Rush to Judgment?

Suppose you see a man with a gun chasing another man down the street. You are armed and decide to intervene. You yell at the pursuer to stop or you’ll shoot him. He pays you no heed and continues his pursuit. You shoot the pursuer in the back and he drops dead. The pursued man continues his flight and soon disappears from your view.

You call the police to report the incident, and an investigative team soon arrives on the scene. The crime-scene investigator turns the dead man over and sees that he is a fellow police officer. The investigator calls the officer’s unit to determine the officer’s assignment at the time of the shooting.

The investigator learns that the officer had been about to make an arrest in a drug sting. The man he was chasing was probably a mid-level drug dealer who was in charge of a drug-dealing operation that spanned one-fourth of the large city in which you live. On further investigation, these facts are confirmed. You are charged with manslaughter.

But if the person you shot had been a criminal intent on killing the fleeing man, you would have been hailed as a hero.

This hypothetical situation can be thought of as a metaphor for the possibility that a jury will convict an innocent person for a crime that carries the death penalty.

There is almost always some degree of uncertainty about the guilt of a person who is convicted of murder. Most murder convictions are based on “circumstantial” evidence, though it should be compelling evidence to secure a conviction. But a murderer is seldom caught at the scene of the crime in a manner that points unambiguously to (a) his culpability and (b) lack of mitigating circumstances (e.g., self-defense). Rock-solid, 100-percent certainty of guilt is hard to come by.

There are many who argue that such considerations — wrongful conviction, less-than-certainty — call for abolition of the death penalty.

There are two ancillary arguments against the death penalty. The first is that the execution of a person is an irrevocable act which can’t be reversed if evidence surfaces to prove the person’s innocence or, at least, cast reasonable doubt on his guilt. But imprisonment can’t be reversed, either. Awards of monetary damages in cases of wrongful conviction aren’t truly compensatory; time can’t be rewound.

Thus I am unpersuaded that  the death penalty is wrong because it is irreversible. All penalties except strictly monetary ones, repaid with interest, are irreversible. And even those have some costs attached to them (e.g., time lost, shame) that can’t be erased.

The second ancillary argument — which isn’t really an argument — is that the death penalty is barbaric. I am unpersuaded that the death penalty is barbaric. It is a penalty for the commission of a barbaric act. To call it barbaric is to stoop to the kind of emotionalism that typifies the left, whence flows most opposition to the death penalty. (If it’s not barbaric, it’s racist; if it’s not racist, it’s primitive; and on into the night.)

Lost in all the noise are the the essential purposes of punishment: vengeance, deterrence, and security. Restitution and rehabilitation are pipe dreams.

Capital punishment is the capstone of a system of justice that used to work quite well in this country because it was swift, certain, and harsh. But the erosion of the capstone has led to the erosion the edifice beneath it. When the worst crimes merit less than death, the next worse crimes merit lesser punishments than before, and so on down the line. At the end of the line, there are increasing numbers of police officers who refrain from intervening in criminal activity lest they themselves be charged with brutality. It’s little wonder that the rate of violent crime has risen for the past two years.

There must be a hierarchy of 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, crime flourishes and law-abiding citizens become less secure. (Some of the related posts listed below provide relevant statistical evidence.)

There are those who argue that the deterrent effect of capital punishment isn’t what it used to be. But that is because the death penalty is rarer and less certain than it used to be. The deterrent effect would be greater if there were a strict limit on the number of appeals and the time available for such appeals.

In any event, even if capital punishment had no deterrent effect, the execution of a murderer eliminates the possibility that he will murder again.

What about the possibility of a mistaken conviction? That possibility argues not for the abolition of the death penalty, but for strict scrutiny of the evidence against an accused to ensure that it is completely and timely divulged to the defense. It also calls for a special class of defense counsel: lawyers who specialize in and are knowledgeable of the kinds of evidence that are (and should be) presented and examined in capital cases (e.g., evidence about DNA, ballistics, poisons, etc.).

As a taxpayer, I would rather subsidize the training, testing, and monitoring of such lawyers than put up with the seemingly endless rounds of death-sentence appeals and the costs associated with them. The tradeoff would be enshrined in law: a definite limit as to the number of appeals and the length of time allowed for them, on the one hand, and a greater assurance of robust defense for the accused, on the other hand.

Justice delayed is justice denied.


