The private law of gypsies


Economist Peter Leeson has come out with another compelling and fascinating example of private law in his essay “Gypsies.” Gypsies, as Leeson writes, use their superstition as a means of substituting the public law and order from which they exile themselves.

Gypsies’ religious views, such as the belief that “the lower half of the human body is invisibly polluted, that supernatural defilement is physically contagious, and that non-Gypsies are spiritually toxic” are foreign and strange to most. But they are the glue of sustainable order for the Gypsy community. For example, the idea that non-gypsies are toxic makes the threat of exile more severe. Leeson explains how it creates an inherent cost to disobedience and an inherent base for laws. The beliefs may seem primitive to some, but they nearly perfectly engineer a set of incentives to deter unwanted behavior for a society. The paper goes through how the superstitions and belief system creates a self-enforcing rule of law and system of community organization.

All of Leeson’s work expertly analyzes in an informal and nontraditional manner. It deters from mainstream analysis to reveal how people interact without institutions we see as vital and non-substitutable. Research such as this opens the discussion for alternative policies and methods of social coordination by understanding how groups so different than the norm can have such order. By understanding the dynamics and cost-benefit situations of various different forms of community structure, we can then understand how existing formal institutions work and can be improved.

This essay is interesting for anyone with even a hint of curiosity about human interaction and coordination. Leeson has a knack for making economic analysis peculiarly intriguing.