signifi-cant increases. These laws remained on the books until after Stalin’s death. For the period1940–1953, there were 11 million convictions for unauthorized job changes (annual aver-age 791,000) and 13 million convictions for labor discipline violations (annual average of 933,000). The number of jail sentences of one year or less was 3.6 million (the prescribedsentence for job changing) and corrective labor sentences (the penalty for disciplinary vio-lations) were 16 million (ISG2004: 616–617). 4 According to the statistics published by the newly established NKVD for its first half year of existence (fromJuly 11, 1934 to year end), 43,191 of its cases were for economic offenses, for a total of 31 percent of totalinvestigations (see: Mozokhin2006: 321–323).
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