The Strange Political Economy of Kidnapping
In the United States, stereotypical kidnappings are almost non-existent. But in some Third World countries – especially Latin America – the problem’s quite serious. Mexico’s up to 8000 reported kidnappings per year, and experts plausibly claim that over 90% of kidnappings aren’t reported. The problem has improved drastically in Colombia – which peaked at almost 3600 in 2000, but in 2007 there were still over 500.
Conceptually, the kidnapping problem is not hard to solve. Kidnappers kidnap because the benefits exceed the costs. The obvious solution is to raise the costs by imposing harsher, surer punishments. So why hasn’t this already happened? Consider the standard explanations for dysfunctional policy:
1. Voter irrationality. It’s usually my favorite explanation, but in this case, it doesn’t seem to work. Don’t voters in every country abhor kidnapping and support harsh punishments for it?
2. Elite malevolence. Even if voters have no real say over policy, political leaders and other elites should be especially eager to solve the problem. After all, the rich and their families are top targets.
3. Special interests. Kidnapping is terrible for tourism, so at least one major interest group should enthusiastically support tougher measures. Other than criminals, what special interests would be on the other side?
4. Corruption. In Latin America, the police often turn out to be involved in kidnapping. But conceptually, the corruption problem isn’t that hard, either. There’s the Lee Kwan Yew solution: Raise the salaries of the brightest and cleanest bureaucrats, fire the rest, and impose draconian punishments on backsliders. If that doesn’t work, there’s outsourcing to firms from higher-trust societies. Bring in the Swiss, Swedes, or Singaporeans to run your internal affairs department.
So what’s the right story? Before you answer, ponder this striking fact: The tiny Green Party is Mexico’s most vocal proponent of the death penalty for kidnapping.