punishment

Why Stop at the Death Penalty?

Some prominent internet libertarians (I use the term to distinguish them from true libertarians) have their knickers in a twist on the subject of the death penalty. Their discomfort seems to have been caused by the allegedly wrongful but actually justified execution of cop-killer Troy Davis.

Jason Brennan weighs in with “Kill the Death Penalty,” a post that is sandwiched by two of Will Wilkinson’s: “The Killing of Troy Davis” and “Moral Progress and Arguments against the Death Penalty.”

Brennan writes:

For a state to have the right to kill criminals, it must make decisions about guilt and hear appeals in a fair, competent, and reliable manner. It must have rules that reliably let the innocent–or those whose guilt is reasonably in doubt–go free. The American criminal justice system fails to meet these standards. Perhaps a government of smart angels should be granted the right to kill.

It’s the old Nirvana fallacy at work: If it ain’t perfect, it’s no good. Well, by Brennan’s “logic,” the state should never exact punishment for anything. After all, how certain can cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries be about anything? Radar guns aren’t perfect; what looks light the running of a red light can be chalked up to parallax; eyewitness testimony is notoriously flawed; etc., etc., etc.

Let’s just do away with punishment, starting with capital punishment and running the gamut to smacking an unruly child. Why not go whole hog and reward anti-social behavior?

Wilkinson makes a more subtle case against capital punishment, in the second-linked post:

I have here advance proofs of Steven Pinker’s forthcoming book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. It’s a smorgasbord of data on liberalizing moral change. Pinker shows that modernity brought about a stunning shift in norms, including attitudes toward capital punishment….

[graphs indicating steep declines in the use of capital punishment]

In the face of such a decisive trend in moral culture, we can say a couple different things. We can say that this is just change and says nothing in particular about what is really right or wrong, good or bad. Or we can take take say this is evidence of moral progress, that we have actually become better. I prefer the latter interpretation for basically the same reasons most of us see the abolition of slavery and the trend toward greater equality between races and sexes as progress and not mere morally indifferent change. We can talk about the nature of moral progress later. It’s tricky. For now, I want you to entertain the possibility that convergence toward the idea that execution is wrong counts as evidence that it is wrong. This would suggest that those American states yet to abolish the death penalty are cases of arrested development. Looking at these trends, it seems overwhelmingly probable that we will look back on the death penalty as a shameful bit of lingering of savagery. And we won’t be wrong. If our smarter, more angelic future selves wouldn’t concede, even just for the sake of argument, that capital punishment is okay, why concede it now?

I would count convergence toward the idea that execution is wrong as evidence that it is wrong, if … that idea were (a) increasingly held by individuals who (b) had arrived at their “enlightenment” unnfluenced by operatives of the state (legislatures and judges), who take it upon themselves to flout popular support of the death penalty. What we have, in the case of the death penalty, is moral regress, not moral progress.

Related posts:
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Abortion and Crime
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More on Abortion and Crime
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Abortion and Crime (from a different angle than the earlier post of the same name)
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
What Is Justice?

Saving the Innocent

Paul Compos, writing at The New Republic, celebrates “The American Justice System at Its Best“:

[I]t’s reasonable to argue that the acquittal of Casey Anthony … represent[s] … the system working as it should. But accepting that argument requires acknowledging deep imperfections that our legal system must tolerate, even when it does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

The most disturbing of these inevitable imperfections is a product of our supposed commitment to the principle that we prefer a large number—whether it’s 10, 50, or 100, the precise number is never clearly stated—of guilty people going free to the conviction of an innocent defendant. That is the practical significance of requiring the state to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”—a standard that, interestingly, the system always avoids defining in any but the most general, non-statistical terms….

[In Anthony's case] The state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that a two-year-old child was murdered, and that her mother was, at the least, a deeply irresponsible parent with a propensity to lie to authorities. The prosecution also demonstrated, in my view, that it is far more likely than not that Anthony committed the crime. But I also believe the jury’s verdict was correct….

The case against Anthony was largely circumstantial, buttressed by arguably—yet only arguably—strong forensic evidence. But the prosecution was hampered by its inability to provide a compelling narrative explaining either how Caylee Anthony was killed or why her mother purportedly murdered her. This failure was not, as far as we know, a product of prosecutorial incompetence. The hard truth is that it is extremely difficult to successfully prosecute a murder under these kinds of circumstances—and the harder truth is that we are supposedly committed to the principle that this is, on the whole, a good thing.

Or is it? Compos refers  to the dictum of the noted English jurist, William Blackstone:

Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.

