Specific Versus General Enforcement of Law

34 Pages Posted: 4 Jul 2004 Last revised: 11 Jun 2008

See all articles by Steven Shavell

Steven Shavell

Harvard Law School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: August 1989


The problem of optimal public enforcement of law is examined in a model in which two types of enforcement effort are distinguished: specific enforcement effort, activity devoted to apprehending and penalizing individuals who have committed a single type of harmful act; and general enforcement effort, activity affecting the likelihood of apprehension of individuals who have committed any of a range of harmful acts. (A policeman on the beat, for instance, is able to apprehend many types of violators of law.) If all enforcement effort is specific, then under wide assumptions it is optimal for sanctions to be extreme for all acts. However, if all enforcement effort is general, optimal sanctions are low for acts of small harmfulness, increase with the degree of harmfulness, and reach the extreme only for the most harmful acts (the main result of the paper). Also considered is the assumption that enforcement effort may be both general and specific.

Suggested Citation

Shavell, Steven, Specific Versus General Enforcement of Law (August 1989). NBER Working Paper No. w3062. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=463489

Steven Shavell (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

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