Information, civil liberties, and the political economy of Witch-hunts

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Drawing from an extensive literature on the European witch-hunt, McCarthyism, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, this article studies how differences in the level of civil liberties protection and the extent to which the leader has better information about the level of the alleged menace than the populace, together with other variables, jointly determine the incidence of witch-hunts. I develop a model showing that at any level of civil liberties protection, the incidence of illegitimate witch-hunts is higher when the leader enjoys an informational advantage than when he does not. This difference, however, is decreasing in the level of civil liberties protection. However, no amount of civil liberties protection is sufficient to prevent the occurrence of illegitimate witch-hunts, so long as the citizen has a concern for the menace, and the leader enjoys an informational advantage and finds the benefit from conducting a witch-hunt to be larger than his reputational loss.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)503-525
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Law, Economics, and Organization
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 1999

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