NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

The Economic Theory of Public Enforcement of Law

A. Mitchell Polinsky, Steven Shavell

NBER Working Paper No. 6993
Issued in March 1999
NBER Program(s):   LE

This article surveys the theory of the public enforcement of law -- the use of public agents (inspectors, tax auditors, police, prosecutors) to detect and to sanction violators of legal rules. We first present the basic elements of the theory, focusing on the probability of imposition of sanctions, the magnitude and form of sanctions, and the rule of liability. We then examine a variety of extensions of the central theory, concerning accidental harms, costs of imposing fines, errors, general enforcement, marginal deterrence, the principal-agent relationship, settlements, self-reporting, repeat offenders, imperfect knowledge about the probability and magnitude of fines, and incapacitation.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w6993

Published: Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 38, no. 1 (March 2000): 45-76.

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