“n” — the number of guilty persons — has increased since the late 1700s, when Blackstone wrote. Alexander “Sasha” Volokh offers some useful perspective:

Charles Dickens generously endorsed a value of n = “hundreds” for capital cases, and not just “that hundreds of guilty persons should escape,” but that they should escape “scot-free.” 99 Dickens was, in fact, so generous that hundreds of guilty persons escaping scot-free was not only better than one innocent person suffering — it was even better “than that the possibility of any innocent man or woman having been sacrificed, should present itself, with the least appearance of reason, to the minds of any class of men!” 100….

Of course, such blithe invocation could easily lead too far down the road to “inconsiderate folly” and “pestiferous nonsense.” As one author noted, there is “nothing so dangerous as a maxim”: 107

Better that any number of savings-banks be robbed than that one innocent person be condemned as a burglar! Better that any number of innocent men, women, and children should be waylaid, robbed, ravished, and murdered by wicked, wilful, and depraved malefactors, than that one innocent person should be convicted and punished for the perpetration of one of this infinite multitude of crimes, by an intelligent and well-meaning though mistaken court and jury! Better any amount of crime than one mistake in well-meant endeavors to suppress or prevent it! 108….

Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, warned against the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from large values of n:

We must be on guard against those sentimental exaggerations which tend to give crime impunity, under the pretext of insuring the safety of innocence. Public applause has been, so to speak, set up to auction. At first it was said to be better to save several guilty men, than to condemn a single innocent man; others, to make the maxim more striking, fix the number ten; a third made this ten a hundred, and a fourth made it a thousand. All these candidates for the prize of humanity have been outstripped by I know not how many writers, who hold, that, in no case, ought an accused person to be condemned, unless evidence amount to mathematical or absolute certainty. According to this maxim, nobody ought to be punished, lest an innocent man be punished. 128 ….

James Fitzjames Stephen suggested that Blackstone’s maxim

resembles a suggestion that soldiers should be armed with bad guns because it is better that they should miss ten enemies than that they should hit one friend. . . . Everything depends on what the guilty men have been doing, and something depends on the way in which the innocent man came to be suspected. 134….

The story is told of a Chinese law professor, who was listening to a British lawyer explain that Britons were so enlightened, they believed it was better that ninety-nine guilty men go free than that one innocent man be executed. The Chinese professor thought for a second and asked, “Better for whom?” 238

That is the question: Better for whom? It is better for the guilty, who may claim more victims, but it certainly is not better for those new victims.

Related posts:
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Abortion and Crime
More on Abortion and Crime
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Abortion and Crime (from a different angle than the earlier post of the same name)
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty

Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty

Here’s my position:

The econometric evidence is there, for those who are open to it: Capital punishment does deter homicide. See, for example, the careful analysis by Hashem Dezhbaksh, Paul Robin, and Joanna Shepherd, “Does capital punishment have a deterrent effect? New evidence from post-moratorium panel data,” American Law and Economics Review 5(2): 344–376 (available in PDF format here). Dezhbaksh, Rubin, and Shepherd argue that each execution deters eighteen murders. That number may be high, but the analysis is rigorous and it accounts for relevant variables, such as income, age, race, gender, population density, and use of the death penalty where it is legal. It’s hard to read that analysis and believe that capital punishment doesn’t deter homicide — unless you want to believe it. I certainly wouldn’t take “Ouija Board” Goertzel’s opinion over that of careful econometricians like Dezhbaksh, Rubin, and Shepherd.

Now, I must say that I don’t care whether or not capital punishment deters homicide. Capital punishment is the capstone of a system of justice that used to work quite well in this country because it was certain and harsh. There must be a hierarchy of certain penalties for crime, and that hierarchy must culminate in the ultimate penalty if criminals and potential criminals are to believe that crime will be punished. When punishment is made less severe and less certain — as it was for a long time after World War II — crime flourishes and law-abiding citizens become less secure in their lives and property.

John McAdams, a professor of political science at Marquette University, makes a succinct case for the death penalty, regardless of its deterrent effect:

I’m a bit surprised . . . [by the] claim that “the burden of empirical proof would seem to lie with the pro-death penalty scholar.” If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.

I wish I’d said that.

Related posts:
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Abortion and Crime
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More on Abortion and Crime
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Abortion and Crime (from a different angle than the earlier post of the same name)

A Roundup of Crime Posts

A misguided social engineer at work: Mark Kleiman, guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy last year (posts are in reverse chronological order).

Now, for some antitodes.

A breath of fresh air from Bryan Caplan, on the subject of addiction-as-disease as an excuse for anti-social and criminal behavior.

A look at crime and race in New York City, from City Journal.

A series of posts (in reverse chronological order) by Lester Jackson, writing at TCS Daily about the death penalty.

My own contributions:

Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Abortion and Crime
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More on Abortion and Crime
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Abortion and Crime (from a different angle than the earlier post of the same name)