Bounty Hunters in Korea

Fascinating article in the NYTimes about Korean “paparazzi,” camera-wielding bounty hunters who film people committing small crimes and then turn the evidence in for a bounty:

The opportunities are everywhere: a factory releasing industrial waste into a river, a building owner keeping an emergency exit locked, doctors and lawyers not providing receipts for payment so that they can underreport their taxable income.

Mr. Im’s pet target is people who burn garbage at construction sites, a violation of environmental laws.

“I’m making three times what I made as an English tutor,” said Mr. Im, 39, who began his new line of work around seven years ago and says he makes about $85,000 a year….

The outsourcing of law enforcement has also been something of a boon for local governments. They say that they can save money on hiring officers, and that the fines imposed on offenders generally outstrip the rewards paid to informers. (The reward for reporting illegal garbage dumping: about $40. The fine: about 10 times as much.)

For most infractions, rewards can range from as little as about $5 (reporting a cigarette tosser) to as much as $850 (turning in an unlicensed seller of livestock). But there are possibilities for windfalls. Seoul’s city government promises up to $1.7 million for reports of major corruption involving its own staff members.

The system appears to work well, if you take the goals as given. The goals, of course, are where the trouble lies. Tax-farming was efficient but was it a good idea? (Is it a good idea today in developing countries? Compare here with here and consider a recent proposal for tax farming in Greece.) Private prisons reduce costs but given the law of demand how much do we want to reduce the price of imprisoning people?  (See Bruce Benson’s paper in my book, Changing the Guard.) All else equal, it’s more efficient to tax goods with inelastic demands but give government the right to tax such goods and all else will not be equal, leviathan will tax more.

The bounties, however, are only part of the issue. More fundamentally, what we are seeing is the ubiquity of surveillance. I have mixed feeling about this transformation but given technology it is inevitable. What we can do, however, is to ensure that the surveillance goes all ways. The government surveils us both directly and with the help of the junior bounty hunters but we must guard our rights to also surveil them.

Hat tip: Maxim Lott.


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