Words that Kill: An Economic Perspective on Hate Speech and Hate Crimes

30 Pages Posted: 14 Feb 2002

See all articles by Dhammika Dharmapala

Dhammika Dharmapala

UC Berkeley School of Law; CESifo (Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute); European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

Richard H. McAdams

University of Chicago Law School

Date Written: November 2001


In recent years, a number of mass shooting incidents have been perpetrated by offenders motivated by neo-Nazi or other racist ideology. Conventional economic analysis of crime appears to shed little light on such acts. We propose a model in which potential offenders care not only about the intrinsic benefits from the crime and the expected costs of punishment, but also about the esteem conferred by those who share the potential offender's ideology. The number of such individuals is not known to the potential offender with certainty; it is a random variable, the distribution of which enters into the potential offender's expected utility from committing the crime. We argue that, assuming that the potential offender is risk-averse in esteem, increasing the variance of the distribution of this random variable lowers the expected utility from the crime, and thus potentially 'deters' it. This result holds even when (as we assume) the potential offender has available an unbiased estimator of number of racists (so that the increased variance simply represents a mean-preserving spread). Furthermore, we argue that this variance depends on the (legal and nonlegal) regime governing hate speech. We also develop an asymmetric information model of speech regulation, in which individuals trade off their 'expressive utility' from voicing their opinions against the costs imposed by formal and/or informal sanctions on hate speech. If the sanctions are sufficiently large, there exist pooling equilibria, which create uncertainty about the number of racists and/or the intensity of their hatred. This uncertainty reduces the precision of the potential offender's estimate, and lowers the expected utility from hate crimes. We consider a number of possible caveats and extensions, and discuss the implications for hate speech regulation.

Suggested Citation

Dharmapala, Dhammika and McAdams, Richard H., Words that Kill: An Economic Perspective on Hate Speech and Hate Crimes (November 2001). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=300695 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.300695

Dhammika Dharmapala

UC Berkeley School of Law ( email )

302 JSP
2240 Piedmont Ave
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

CESifo (Center for Economic Studies and Ifo Institute) ( email )

Poschinger Str. 5
Munich, DE-81679

European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI) ( email )

c/o the Royal Academies of Belgium
Rue Ducale 1 Hertogsstraat
1000 Brussels

Richard H. McAdams (Contact Author)

University of Chicago Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States
773-834-2520 (Phone)

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