Expand Bounty Hunting

Why do most people want their teachers, doctors, detectives, soldiers, park rangers, etc. to be state employees, or heavily regulated “professionals,” instead of vigorously competing business-folk? Yes, many specific market failure rationales are offered, but it seems to me that humans also feel a psychological need to keep their sacred social institutions looking similar to the families, bands, and fiefdoms of their distant ancestors. We want something like key people swearing an oath of loyalty to us and our dearest norms; otherwise it just doesn’t feel right.

Such psychological needs seem to me our biggest barriers to making an efficient flexible legal system capable of rapid and effective adaptation to the huge sudden economic changes I foresee. We insist, for example, that those who investigate and prosecute criminal law must be state employees operating under a single unified command, as in an ancient fiefdom. And even though for-profit bounty hunters have been consistently cheaper and more effective at making accused folks show up for trial, most nations ban such hunters, and legal elites in the few remaining nations very much want to do the same (Quotes below.)

Yet it seems to me that we’d probably be better off if generalized bounty hunters replaced government detectives and prosecutors on most sorts of crime! Here’s how it could work. For each type of crime, we’d set a bounty amount to be paid to anyone who successfully convinced a court that a particular in-custody person had committed that sort of crime. (What to do with the guilty party is then a separate issue.) We’d have to decide what investigative powers to grant bounty hunters, what regulations to impose on them, and what plea-bargains to allow. We’d also have to set rules on when to detain suspects, and how to prevent double jeopardy. (Options below.) We might want especially solid anti-trust regulations, to prevent bounty hunters from conspiring to create a police state.

But if such regulations worked, we’d gain the advantages of economic competition – not only better efficiency, specialization, and adaptation to change, but also more uniform legal treatment and reduced corruption. Instead of having the level of crime enforcement vary by neighborhood or ethnicity, as it does now, or having police and prosecutors go easy on their friends and extra hard on those they dislike, profit-driven bounty hunter firms would be just as eager to prosecute similar crimes regardless where they happened or by who. And each bounty hunter firm would be eager to profit by exposing the crimes of its competitors. This stands in stark contrast to the way we now tolerate corruption by having crime labs and corruption investigators report to the same police chief who would be embarrassed by exposed corruption.

The main downsides of this approach are close to its upsides: we’d actually uniformly enforce the laws on our books. Politically connected people and districts could less use “suction” to tilt the scales of justice their way, and we’d have to admit when we aren’t serious about enforcing laws with very low bounties. We’d also have to admit when we can’t solve cases, and can’t find something to pin on undesirables.

Now for those promised quotes. From the NYT in ’08:

In England, Canada and other countries, agreeing to pay a defendant’s bond in exchange for money is a crime. … Four states — Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon and Wisconsin — have abolished commercial bail bonds, relying instead on systems that require deposits to courts instead of payments to private businesses, or that simply trust defendants to return for trial. Most of the legal establishment … hates the bail bond business, saying it discriminates against poor and middle-class defendants, does nothing for public safety, and usurps decisions that ought to be made by the justice system. …

Commercial bail bond companies dominate the pretrial release systems of only two nations, the United States and the Philippines. … Critics [complain] defendants who have not been convicted of a crime and who turn up for every court appearance are nonetheless required to pay a nonrefundable fee to a private business. …

According to the Justice Department and academic studies, the clients of commercial bail bond agencies are more likely to appear for court in the first place and more likely to be captured if they flee than those released under other forms of supervision. That may be because bail bond companies have financial incentives and choose their clients carefully. …

Still, critics say, efficiency and business considerations should not trump the evenhanded application of justice. … Bond companies … have every incentive to collude with lawyers, the police, jail officials and even judges to make sure that bail is high. … The Oregon prosecutor said doing away with commercial bonds had [hurt] the justice system. … The failure-to-appear rate has skyrocketed.

