While everyone from Tony Blair to Nouriel Roubini is debating whether or not bankers should be hung , the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg provide some fascinating historical context.
The journal’s Jason Zweig reports :
Financial criminals throughout history have been beaten, tortured and even put to death, with little evidence that severe punishments have consistently deterred people from misconduct that could make them rich.
The history of drastic punishment for financial crimes may be nearly as old as wealth itself.
The Code of Hammurabi , more than 3,700 years ago, stipulated that any Mesopotamian who violated the terms of a financial contract – including the futures contracts that were commonly used in commodities trading in Babylon – “shall be put to death as a thief.” The severe penalty doesn’t seem to have eradicated such cheating, however.
In medieval Catalonia , a banker who went bust wasn’t merely humiliated by town criers who declaimed his failure in public squares throughout the land; he had to live on nothing but bread and water until he paid off his depositors in full. If, after a year, he was unable to repay, he would be executed – as in the case of banker Francesch Castello, who was beheaded in 1360 . Bankers who lied about their books could also be subject to the death penalty.
In Florence during the Renaissance, the Arte del Cambio – the guild of mercantile money-changers who facilitated the city’s international trade – made the cheating of clients punishable by torture . Rule 70 of the guild’s statutes stipulated that any member caught in unethical conduct could be disciplined on the rack “or other corrective instruments” at the headquarters of the guild.
But financial crimes weren’t merely punished; they were stigmatized. Dante’s Inferno is populated largely with financial sinners,