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Assume this city is relatively large by late medieval standards, around 200,000 people. The city is mainly a site for trade due to its geographically central position and being on a river. Also, because it is geographically central, it also means the city is important for the government to project power.

What might be the benefits for this same government to sanction certain crime within this important trade city?

Crime that would be considered legal within city limits ranges from murder, burglary, trade of illicit substances, and racketeering. This is all under the condition that the crime does not directly affect the government's activities.

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    $\begingroup$ Have you read the DiscWorld novels by Terry Pratchett ? Your answer lies there. $\endgroup$
    – StephenG
    Jul 17 at 3:02
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    $\begingroup$ Take a look at the Amsterdam Red light district as an example of this happening in real life. Its limited to certain forms of illicit substances, and prostitution, but is left on the basis that it will happen somewhere, so lets leave it somewhere people can avoid and we can tax. $\endgroup$ Jul 17 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ There are many, many real world examples of this. There are many places where prostitution is legal, but, only in the urban city center (sometimes even just in a small district). And the biggest real-world example currently, over in the US many jurisdictions are legalizing marijuana so that they can collect the tax; yet it remains illegal elsewhere. Another major example in our world is gambling - places like Monaco and Vegas created a whole history by allowing gambling, when illegal in the surroundings. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Jul 17 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ For the record, it isn't crime that's being sanctioned, it's behavior. Behavior that is deemed contrary to government (aka "those in power") and a valuable economy is criminalized. Behavior that supports government (aka "those in power") and promotes the economy is not. Law shifts (validating or invalidating behavior) as the struggle for power ebbs and flows. Keep in mind that most of what you call "crime" was at one time or another entirely legal ("acceptable behavior"). So, realistically, the government may allow it only because they don't want to pay the cost to stop it. $\endgroup$ Jul 18 at 6:15
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    $\begingroup$ @StephenG that's so often the case here it could be a custom close reason $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Jul 19 at 8:56

15 Answers 15

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Nonsense. If something is allowed by the law, then it is not a crime. The very definition of a crime is breaking the law.

The proper question would be why the law in this city is more lenient than elsewhere. Consider for example the US, which is probably the country with the most legally heterogeneous country in the world. In some places you can walk around with an assault rifle or drive a tank. Do it in other places and it's jail for you. Why? Because different places have different populations with different world views, and the government at federal level does not want or cannot interfere.

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    $\begingroup$ Laws have no value unless they are enforced. And criminals can provide a very cost-effective enforcement service for the crimes you really want to prevent. You don't need to pay criminals get rid of undesirables for you, nor do you need to pay for all the non-value-added law enforcement stuff like police, courts, lawyers, prisons, etc. You just make it clear that if the criminals don't do your dirty work for you, they might not live long and prosper. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Jul 17 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ AFIAK tanks are perfectly legal in every state. Tank guns, however, are NFA items for which the law varies at the county level. $\endgroup$ Jul 18 at 2:58
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    $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel YMMV - tanks bought from the army are generally ok, but try and make one of your own design - even without guns - and watch as SWAT tries to kill you (thanks to the precedent set by the 'Killdozer'). $\endgroup$ Jul 18 at 3:30
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    $\begingroup$ @alephzero that kinda reminds me of the Diskworldd's Ankh-Morpork...[Came here to say exactly your comment inspired by that series] $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jul 19 at 7:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok LOL that comment reminds me of the real world, actually. There is a certain part of Downtown Rio (close to central station) that is know for having a lot of stalls selling goods of... questionable sourcing. That place is practically devoid of theft / robbery, since the last thing the vendors want is someone calling the police over being robbed $\endgroup$ Jul 19 at 9:37
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I wonder if you have a too modern view of the state -- by the people, for the people. Over much of history it was by some people, for some people.