Now for some details. Keeping bounty amounts near fine amounts avoids many problems, though raising fines and lowering bounties allows for cheaper deterrence. Regarding when to detain a suspect, and how to avoid double jeopardy, I’d suggest using open prediction markets, a la Michael Abramowicz. Detain a suspect when his market odds of guilt pass a threshold, and let the first firm whose odds of successful prosecution pass a threshold gain the right to prosecute.  Let them lose that right if prosecution hasn’t begun and their odds fall below a threshold.  If several firms have above-threshold odds from the get-go, pick the one with highest odds.

I’d also suggest slowly raising the bounty amount with time elapsed since the crime was committed; this let’s us pay a low price to solve easy cases, yet still offer a high price for hard cases. The bounty amount should get fixed when a firm gains the right to prosecute.

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  • y81

    The author is inappropriately combining several professions or businesses into one category. With respect to doctors (there are other examples), their labors are difficult for laypeople to appraise by casual inspection, so we want them regulated, just as we want the manufacturers of highly complex and dangerous products regulated.

    With respect to soldiers (and maybe policemen), history has taught that those who are given a monopoly on the right to use force have a strong tendency to use that monopoly to seize power and wealth for themselves. Hence members of those professions must be carefully screened and heavily regulated, for reasons very different than those that apply to doctors.

    • Drewfus

      And who will regulate the regulators?

      • Doug S.
      • Drewfus


        And in whose interest does everybody act in this capacity?

    • Anonymous

      The army currently has a practical monopoly on force, and yet they haven’t seized power.

      In addition, a system could easily exist with both a public army and private forces- as long as the balance of power wasn’t too far in favor of the private forces, a mix of a reluctance to embark on a risky civil war, the consequences of failure and democratic indoctrination would restrain private forces from a coup.

  • Robin,

    One thing I’d love to hear from you: if we’re moderate pessimistic about the extent to which laws will be changed to allow for rapid, technologically-driven economic progress, what does that do to “singularity” scenarios?

  • wladimir

    It’s a very dangerous idea to privatize law enforcement. For example, mercenary organizations have a very bad name (think Blackwater). Not that police and military are perfect, but at least they are bound to a democratically chosen government instead of a dictatorial profit-driven corporation.

    Also, they probably will form a cartel. Economy of scale means that eventually you will have only one or two huge profitable ‘detective’ organizations. Like seen in other sectors, these will do everything to keep their oligopoly. And it’s even easier for them as they have much more power than your average bank or IT giant…

    And what makes you think that doing this would change the difference between neighborhoods? In my opinion, it would make it worse. Prosecuting crimes against rich people would be much more profitable than crimes against poor people, as they can offer magnitudes higher bounties.

    As for doctors and teachers, privatizing them will mean that the rich get the good medical treatment and education, and the poor will have to do with ‘budget’ options. This reduces class mobility, as it is an excellent way to keep the poor dumb and unhealthy. And envious, thus causing more crime, which brings us back to the beginning 🙂

    • kevin

      Most comments so far have been dismissive of mercs, but nobody is presenting any evidence that mercs or bounty hunters are more dangerous than uniformed soldiers or cops. Everyone is just speculating that they might be worse because they are profit-seeking, ignoring the fact that soldiers and police officers also have financial incentives. In contrast, Robin’s quoted article lists known statistical benefits of private law enforcement: failure to appear rates skyrocket without bounty hunters.

      The irony is that this is exactly the bias RH is talking about. It’s like a post about Illusory Superiority having a comments thread where everybody says, “yeah but I really am better than average at everything.”

      • Jack

        Wish I could upvote this or something.

      • Joseph K

        Detectives used to be for hire. Apparently the whole practice was ended by the Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893, which oddly was passed to limit the government’s ability to hire strikebreakers (since the Pinkerton Detective Agencies, among other things, worked to mediate labor disputes). Whether they did better or as good as current police detectives, there’s no clear indication they did worse. There were many detective agencies who competed for business and certainly there must have been variation in quality. The Pinkerton Detective Agency for one was well regarded and considered to be very effective.

