Here’s something you don’t see every day, even if you follow the law reviews. On SSRN, George Mason University economist Peter Leeson has posted an abstract for a new paper that explains human sacrifice in terms of property rights (Human Sacrifice). Although economists typically dismiss the practice as irrational, he argues, human sacrifice is actually a rational social strategy that allows a group to signal to outsiders that it’s poor and therefore not worth plundering. Religious commandments are useful in creating incentives — to get people comfortable with the idea of ritual immolation — but really are only secondary. Leeson hasn’t posted his paper on SSRN, but you can find it on his website. Here’s the abstract:
This paper develops a theory of rational human sacrifice: the purchase and ritual slaughter of innocent persons to appease divinities. I argue that human sacrifice is a technology for protecting property rights. It improves property protection by destroying part of sacrificing communities’ wealth, which depresses the expected payoff of plundering them. Human sacrifice is a highly effective vehicle for destroying wealth to protect property rights because it’s an excellent public meter of wealth destruction. Human sacrifice is spectacular, publicly communicating a sacrificer’s destruction far and wide. And immolating a live person is nearly impossible to fake, verifying the amount of wealth a sacrificer has destroyed. To incentivize community members to contribute wealth for destruction, human sacrifice is presented as a religious obligation. To test my theory I investigate human sacrifice as practiced by the most significant and well-known society of ritual immolators in the modern era: the Konds of Orissa, India. Evidence from the Konds supports my theory’s predictions.
I don’t know enough about the Konds or economics to evaluate Professor Leeson’s paper, but it does suggest a strategy for religious communities that seek to influence public debate. Don’t make sectarian arguments that might be inaccessible and off-putting to non-believers. Find an economist.