Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

Hammurabi’s Code

hammurabi's code

Nearly 4,000 years ago, Hammurabi’s code specified:

“229. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.”

“230. If it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house they shall put to death a son of that builder.”

“231. If it causes the death of a slave of the owner of the house he shall give to the owner of the house a slave of equal value.”

“232. If it destroys property, he shall restore whatever it destroyed, and because he did not make the house which he build firm and it collapsed, he shall rebuild the house which collapsed at his own expense.”

“233. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction meet the requirements and a wall falls in, that builder shall strengthen the wall at his own expense.”

The image above shows 230 and 231 written in the original cuneiform script.

Hammurabi was the best-known king of Babylon’s first dynasty. In addition to being a lesson in incentives, the code is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, recorded construction law.

“In all,” writes Nael Bunni in Risk and Insurance in Construction, “there were 282 rules found inscribed on an imposing stone stele in cuneiform script. The rules were divided into three sections: property law, family law, and laws relating to retaliation and restitution.”

The severe penalty imposted by these rules ensured that building work achieved the required standards of construction and safety and helped to ensure that houses were free from the defects resulting from bad design, materials or workmanship. The assurance that this would be so was based on the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ in accordance with the law of that time, a principle that still exists today in some legal systems.

In a 2011 Op-ed, Nassim Taleb wrote:

The Babylonians understood that the builder will always know more about the risks than the client, and can hide fragilities and improve his profitability by cutting corners — in, say, the foundation. The builder can also fool the inspector; the person hiding risk has a large informational advantage over the one who has to find it.