        And mercenary soldiers used to be quite popular, for obvious reasons – they were skilled specialists who were better and more experienced and one didn’t have to pay them during times of peace. Machiavelli was against them because he thought they lacked devotion and were unreliable because they didn’t fight for patriotism. But historically this was rarely a problem, and they were generally quite effective. On balance, I think mercenaries are better than standing armies; namely, standing armies are a burdensome expense which the state is tempted to overuse. If the state had to actually justify to its people the hiring of mercenaries every time it went to war, war would be less popular.

        It’s hard to say whether it’s a good idea in all cases, but I think in the case of detective agencies it definitely is. In the case of mercenary armies, I think there are potential advantages.

      • Well put.

        One of the particularly ugly abuses by police departments lately is their asset forfeiture and seizure. A law initially put in place to seize the assets of those getting rich off of crimes – drug kingpins and fences for stolen items – has been expanded to include seizure of any ‘asset’ used in a crime. Edmonton Alberta has radio commercials bragging about how the police will steal your car, if you’re caught picking up a prostitute in it. While banning street solicitation may or may not be valid, taking away the John’s automobile seems unneccasarily abusive.

        Futhermore, the asset seizure is a civil matter – you have to prove that you’re innocent, not the other way around, and with court costs approaching $10 000 to recover your seized property it is often not worth the expense. Many individuals are never convicted, or even prosecuted for the crime they allegedly committed, but they still lose their property.

        In some areas up to 40% of the police department’s budget is based upon asset seizure and forfeiture.

        In cases where private law enforcement seem to be abusive – the ImPark parking lot managers here in Calgary, or the photo-radar companies in Arizona – it is generally the case that a single company has a government-granted monopoly. Hanson’s suggestion is premised pon competition.

        Also, it’s worth noting that historically Mercenaries have often held themselves to a high ethical standard, refusing service to people they consider unjust. Compared to the abuses commited by national armies, the Mercs ain’t so bad.

        [If you’re screaming ‘citation needed’ do a quick search of Reason Magazine – this is only a comment, not a post on my own blog]

    • Drewfus

      wladimir, what your suggesting in the last paragraph is that the point of health care should be to act as a proxy for higher social mobility. So private health care is focused on health care, whereas socialized health care carries the extra burden of ‘equality of access’, which must affect its performance.

      A case in point – in Australia in the early 70’s, before the establishment of Medicare, the number of hospital beds per capita was double the current level, but health spending was only 5% of GDP, versus 10% today. So perhaps the relative level of health services for the poor is a little better than back then (or perhaps not), but the poor are now paying GST to pay for it, so they’re no better off, and the rest of us are behind.

    • m

      with regard to teachers, that’s more or less how it is today – the rich can afford the better private schools and everyone else is stuck with public schools, which are more or less deplorable. the answer would be to improve teacher training, and make it harder to become a teacher in the first place. privatizing schools would mean more money for teachers and teacher education programs.

  • These days, those days

    It would be important to make the bounty hunters suffer for false accusations, in the form of paying court costs and restitution to the falsely accused. In earlier legal systems, the accusing victim often played a much greater role in the trial than he does today; and that is precisely why these older legal systems knew it was important to build that safeguard into the system. Our modern legal systems seem to assume (and to be mostly right in assuming) that false criminal accusations will be simply dropped by the police, and paying the lawyer’s fees for a groundless lawsuit. But even so, modern law needs a penalty for truly frivolous accusations, and it would become more important once you bring back a strong role for bounty hunters and victims seeking restitution. But as long as there’s a way to deal with that moral hazard, this seems like it could be beneficial.

  • Marcus

    Presumably you’ve figured out some way to stop peeps from putting extra bounty on their competitors?

    And how would you remove the problem of the financial incentives to frame peeps? Sure, cops and prosecutors do it all the time for personal gain or CYA…now everyone?

  • Psychohistorian

    There are a number of not-insignificant problems with this, that I imagine would be obvious to anyone not seeking to be contrarian.

