Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Economics of Witchcraft Persecutions

Slate has an interesting article up about the economic factors that contribute to witchcraft persecutions. In agricultural societies prosperity is often tied to the weather, and comparing temperature records from Europe with the number of witch trials that occurred each year seems to support the notion that in bad economic times the persecutions became worse.

Emily Oster, an economist at the University of Chicago, has tried to gather systematic data on the link between witch trials and the weather. The results look striking: Between 1520 and 1770, colder decades go hand-in-hand with more trials. The link may be simply that witches were often blamed for bad weather. Or there may be a less direct link: People tend to lash out in tough times. There is some evidence, for instance, that lynching was more common in the American South when land prices and cotton prices were depressed.

In modern-day Africa, where many of the current killings happen, there may be a more direct motive. Suspected witches are often killed by their own family members who benefit by having fewer mouths to feed when resources are scarce.

Edward Miguel, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of Economic Gangsters, a book about the economics of crime, corruption, and war, has studied the Tanzanian situation. He argues that there is a direct economic motive for the attacks. Tough times in a Tanzanian household may well result in starvation, and the elderly—especially women—are at risk of being sacrificed to free resources. As evidence, Miguel points out that victims of witch attacks in Meatu district—almost all old women—tend to be from the poorest households. The murders are much more common during years of drought or flood.

It may be that solving the problem of witchcraft persecution has less to do with debunking folk beliefs and more to do with addressing poverty around the world. Maybe that's the real reason that these killings are so rare in wealthier countries. While there are Americans who believe in witchcraft and consider it evil, there is little economic motivation for them to act upon those beliefs.

Having local law enforcement take witchcraft killings seriously helps, too, as I commented in my article praising Kenya's response to the killing of 15 accused "witches" by an angry mob. It may be that witchcraft is seized upon as the supposed motivation for killing elderly dependents because in some places it prompts the police to look the other way.

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