Related reading: John Paul Wright and Matt DeLisi, “What Criminologists Don’t Say, and Why“, City Journal, Summer 2017

Related posts:
I’ll Never Understand the Insanity Defense
Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
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
A Precedent for the Demise of the Insanity Defense?
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
What Is Justice?
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
In Defense of Capital Punishment
Lock ‘Em Up
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Stop, Frisk, and Save Lives
Poverty, Crime, and Big Government
Crime Revisited

Double Amen

Paul Mirengoff of Power Line reports:

Cathy Lanier is leaving her job as police chief of Washington, D.C. to become the NFL’s head of security. . . .

On her way out, Lanier had some harsh things to say about criminal justice in D.C. “The criminal justice system in this city is broken,” Lanier told the Washington Post. Indeed, “it is beyond broken.”

Often, it’s the left that calls the criminal justice system “broken.” But Lanier was not offering a leftist critique. Instead, she found the system broken primarily because it allows repeat violent offenders back on the street time after time.

Lanier cited the case of an 18 year-old man who last week was on home detention when his GPS tracking device became inoperable. The man then went on a crime rampage that started in Maryland and ended in the District. His crimes included a robbery, a shooting, and a car theft that resulted in a crash that left a bystander critically injured.

According to Lanier, this sort of thing is “happening over and over and over again.” She added:

Where the hell is the outrage? . . . People are being victimized who shouldn’t be. You can’t police the city if the rest of the justice system is not accountable.

Actually, there’s plenty of outrage. Unfortunately, much of it is directed towards the alleged over-incarceration of young black males.

In “Amen to That,” I quoted an earlier post by Mirengoff on the same subject, namely, under-incarceration:

I’ve argued that America has an under-incarceration problem. Criminals whose records clearly show they should be in jail have, instead, been released and are on the streets committing violent crimes, including some very bloody, high-profile ones.

Here’s another example. Samuel Harviley, paroled from prison less than three months ago, is being held without bond for shooting an off-duty Chicago police officer outside his home earlier this week. In withholding bond, the local judge said that Harviley “poses an extreme danger to the rest of us out in public.”

Indeed, he does. And he did three months ago when he was released early from jail. . . .

Sentencing reform is, indeed, called for. The system should be reformed so that criminals like Harviley don’t get out of prison after serving less than their half of their sentence. As Chicago Patrol Chief Eddie Johnson says, the Harviley shooting illustrates that the criminal justice system “is broken.” He added:

Until we get real criminal justice reform, the cycle will continue. We have the laws here. We just need to make sure that these criminals are held accountable for their actions.

What a quaint notion.

None of this is news to me. See, for example, “Crime Explained” (fifth item) at this post. The bottom line:

Incarceration has a strong, statistically significant, negative effect on the violent-property crime rate. In other words, more prisoners = less crime against persons and their property.

Double amen.

[See also Paul Mirengoff’s “Our Under-Incarceration Problem, Charlotte Edition.”)

Amen to That

Paul Mirengoff offers “More Evidence of Our Under-Incarceration Problem“:

I’ve argued that America has an under-incarceration problem. Criminals whose records clearly show they should be in jail have, instead, been released and are on the streets committing violent crimes, including some very bloody, high-profile ones.

Here’s another example. Samuel Harviley, paroled from prison less than three months ago, is being held without bond for shooting an off-duty Chicago police officer outside his home earlier this week. In withholding bond, the local judge said that Harviley “poses an extreme danger to the rest of us out in public.”

Indeed, he does. And he did three months ago when he was released early from jail….

Sentencing reform is, indeed, called for. The system should be reformed so that criminals like Harviley don’t get out of prison after serving less than their half of their sentence. As Chicago Patrol Chief Eddie Johnson says, the Harviley shooting illustrates that the criminal justice system “is broken.” He added:

Until we get real criminal justice reform, the cycle will continue. We have the laws here. We just need to make sure that these criminals are held accountable for their actions.

What a quaint notion.

None of this is news to me. See, for example, “Crime Explained” (fifth item) at this post. The bottom line:

Incarceration has a strong, statistically significant, negative effect on the violent-property crime rate. In other words, more prisoners = less crime against persons and their property.

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XI)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

Steve Stewart-Williams asks “Did Morality Evolve?” (The Nature-Nurture-Neitzsche Blog, May 2, 2010). His answer:

[T]here are at least two reasons to think morality bears the imprint of our evolutionary history. The first comes from observations of a class of individuals that psychologists all too often ignore: other animals. Nonhuman animals obviously don’t reason explicitly about right and wrong, but they do exhibit some aspects of human morality. Rather than being locked into an eternal war of all-against-all, many animals display tendencies that we count among our most noble: They cooperate; they help one another; they share resources; they love their offspring. For those who doubt that human morality has evolutionary underpinnings, the existence of these ‘noble’ traits in other animals poses a serious challenge….