    I’ll mention, offhand, that there are serious civil rights concerns, and we prefer prosecutorial discretion – there are some crimes we often don’t wan’t enforced – and the accountability of DA’s to the electorate. Corruption would likely go up. It would also probably encourage the prosecution of certain easy to prove crimes of hard to prove ones – or encourage evidence fabrication in the case of the latter.

    But let me focus on something more interesting, which tends to be a serious issue you overlook in many of your ideas and one that I think forms much of the basis for our intuitive objections thereto. Such a move would massively undermine interpersonal public trust, which is a crucial foundation of all successful economies. Right now, I do not worry about breaking laws around my friends, so long as that violation is not major. That is, if I shot someone, I’d expect people I know to turn me in. But if I jaywalked, or smoked pot, or failed to leash my dog, or illegally downloaded music, I generally wouldn’t worry about being turned in for it. Now, there’s something to be said for better enforcement, but that isn’t all that would happen. If I were concerned that I might break the law even in a minor way, I’d have to be paranoid that people might find out, because even my friends would have a material incentive to turn me in. Also, people I’ve recently met might trick me into criminal conduct in the hopes of being able to cash in on prosecuting me. This (not unlike your idea of being able to sue people for accidental benefits you give them) would substantially alter behaviour and greatly reduce trust. Simply put, people don’t want to live in a world where anyone at all could profit by catching them doing something illegal, because it would require laws to be more precisely written and just than we can really expect of a legislature.

  • Chris, it makes them more jerky and unpleasant.

    vladimir, there are few economies of scale in crime investigation. I didn’t propose individuals offer their own bounties; I was talking about state set bounties.

    These days and Marcus, yes of course proving false accusations and evidence should win large bounties. You should be very disturbed if you think police today face weak penalties for doing so.

    Psycho, why have laws on the books you don’t want enforced? Do you really want police to have arbitrary powers to punish those they dislike?

  • Ray

    The word “privatization” is generally something that will get me to start agreeing even before the entire case is made, but I’ll have to think about the private police force a bit more.

    I’ve thought on it before, but haven’t really devoted much time to it, but my main worries are 1) controlling their power, and how it could be misused by those in authority, and ironically, 2) the law being too efficient.

    1) There will still be those in authority of course, and they will have great incentive to be somehow involved in the bounty hunting business. Just think about how now there will be a big development going on – a new stadium or bridge – and there’s always a bevy of councilmen and legislators who have brothers-in-law who have a part ownership in two different businesses that happen to have contracts with the state. . . etc. We all know the drill on how that works.

    2) Being too efficient would be possible if the government made it too easy to become a bounty hunter. Instead of allowing the difficult to enforce laws to simply go away as theorized, they would open up a lower tier of bounties for things like unpaid traffic camera tickets and the like.

    As alluded to in 1) above, the rich and powerful that already control the legislative process would simply move in to the law enforcement business. The low hanging fruit would simply be taken up by the few smaller firms that managed to stay in business, but be muscled out of the main action. These smaller firms would make a cottage industry of rounding up petty offenders so we’d be harassed by the same guys that are now doing laps at Walmart in their little white security truck.

  • What if they are too effective at gaining convictions, leading to a higher percentage of innocent people in jail? I have in mind a model in which existing authorities are weakly incentivized to do anything effectively relative to bounty hunters paid directly based on their results.

    Have you read Bruce Benson’s “The Enterprise of Law”, and if so, what did you think of it?

    wladimir, I’d actually like to hear someone “break it down” on whether Blackwater is better/worse than the uniformed military.

    • Anonymous

      What about government-subsidised defence lawyers with bounties per client they get let off?

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  • John

    Well, I see the point, but it still seems like a whole lot of regulation going on the way it’s described.

    For crimes against citizens, a private system of revenge would be better. If too much revenge is extracted–or perceived to be–then there’s payback the other way, thus providing market signals and incentives for precisely-measured revenge. A perfect, self-regulating system if ever there was one.

