Witch hunts

All societies are afflicted by parasites or moochers. That is, members who deliberately take as much as possible and give as little as possible. Suppose, for example, there is a war and all the males are expected to participate. Parasites hold back and avoid danger until the fighting is almost over, at which point they rush to the front and act like they were the major causes of the victory. Everyone suspects what they were up to, but no one can be certain due to the confusion of battle. Or the parasite conveniently gets sick at the start of a community project, when hard work has to be done, then gets well just in time for the feast which concludes the project.

It can be very difficult to formulate laws to cope with parasites, plus even the useful members of society occasionally engage in parasiticical behavior, so the ordinary punishments for such behavior would necessarily be mild.

Parasites can be dealt with as follows. All societies suffer periodic natural disasters, which can be blamed on witches. Everyone gathers together and peforms some ritual, at the end of which the group points its finger at the suspected witch, who is then killed. This witch is the most hated member of the society, and typically a parasite of some sort.

There is a famous story titled "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, in which all the residents of a small New England town gather together and then one person is selected by lottery to be stoned to death. This is an absurd misinterpretation of witch hunt behavior. Societies don't just pick victims at random. Witch hunt victims are those considered to be a threat to the society but whose offenses fall through the loopholes of the ordinary legal system.

Our Kind by Marvin Harris (1989) has more on the subject of witch hunts as a way of dealing with parasites.