The Duel of Honor: Screening for Unobservable Social Capital
Posted: 29 Feb 2008
Date Written: 2006
The duel of honor was a highly ritualized violent activity practiced (mostly) by aristocrats from about 1500 to 1900. The duel of honor was held in private, was attended by seconds and other members of society, was illegal, and often resulted from trivial incidents. Duels were fought according to strict codes, their lethality fell over time, and certain members of society were not allowed to duel. We argue dueling functioned as a screen for unobservable investments in social capital. Social capital was used during this period to support political transactions in an age when high civil service appointments were made through patronage. The screening hypothesis explains the puzzling features of the duel of honor, its rise and fall over time and locations, and the differences between European and American duels.
In a state of highly polished society, an affront is held to be a serious injury. It must, therefore, be resented, or rather a duel must be fought upon it; as men have agreed to banish from their society one who puts up with an affront without fighting a duel. -Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell
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