    Wait, was it the security and trust they brought that made those quaint institutions of family, bands, and fiefdoms so warm and cozy, even if hopelessly outdated?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Like most posts on this sort of issues, what this lacks is evidence.

    Please, convince me. The arguments are interesting, but cheap. Show me somewhere in the world that uses bounty hunting as replacement for most prosecutors and police detective, and where the system works better than the standard alternative (especially if the country involved is comparable to the USA/GB/westernised economies in other ways). That should be the very first step.

    And if, as seems likely, you can’t provide this evidence (most likely because no westernised country has properly experimented with the idea)? Well then, I have to say tough luck; it may well be that bounty hunters are better, but we’ll never know it. The downside risks to changing something so fundamental as law enforcement are so huge, that it’s not worth it.

    Since I don’t think any westernised state is ever going to experiment with this, I think we’ll never know, and should drop the trapped nut of the potentially better idea.

    Completely different, of course, would be the idea of complementing law enforcement with bounty hunters; this looks as if it might be implementable (maybe it already has been!) and could provide valuable data without risking destruction of the whole system.

    • Anonymous

      Weren’t private detectives mentioned as having existing historically? Maybe somebody who actually knows the details should check that up.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    wladimir, I’d actually like to hear someone “break it down” on whether Blackwater is better/worse than the uniformed military.

    I think that armies and mercenaries suffer from different sorts of problems. Basically mercenaries will always be a bit out of control, pushing the envelope, a bit rotten, and commit a steady stream of small scale violations, more likely to be corrupt.

    Modern western armies are more monolithic in their behaviour. If torture is instutionalised, as it was in the US army recently, then they will commit systematic violations on a much worse scale than any mercenary group. If “better” behaviour is institutionalised, then they will much more virtuous than any mercenary group (they can be both at once, of course – contrast the US army’s treatement of captured enemy soldiers, or if you want an even more intriguing example, contrast Nazi germany’s behaviour towards western versus russian POW’s).

    So it’s something like “good army” > “mercenaries” > “bad army”, so I’d say that the major question is: can we make our armies good, or should we give up and go for mercenaries? Very tentatively, I’d say that we can, and, with a few notable exceptions, we have.

  • Ray, seems you want bounty hunter anti-trust; so do I.

    TGGP, I think juries would naturally be more suspicious of evidence presented by bounty hunters. You might think this a good thing.

    Stuart, we could experiment by slowly add more crimes that are enforced by bounties instead of police.

  • Mark

    “We insist, for example, that those who investigate and prosecute criminal law must be state employees operating under a single unified command, as in an ancient fiefdom”

    This is not an accurate description of criminal justice in the middle ages (I assume you mean middle ages, not the ancient era, because of the use of the word “fiefdom”).

    Policing was carried out, except in certain large metropolitan areas, entirely by the “hue and cry” — if a crime was committed, you yelled out and a mob would form to apprehend the villain.

    Many things we now consider crimes were a matter for private law. In medieval Icelandic society (and I believe many Germanic societies), killing was a private grievance, not a crime. It only became murder if it was carried out in secret. One who killed openly was “prosecuted” through the private mechanism of the bloodfeud.

    • Ireland & Iceland (like anarchic Somalia) had opt-in organizations which provided such services. Anglo-Saxon law was based on tribe and geography. There were customary penalties and the accused was expected to submit to arbitration before paying wergeld. Outlawry and blood-feud resulted if arbitration was refused.

      Even after the Anglo-Saxon law was replaced by public law (“disturbing the King’s peace”) England for a long time did not have police, relying instead on thief-catchers and volunteers (firefighting was also provided by volunteers in the 19th century).

    • I didn’t mean to suggest all ancient law was enforced via unified commands. I mean to say that a unified command was an ancient trusted social structure.

  • How important is this overall economically?

    I’d like an ordinal ranking of economic problems for the world to solve.

