Sunday, July 16, 2006

Zealots and Incentives

Pinchas is the paradigmatic zealot. As someone else pointed out (the link escapes me), Chazal don't really like zealots. So what is a zealot? Why should a zealot like Pinchas get such a great reward? We frown on vigilantism, indeed an orderly society can only exist if people obey the law, and that includes how the law metes out punishment. Maybe that's why Chazal don't really like zealots.

A zealot operates outside of the law. Law is imperfect and has trade offs. In American law, if you lose your case in court, you have a certain amount of time to appeal. If you don't appeal, the judgment is final and you're out of luck, even if you have new evidence (I'm discussing civil trials). Likewise in halacha, after beis din convicts someone for murder, the witnesses can't turn around and say "We lied. Don't kill him," even if they were lying and are now telling the truth. Society has tradeoffs, and though law tries to fit as best as possible, at the edges inconsistencies remain.

In fact, according to Roget's Thesaurus, a synonym for zealot is "visionary" or "dreamer." Noticing the injustice, the visionary seeks to correct it. When that's not possible by acting within the law, and when the issue is important enough, the zealot goes outside.

With that we can understand why the zealot deserves such a great reward. The zealot takes the ultimate risk when acting - there's no net, no one to back him up. If he's wrong, he'll be ridiculed at best, killed at worst, and history will not treat him kindly. There's a huge downside, which can only be matched by a large upside. We need zealots, and so, we reward them greatly.
But too many zealots are bad as well. Luckily, the average person examines the downside and not the potential reward. So the number of zealots is mitigated, first not everyone has the vision or desire, and those on the border may not want to risk the enormous downside of their actions.