Two Economic Rationales for Felony Murder

J. Gregory Sidak


Critics of the felony-murder rule have long argued that the rule is outdated and unreasonable, and the Supreme Court since 1982 has interpreted the Eighth Amendment to limit use of the death penalty in felony-murder cases. I present here two economic rationales for the felony-murder rule and show how the Court’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment might burden potential victims of felonies. The first rationale is that the felony-murder rule reduces the use of violence in the commission of felony by forcing the felon to bear the entire risk of consequential harm during the course of the felony. The extent to which a “transaction” (be it a contract, a tort, or a crime) is a voluntary exchange is inversely related to the extent of liability for consequential harm. By extending liability for consequential harm, the felony-murder rule is a tax on violence as an input of criminal production. A second economic rationale for the felony-murder rule concerns team production of crimes. The felony-murder rule gives criminal partners an incentive to monitor one another for unnecessary use of violence. One would therefore expect that, by decreasing a criminal’s expected costs of causing consequential harm for an unintended killing during the commission of a felony, the Court’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment in felony-murder cases increases the incidence of violent felonies.

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