Just a bunch of Gypsies who got together and committed murder

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

While reviewing Friedman’s Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, Scott Alexander first turns to the Gypsies:

Gypsies living scattered in foreign countries have generally wanted to run their own communities by their own rules. Nothing stops some of them from calling themselves a “legislature” or a “court” and claiming to make laws or pass sentences. But something does stop them from trying to enforce them: from the State’s point of view, a “court” that executes an offender is just a bunch of Gypsies who got together and committed murder. So the Vlach Rom — Romanian Gypsies — organize courts called kris which enforce their sentences with threat of banishment from the community.

Gypsies traditionally believe in marime, a sort of awful pollution that infects people who don’t follow the right rituals; anyone who interacts with polluted people will become polluted themselves. Kris courts can declare the worst offenders polluted, ensuring their speedy ostracization from Gypsy society. And since non-Gypsies are polluted by default, the possibility of ostracism and forced integration into non-Gypsy society will seem intolerable:

The effectiveness of that threat [of ostracism] depends on how easily the exiled gypsy can function outside of his community. The marimé rules (and similar rules in other societies) provide a mechanism for isolating the members of the community. Gaije, non-gypsies, do not know the marimé rules and so do not and cannot obey them. It follows that they are all polluted, unclean, carriers of a contagious disease, people whom no Rom in his right mind would willingly choose to associate with; when and if such association is unavoidable it must be taken with great care. The gypsy view of gaije, reinforced by the gaije view of gypsies as uneducated and illiterate thieves and swindlers, eliminates the exit option and so empowers the kris to enforce gypsy law by the threat of exclusion from the only tolerable human society.

This reminds me of The Use And Abuse Of Witchdoctors For Life: once your culture has a weird superstition, it can get plugged into various social needs to become a load-bearing part of the community structure.


  1. Graham says:

    It is often overlooked that such courts have always been present in the history of western society, as privatized adjuncts of or feeders to the public system, or as diversionary courts to avoid entering it.

    The English originally started with manorial courts and clerical courts, the former as a court of first instance for some things that would never see an assize or quarter sessions or reach the sheriff’s eye, the latter running a separate but publicly sanctioned set of law, courts and punishment. Arguably, the church courts were actually an intrusion of a system of international law/foreign courts into the English system. Not for nothing the RCC has been compared to the UN/ICC/EU. The manorial courts were privatization of first tier justice at least insofar as the lord of the manor was not exactly operating as a public officer in that system. [YMMV on the nature of Norman England and public v private, I suppose.] There was also guild justice and other semi-private systems in the towns, although the public/private amalgam was arguably stronger.

    Some of those lasted many centuries as the modern Common law and equity courts evolved. Modern Anglo societies have continued to allow all manner of private justice at least in civil matters, on a contractual or customary basis. From every corporate arbiter for hire to rabbinical and sharia courts, or whatever Amish and Mennonite self-government involves.

    Of course, they all have potential for abuse and it’s well worth the effort to make it clear that their scope is limited and to find ways to let members of communities know they have an out if they are even willing to take it. That last is a perennial problem.

    That and never let such courts claim criminal jurisdiction or impose penal sentences. Jesus.

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