  • I was just recently acquited by the Canadian ‘Justice’ System of a Domestic Violence assault charge (the Judge found that the evidence strongly suggested I was the victim of DV, not the perpetrator – I was pleasantly surprised by his Bayesian decision making process).

    Things that led to my acquittal were a particularly incompetent Crown Attorney, and the ability to borrow money from my family for a skilled Defense Attorney. So you might think I’d be against this proposal. I’m not. Here’s some considerations of how it might have gone if the system were privatized.

    1. Better prosecution – potentially dishonest prosecution – but given that the prosecution was pretty dishonest, this wouldn’t have changed things much, aside from the fact that they would have displayed competence.

    2. Lower probability of prosecution. The evidence which wound up wasting $10 000 of my parents’ money, and four months of my life, involved an incoherent victim statement, which was contradicted by the one witness statement. There was no physical evidence, and a reasonable expectation that there would have been physical evidence. A private business would have looked at it and said ‘not worth my time’, while the Crown seemed to be motivated by a deep-seated misandry, and an unlimited budget (she seemed happy just to screw with my life, regardless of conviction).

    3. In a richer neighbourhood the crown would have been less eager to prosecute, partly because the rich have the means to defend themselves, but also because it’s ‘forgivable’ when these things happen in suburbia. The private market would be more ideologically willing to prosecute the rich. An equal application of Domestic Violence laws would begin seeing more and more ‘upstanding citizens’ convicted, which would lead to the elimination of a set of laws which are deeply unjust and anti-male.

  • Michael Kirkland

    In your proposed system one would only need to make it more expensive to prosecute oneself than the bounty would pay out to avoid getting charged. The poor would get charged more often than the rich, because they could afford to put up less of a fight.

    You might suggest a counter bounty for defence attorneys, but that would provide the perverse incentive for them to take on only the easiest to defend and leave everyone else blowing in the wind.

    • We can make the loser pay the winner’s court costs.

  • Robert Wiblin

    I would be more worried about being framed in this scenario than I am now.

    • See my above comment. I nearly was framed by the current system..

  • Noumenon

    Regarding bail bondsmen, I thought this NPR story should make us more cautious.

    according to the county treasurer in Lubbock, bondsmen usually only pay 5 percent of the bond when a client runs.
    Consider that math for a minute. The bondsmen charge clients at least 10 percent. But if the client runs, they only have to pay the county 5 percent. Meaning if they make no effort whatsoever, they still profit…

    It is possible to skip the commercial bail bonding business entirely by just paying cash. Show up for court and you get your cash back. But it turns out that this is not as easy as it sounds. It takes hours longer to post a cash bail. And many people, like Sandy Ramirez, don’t even know that it’s an option… She says neither the district attorney’s office, the judge nor the court clerk told her she could leave cash with the court as a deposit and get it back when the case was over.

    …judges aren’t setting bail at what you can afford to pay. They’re setting bail 10 times higher than what many people can afford to pay a bail bondsman. If a judge thinks $1,000 is a good amount to bring you back to court, then bail is set at $10,000.

  • Amasa Amos

    They already tried this type of thing in ancient Greece, and from the odious effects of the policy the word ‘sycophant’ still retains its unsavory connotation.

  • I’m somewhat surprised that so many people fear false accusations with bounty hunting more than with government employee detectives and prosecutors, who if they could would also like to falsely accuse folks in order to increase their closure and conviction rates, and who can better collude to achieve this end.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Stuart, we could experiment by slowly add more crimes that are enforced by bounties instead of police.

    That sounds like a very good idea.

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  • There’s already a similar experiment – American private jail system. It was the worst thing ever to happen to justice in any developed country ever, and if you cannot even admit that much, you really should stay away from the subject.

    • Anonymous

      In what way- can you give more details?

  • Government detective or not, there is a risk of false accusations. If you put a reward for doing something, there is always the risk of people “cheating” to get more rewards (in this case, false accusations to increase conviction rates). It’s not the system’s fault. I think Robin’s system has merit given the right time to test it and the right system to support it.

    – Jacqueline Roberts

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