May 3rd, 2012 by Hafiz Noor Shams
Amid the political wrangling on Bersih and its aftermath, a son of two expatriates living in Kuala Lumpur was kidnapped. The kidnapping of Nayati became a minor sensation. Twitter was abuzzed with it. Posters were put up across the city and flyers handed out. Just outside of my office in Damansara Heights, just by the busy road, somebody hang a large poster of Nayati, appealing for information and help. Judging by the impressive and expensive effort, the parents are well-off.
He was found later outside of the city in Rawang and it was reported that the parents paid the kidnappers some unknown ransom.
I am glad Nayati was found and I am glad he is safe.
Nevertheless, it must be highlighted that Nayati is one person. The more important fact here is that we live in a society. The handling of the case gives signal to the society. That signal will inform future decision of both victims and criminals.
The “ransom solution” creates an expectation on the side of the criminals that crime pays. That creates adverse incentive.
When the incentive is big enough over the cost of crime (either through the increase of actual payoff or the higher probability of payoff), we can expect greater occurrence of kidnapping in the future. The ransom solution will create a systemic problem and it will make the society less safe.
For Nayati’s parents, the police may have helped them. Nayati’s father has thanked the police. In fact, if I were the father, I would thank the police for their aid despite paying off the kidnappers with my own money. In tough times, any help will be appreciated. And I do not blame the parents for paying off the ransom. No money worth more than the life of your loved ones.
But, from societal point of view, such emotional attachment should be stripped in favor of pure rational economic analysis.
When it is stripped, then the incentive structure will tell us that each ransom solution represents a failure of the societal institutions.
Any safety bought through ransom is a cost to the society as a whole. Call it negative externality; each time you pay, you may make somebody else worse off.
So, from societal perspective, the Nayati case is a failure. It will continue to be a failure until the kidnappers are caught and sufficiently punished to tell everybody that crime does not pay.