by Michael McKay
Scape-goating. Virtue signaling. Religious and political competition for authority. Sacrificing value on a small scale to preserve greater value on a larger scale. Socio-political and legal persecution of a hated minority to further a partisan agenda.
Does any of this sound familiar? If you’re a registrant, someone close to a registrant, or simply a concerned citizen who follows criminal justice reform news, it probably sounds all too familiar.
It is also the topic of a fascinating academic paper by Peter Leeson, Senior Fellow at the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Well, I should clarify that his topic is actually the socio-economic theories which explain the “Great European Witch Trials” of the 16th-18th centuries, as well as the practice of human sacrifice in various ancient and modern societies around the world. The (perhaps crazy) extrapolation of his ideas to explain certain aspects of the modern-day sex offender registry is all on me.
Peter Leeson was a podcast guest of the Mercatus Center of George Mason University on October 25, 2018 where, with Halloween looming, he discussed the economic underpinnings of a wave of witch trials in Europe during the 15th-18th centuries, and went on to explain the theories explaining human sactifice. I found his explanations to be profoundly insightful on multiple levels, particularly when viewed through the lens of a person on the sex offender registry.
One of the first theories he discusses is economic scapegoating. He explains how the “Great European Witch Trial” era – during which 80,000 people were convicted of being witches and at least half of those executed for said crime – followed a climate period known as the “Little Ice Age.” This global cooling period resulted in crop failures, fuel shortages, and a general increase in economic hardship for people around the world. And as human beings are inclined to do, someone or something needed to be blamed for this hardship.
Modern socio-economic turmoil could certainly be one source of modern-day scapegoating for registrants. We’ve had the internet bubble of 2000-2001, the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001, the stock market crashes of 1987, 2001, and 2008. There were also multiple wars raging around the world: the Gulf War (1990-1991), Iraqi No Fly Ops (1991-2003), Somali Civil War 1992-1995), Bosnian War (1992-1995), Haiti (1994-1995), Kosovo (1998-1999), Afghanistan (2001-present), Iraq (2003-2011), NW Pakistan (2004-present), Somalia (2004-present), Libya (2011), Uganda (2011-2017), Iraq (2014-2017), Syria (2014-present), and Yemen (2015-present). And let’s not forget global warming, mass shootings, monstrous west coast forest fires, and unprecedented political turmoil. It should suffice to say that the last few decades have not exactly been an era of wine and roses, and scapegoat theory means someone must pay the price.
Leeson also points to religious competition and virtue signaling as one of the major causes of the “Great European Witch Trials.” He lists the looming conflict at the time between Catholic and Protestant beliefs and specifically to struggles within the Catholic hierarchy and for papal succession as primary catalysts. At one point, Pope Formosus died, leaving this internal discord unresolved. His successor, Pope Stephen VI eventually had his corpse exhumed, propped up on a throne, and subjected to a mock trial (with has since been called the Cadaver Trial or Cadaver Synod), during which a deacon answered for the corpse. This was a classic case of religious competition for authority and virtue signaling to the masses.
Massive changes in the religious demographics of the United States are currently underway, as well. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, “White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian… Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants.”
Clearly, there have been seismic changes in the religious landscape of the U.S., and the resulting religious competition is creating an environment that is perfect for competitive one-upsmanship in virtue-signaling. A perfect example of this is the way political opponents often accuse each other of being “soft on rapists and child-molesters.” Similarly, both the Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. regularly accuse the other party of being the party of “pedophiles and child-traffickers.”
Sometimes, the crux isn’t so much religion as it is political dogma. The show trials conducted in Russia by the Stalinists and in China by the Maoists are good examples of how this sort of virtue signaling serves an important socio-political propaganda purpose. This is how political bodies demonstrate their “moral superiority” to the masses.
Leeson also discusses human sacrifice in socio-economic terms, and even makes a very good case for it being a “rational” choice of certain societies, given circumstances where “small” sacrifices can be made in order to optimize the greater good. Again, inferences can be drawn to parallels in modern sex offender registry laws.
It’s a very good podcast, which you can listen to below. It will get you thinking about how we, as human beings, have done this again and again throughout history, targeting different groups and individuals as scapegoats and boogymen for reasons that aren’t quite as irrational as you might think.
During the 16th century, Europe experienced a wave of witchcraft trials that has captured our imagination, and much scholarly attention, up until the present era. But the “wave” of witchcraft trials was not geographically uniform. Hayek Program Senior Fellow Peter Leeson focuses the lens of rational choice theory to explain the occurrence, duration, and geographic distribution of this seemingly irrational phenomenon. Leeson also explores an even stranger social trend — human sacrifice — using the basic tools of microeconomics: