Saving Christmas

by Henry Farrell on December 21, 2004

“China Mieville”:, on whom there will be more in this blog in the New Year, tells us how the Socialists saved (will save) Christmas.

The Institutional Economics of Plagiarism

by Henry Farrell on December 21, 2004

‘Angry Moderate’ made a comment on my post on plagiarism last week, which I’ve been meaning to respond to.

bq. Richard Ellickson’s marvellous book, Order Without Law, notes that the first and usually most effective sanction against violators of a community norm is, “truthful malicious gossip.” In my experience, this is quite common with regard to plagiarists – and the worst plagiarism is not copying off some web-site but stealing other scholars’ ideas and/or empirical material before they publish it – and quite appropriate and quite effective. The only problem is the equally large circulation of untruthful malicious gossip.

This seems to me to be the beginnings of an interesting take on the problem of plagiarism – like Robert Ellickson’s cattle ranchers in Shasta county, we could resolve the problem of plagiarism informally, if only we had an effective means of spreading truthful malicious (as opposed to untruthful malicious) gossip about who has plagiarized. The problem is, of course, that the informal personal networks of academia don’t seem up to the task – as the “Chronicle”: reported, even the department chairs of some offending academics don’t seem to know that they have plagiarized. Thus, part of the problem is poor communications among academics. Here, the new institutional economics suggests that centralized communications can play an important role. Work by game theorists suggests that a centralized communications structure in which one actor is an “honest broker” of information about who has behaved badly and who hasn’t, can support honest behaviour among a much larger group of participants than a decentralized structure which relies on one-to-one gossip alone. As Avner Greif, Paul Milgrom and Barry Weingast have pointed out, this was one of the key functions that guilds played in the late mediaeval period – they had centralized communications systems policing the behaviour of guild members to ensure that they all played by the rules. Any member of the guild who broke the rules (by trading with someone who the guild was boycotting) would find that he was boycotted himself by other guild members.[1]

Of course, in academia, the closest equivalent to guild structures – the various professional associations – don’t play this role. As the Chronicle documents, they seem loath to discipline their members – and even more loath to publicize their disciplinary actions when they take them. Clearly, they don’t have the powers to punish plagiarists themselves. But by identifying and publicizing incidents of plagiarism they could do a lot to solve the problem, leaving the actual enforcement to one-to-one interactions among academics themselves, so that identified plagiarists would find it difficult to get jobs and grants. The current situation in which it’s difficult to distinguish ‘real’ incidents of plagiarism from malicious gossip, is in many ways the worst of all possible worlds. Of course this wouldn’t be a complete solution – some of the kinds of plagiarism that ‘Angry Moderate’ identifies would be hard to police – but it would go a fair way towards remedying the problem.

fn1. Greif, Avner, Paul Milgrom, and Barry R. Weingast. “Coordination, Commitment and Enforcement: The Case of the Merchant Guild.” in Explaining Social Institutions. eds. Jack Knight, and Itai Sened. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995

Government moves on private schools

by Harry on December 21, 2004

I see from the BBC that the Charities Bill is really going to force private schools to prove that they are charities in order to claim charitable status. I had heard about this before, but never imagined it would get this far. The story says that:

bq. The Charities Bill says schools charging fees will have to demonstrate how their activities help the public. The Independent Schools Council (ISC) said its members saved the tax payer £2bn a year in education costs. Independent watchdog the Charity Commission will decide on the parameters of the term “public benefit”.

Good for New Labour….

The right to blasphemy?

by Daniel on December 21, 2004

With the disgraceful scenes in Birmingham[1], coming hot on the heels of the blow-up over incitement to religious hatred, it is wonderfuly ironic to ponder the following legal hypothetical.

Apostate Sikhs are very definitely a group defined by their religious views. As are apostate Muslims and heretics or blasphemers in general. The Home Office
FAQ doesn’t mention blasphemers specifically, but it does reassure the atheists and says that the proposed Bill “will also protect people targeted because of their lack of religious beliefs or because they do not share the religious beliefs of the perpetrator”.

It is hard for me to see how the people in Birmingham’s gurdwaras who stirred up these crowds could have done so without taking steps which would at least prima facie have given rise to a case that they had incited hatred against the play’s author. I doubt that specific acts of violence could be laid at their door, but this crowd did not assemble spontaneously, nor did its members become enraged entirely as a result of their independent theological scrutiny of the theatre listings.

Therefore, in rank defiance of almost every newspaper editorial this morning, I submit that the Bezhti affair is weak evidence in favour of the draft legislation, as it seems to me that some Sikh elders in Birmingham have behaved in a highly socially destructive and reprehensible way, that they have most likely not committed any offence under current UK law in doing so, but that their behaviour would have been illegal under the proposed legislation. This doesn’t make me a supporter of the Bill itself, but it’s worth thinking about.

[1]Actually, they’re not really that disgraceful. The theatre has a right to put on an offensive play, anyone who is offended with it has the right to stage a demonstration, and the rozzers have the right to protect the public if that demonstration turns rowdy, which they have declared themselves willing and able to do. The only real failure of the system here was that either theatregoers or theatre managements decided to go all namby about a “riot” in which nobody was hurt and only three arrests were made, all for public order offences. Gawd help us if the Premier League decides to adopt this standard of “safety”. However, the playwright has apparently now received death threats, which are genuinely disgraceful whether or not the people making them have the ability or intention to carry them out.

Hark the Herald Tribune Sings

by Kieran Healy on December 21, 2004

It’s Christmas here at Crooked Timber, though this does not mean we are “Republicans”: I can’t hope to match Maria’s “instant-classic Christmas post”: from last year — for one thing, it’s harder to stir up the ole Christmas cheer in the “Sonoran Desert”: than the “Champs Elysees”:,8564,-10304117908,00.html. But it’s not impossible. Last year we had a thread about the “Most Annoying Christmas Songs”:, and my feeling is that being down on Christmas music is so over.[1] Here instead are four Christmas songs I like. Besides being songs for the season, they are all songs for two voices in conversation — or argument.

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