  • Illicit substances
    Very much in the eye of the beholder. In much of the West, alcohol is legal (and taxed) and cannabis is not. Say you have strong merchant guilds interested in the trade in those substances, and they might have gained permission to do so. Also consider the Opium Wars.
  • Racketeering
    Just who is exploited, and how? Look at the rise of firefighters in ancient Rome. Early on they were for-profit companies who charged whatever the market would bear when a house was on fire. Or take a medieval craft guild, regulating prices, quality and competition and making sure that guild masters had a decent living.
  • Special case: Tax farming
    The government sold the right to collect taxes. The interests who paid a hefty sum now try to squeeze money out of the city to cover their costs and make a profit on top. Not everybody is allowed to racketeer, but from the perspective of the victims some rackets are legal.
  • Burglary
    This one is difficult. When it is made legal, powerful factions like the merchants and guilds mentioned above must guard their properties without the help of a city watch. But do you know the proverb only the rich can afford a weak government? Say burglary is not legal, the rules against it are simply not enforced by the government. That is left to merchants and shop-keepers, who form associations (see racketeering) to employ guards and thief-takers.
  • Murder
    As above, making it a kind of civil offense requiring weregild if the relatives of the victim are strong enough to insist.
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    $\begingroup$ This one, spared me a long commentand diving in some history. Yeah, how much different was the actual situation in any city compared to ops demands, not different enough, lol. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 17 at 7:34
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Crime keeps people scared. Scared people want governments that are tough on crime. To demonstrate you are tough, you need criminals to punish.

https://www.foxnews.com/us/san-diego-homeless-attacks-help

San Diegans beg city to curb violence by homeless: 'like you’re in the 'Walking Dead''

What a packed headline - scared people begging the government for help, violence, and dehumanizing criminals by comparing them to zombies.

Your city government sells itself as tough on crime. Law and order. But if it is too good at its job, people forget about crime like people have forgotten about polio and measles because vaccines are too good at preventing disease. Your governments puts on a show of force, public discipline of criminals, etc. Maybe more like what we would consider a protection racket.

And they need grist for the mill - so crime is allowed in neighborhoods where people who are disloyal or dissatisfied with the government might live, to keep these malcontents scared. You can still satisfy your followers / customers with the punishment of criminals taken from places where criminals live. Maybe satisfy them better when they see the criminals as the dangerous "other".

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  • $\begingroup$ Zombie is a popular description of the behaviour of synthetic cannabis users. See nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmoa1610300 $\endgroup$
    – DrMcCleod
    Jul 18 at 8:31
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    $\begingroup$ @DrMcCleod - yes; also a British rock band. “Zombies” was mine. The headline specifically compared the homeless to the “Walking Dead”. No chance of misinterpretation there. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jul 18 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ Not to get too political here, but this strategy absolutely works IRL $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jul 19 at 7:44
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In the real world, we sanction crime already

Many countries allowed crime. Prostitution is illegal in many areas and has been at many times. It was and is often tolerated. Reasonings like, "if we don't tolerate it, the sailors will grab our woman of high social standing" were used to justify this. It was certainly still illigal, but as long as it wasn't in the way of society, it was ok.

This has happened in many other cases. Drug use for example. But there's also more difficult ideas like violence. Citizens, military and police all have varying amount of violence that is tolerated. Killing someone in self defence, or beating political rivals, or simoly killing an enemy all have different amount of tolerances. Violence in itself however is normally illigal.

Your government can use the same. Murder? Don't care. Murder of a policeman or factory worker? Illegal. As soon as the value to the city ramps up, the amount of tolerance will go down.

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Crime is allowed in the central city because it symbolically reinforces the government's claim to power.

  • The current rulers are not nobles whose authority to lead flows down from their heritage.
  • They are not great businessmen whose authority comes from their wealth and the employment opportunities they bring to the nation.
  • They are not chosen by God, representatives of the divine authority of the Church.
  • They were not chosen by the people.

They are conquerors, who recently attained their power by defeating the previous owners of the throne. Their power comes from their ability to overwhelm the previous symbol of law. It comes from the standing army which they brought with them, warriors who are now free to commit whatever crimes they wish in payment for their services. Justice has fallen to their might.

But they are also not fools. They know that if lawlessness is allowed throughout the kingdom, then the kingdom will very quickly fall. So outside of this city, the law is enforced even more brutally than it was under the previous king.

But here in their new home, strength is the only law.

