By Brook Gotberg (University of Missouri School of Law)
It is generally understood that the way to discourage particular behavior in individuals is to punish that behavior, on the theory that rational individuals seek to avoid punishment. Laws aimed at deterring behavior operate on the assumption that increasing the likelihood of punishment, the severity of punishment, or both, will decrease the behavior. The success of these laws is also evaluated by how much the targeted behavior decreases. The law of preferential transfers, which effectively punishes creditors who have been paid prior to the bankruptcy has been defended on the grounds that it deters a race to collect from a struggling debtor. However, deterrence theory suggests that the low likelihood of punishment and the cap on punishment associated with preference law make it a very poor deterrence. Further, statements pulled from interviews with affected creditors, debtors, and attorneys demonstrate that in practice, preference law does little or nothing to deter targeted behavior, and in the process imposes significant costs. The weaknesses of preference law call for its significant revision to place a greater focus on specific categories of creditors to be punished on account of their pre-bankruptcy activities.
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