If Only the Aztecs Had Known

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.

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