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Instead of government-sanctioned crime, what about a small area with a different government or no government? It could be an independent city where three or more large countries meet, and none of the countries can take it over because the others wouldn't let them. This also gives a good explanation for why there would be lots of devious machinations going on by various government agents in the city, and it would be a prosperous trade hub if it is the best route between those nations.

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    $\begingroup$ Particular examples include postwar Berlin, The Zone, and The International Settlement, which were all cesspools of spies, smuggling, and money laundering. $\endgroup$
    – lly
    Jul 18 at 11:46
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To punish them.

Looking at your situation from a modern lens - Politicians love spending money on those who voted for them, and also those who could be plausibly convinced to vote for them. They don't like spending money on those who voted strongly against them. Dishing out favour in this way is known as pork barreling.

So there's a town where people didn't vote for you / send enough tax money to you / support you in a recent coup / send enough virgins to your harem / whatever spited you. You can show your disaproval by screwing them over at the next chance you get. Maybe their tax rate is raised, or maybe they get less resources allocated.

You can also send them a message by withdrawing or reducing the police. The safety of that community is less of a concern for you if you want to teach them a lesson - they're not going to vote for you / support you / etc, why should you waste resources on them?

Perhaps after a few months of crime running out of control they'll learn their place and they'll be better subjects next time.

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    $\begingroup$ "To punish them" - this in fact did occur historically. If a city was besieged, if they surrendered quickly they usually got good terms. However, if they resisted for too long, then, upon being captured, the conquering general did issue a decree of "free looting" for certain amount of time. Occupying soldiers, if they beat up or steal from citizens, would usually be punished. But not during those hours of free looting: then anything is allowed, including murder and rape. And looting, of course. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Jul 18 at 15:47
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To reduce value.

Empowered Elite (government) allow crime free reign in certain sections of the city to devalue private property which may not otherwise be accessible due to external ownership, and where applying the rules of eminent domain are not feasible (property seizure doesn't "look good").

After the land is devalued due to criminal activity, the property is purchased by either shell companies or the Elite themselves, razed, the crime is "stopped" (no incentive if no one is there), then it is used for whatever purpose the Empowered Elite wanted to use it for (mining, throughfares, military purposes, a shopping mall, a new castle, etc.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Just as a note, this exact scenario was a season-long arc on The Shield. $\endgroup$
    – lly
    Jul 18 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ @lly not just The Shield; it's a common trope. $\endgroup$
    – JoshDM
    Jul 18 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ A city I lived in does something similar: the politicians will cut policing for a poor minority neighborhood, condemn the properties for the resulting crime, take them using eminent domain, and then sell them for pennies on the dollar to their campaign donors, who then redevelop them into a rich white neighborhood, aka “gentrification”. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Jul 18 at 13:59
  • $\begingroup$ @JoshDM If that were true, there'd be a TVTrope link in your comment. $\endgroup$
    – lly
    Jul 19 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ @lly no one's stopping you from hunting one down from that site and linking it. $\endgroup$
    – JoshDM
    Jul 21 at 1:58
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What might be the benefits for [a] government to sanction certain crime within [an] important trade city?

There are already excellent answers to this question, but to add some more real world details that have been overlooked:

Strengthening Colonial Rule

The most famous real-world example is Hong Kong. In order (a) to facilitate illicit trade in opium and other products, (b) to enjoy an additional local spy network in a large and hostile neighbor, and most importantly (c) to maintain a semblance of order over a large population whose language few of the colonial administration spoke, the Brits maintained deals with the Triads to essentially outsource most public order over the Chinese slums to powerful criminals. The "tea money" hongbao provided by the gangs were also prime sources of income for the colonial police. Things were periodically shut down or renegotiated, as after the 1956 Double Ten Riots, but the Triads were so entrenched that even the PRC were forced into deals with them during the handover and has only been slowly chipping away at them since, usually when they start messing around on the mainland. There are tons of books, TV shows, and movies about this era but lots of them are in Cantonese. To bring the same idea closer to home, The Shield dramatizes the LAPD's similar accommodation of crime as a way of handling the endemic mess in the poorer neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Essentially, apart from enriching themselves, the Farmington police are shown choosing their battles, angling for local black and hispanic criminal leaders who keep the violence and crime away from better (and whiter) neighborhoods and away from directly harming the local children or the police themselves.

Handling Temporary Emergencies

In New York City during World War II, the US gov't made common cause with the mafia in part to get a better spy network in the leadup to the invasion of Sicily but also to maintain control over longshoreman and other important labor unions involved in maintaining the armed force's logistical network. It wasn't until the 1960s that the Feds got around to cleaning any of that up, in part because they were grateful for the assistance in tamping down any possibility of strikes during the war years.

Illicit Profits Exceeding Gov't Revenues

Another important real-world example is the accommodation of the narcotraficantes by governments in Central and South America, especially Mexico. Although coordinated government action limited local problems for years, over time the amount of money involved in funneling drugs and people through to the US erupted into massive turf wars within Latin America itself. Disunity between local and federal parties didn't help, but mostly the flow of cash reached the point where nearly the entire law enforcement apparatus could be bought, the rest could be hunted, and (push come to shove) local gangs have sometimes been better armed than the national military.

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We have good historical examples where this occurred because of jurisdictional confusion.

For example, the tangled relationship of royal and Church prerogatives in Europe in the medieval and early Modern period often allowed Church leaders to exempt people from royal laws while on their lands. For example, in an area that later became part of London that was known as the Liberty of the Clink, the bishop was able to license prostitutes, brothels, and theatres.

Kowloon Walled City came to be because of a complicated history of claims over a small area of land by the British colonial government of Hong Kong and the Nationalist and Communist governments of China. Britain did not want to govern the area, but also did not want to return it to Chinese jurisdiction. So you ended up with a sort of Passport to Pimlico self-organizing quasi-anarchy without official law enforcement.

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All of that is already legal to some extent in some places

Legal in lots of jurisdictions, some of them even real democracies:

  • Killing humans, for example in self defense, in war, as capital punishment, to save the mother of an unborn, abortion or euthanasia.
  • Substance trading and consumption: Drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco or cannabis
  • Taking other people’s property: Taxes, fines, fees, interest, foreclosures

The most important part is that the above activities are tightly controlled in order to provide stability and reliability. A successful city or country generally needs stability. You certainly don’t want random murder on the streets to be legal or you’d have anarchy and mayhem. But as long as it’s controlled and restricted in some way it’s perfectly feasible for murder to be legal. Even if it’s just some amount of money (“tax” or fine) you have to pay to the government for committing certain things.

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Hollywood will show you many - prolly dozens - of stories in which "governments" sanction crime for their own devious ends… most often to justify increasing the security budget or beefing up security powers.

That and any other Answer uses "government" in a rather loose sense. Even in today's Communist China and the historical USSR, it's almost unthinkable that an entire government would collectively go your way.

May we assume the Question is really about agencies, branches or departments, or rogue agents within them?

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Some governments pork barrel: they favor the electorates that voted for them with money for projects that will benefit those communities - better roads, park lands, new hospital or extension to an existing one, etc.

There is also an element of divide and conquer. If the communities are competing with each other there will be less focus on the government.

A government that encouraged crime in one area would not do so openly. By encouraging such a situation, the government would openly give the perception of tackling the crime. By doing so, the people will have less of a focus on what the government is doing in other areas, such a corruption and kleptocracy. It also gives the government a better chance of staying in power.

One way to unite a people to align with the government is for the government to create common enemy. The criminals in the crime zone would be one such "enemy".

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A wave of crimes sweeps through the city and the government decides to hire some criminals to fight the others. Rather than sanctioning crime they turn a blind eye on certain violations of the law.

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Good policing is hard.

There used to be a city police force, but it was massively corrupt. Anyone who couldn't afford bribes would be framed for various crimes. The local government sent in auditors to investigate the police, but those turned out to be corrupt too.

In the end, the government gave up. They fired all the police, and the whole of the judiciary; a massive saving in their overstretched budget. There are still laws, but they're never enforced.

To protect themselves, the rich hire security guards to follow them around. Ordinary citizens make protection payments to their local mobsters to keep themselves safe. The gangsters realise they've got a pretty good situation going, and don't want to upset things too much by going too far, so they try to keep the peace, most of the time.

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