…A second [reason] is that, not only do we know that these kinds of behaviour are part of the standard behavioural repertoire of humans in all culture and of other animals, we now have a pretty impressive arsenal of theories explaining how such behaviour evolved. Kin selection theory explains why many animals – humans included – are more altruistic toward kin than non-kin: Kin are more likely than chance to share any genes contributing to this nepotistic tendency. Reciprocal altruism theory explains how altruism can evolve even among non-relatives: Helping others can benefit the helper, as long as there’s a sufficient probability that the help will be reciprocated and as long as people avoid helping those who don’t return the favour. Another promising theory is that altruism is a costly display of fitness, which makes the altruist more attractive as a mate or ally. Overall, the evolutionary explanation of altruism represents one of the real success stories of the evolutionary approach to psychology.

Though I’m disinclined to use the term “altruism,” it’s useful shorthand for the kinds of behavior that seems selfless. In any event, I am sympathetic to Stewart-Williams’s view of morality as evolutionary. Morality is at least a learned and culturally-transmitted phenomenon, which manifests itself globally in the Golden Rule.

*     *     *

Pierre Lemieux decries “The Vacuity of the Political ‘We’” (The Library of Economics and Liberty, October 6, 2014):

One can barely read a newspaper or listen to a politician’s speech without hearing the standard “we as a society” or its derivatives….

The truth is that this collective “we” has no scientific meaning.

In the history of economic thought, two main strands of analysis support this conclusion. One was meant to criticize economists’ use of “social indifference curves” (also called “community indifference curves”), which generally appeared in the welfare analysis of international trade between personalized trading countries. Countries were personalized in the sense that they were assumed to have preferences, just as an individual does. In a famous 1956 article, Paul Samuelson definitively demonstrated that such social indifference curves, analogous to individual indifference curves, do not exist….

A second strand of analysis leads to a similar but more general conclusion. The problem has come to be known as the “preference aggregation” issue: how can we aggregate—”add up” as it were—individual preferences? Can we fuse them into social preferences—a “social welfare function”—that would equally represent all individuals? This second tradition of analysis follows a long and broken line of theorists. The Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century, Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) in the 19th, and economist Duncan Black in the 20th all discovered independently that majority voting does not provide an acceptable aggregation mechanism.

I’ve discussed the vacuity of the political “we” and the “social welfare function” in many posts; most recently this one, where I make these two points:

1. It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.

2. Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.

*     *     *

I’m pleased to note that there are still some enlightened souls like David Mulhhausen, who writes about “How the Death Penalty Saves Lives” (September 30, 2014) , at the website of The Heritage Foundation. Muhlhausen cites several studies in support of his position. I’ve treated crime and punishment many times; for example:

Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
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
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
What Is Justice?
Saving the Innocent
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
Lock ‘Em Up
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Left-Libertarians, Obama, and the Zimmerman Case
Stop, Frisk, and Save Lives
Poverty, Crime, and Big Governmen

The numbers are there to support strict punishment, up to and including capital punishment. But even if the numbers weren’t conclusive, I’d be swayed by John McAdams, a professor of political science at Marquette University, who 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.

The same goes for fraudsters, thieves, rapists, and other transgressors against morality.

*     *     *

Walter E. Williams asks “Will the West Defend Itself?” (creators.com, October 1, 2014):

A debate about whether Islam is a religion of peace or not is entirely irrelevant to the threat to the West posed by ISIL, al-Qaida and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups. I would like to gather a news conference with our Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno; Marines’ commandant, Gen. Joseph Dunford; chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert; and Gen. Mark A. Welsh, the U.S. Air Force’s chief of staff. This would be my question to them: The best intelligence puts ISIL’s size at 35,000 to 40,000 people. Do you officers think that the combined efforts of our military forces could defeat and lay waste to ISIL? Before they had a chance to answer, I’d add: Do you think the combined military forces of NATO and the U.S. could defeat and eliminate ISIL. Depending on the answers given, I’d then ask whether these forces could also eliminate Iran’s capability of making nuclear weapons.

My question to my fellow Americans is: What do you think their answers would be? No beating around the bush: Does the U.S. have the power to defeat the ISIL/al-Qaida threat and stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions — yes or no?

If our military tells us that we do have the capacity to defeat the terror threat, then the reason that we don’t reflects a lack of willingness. It’s that same lack of willingness that led to the deaths of 60 million people during World War II. In 1936, France alone could have stopped Adolf Hitler, but France and its allies knowingly allowed Hitler to rearm, in violation of treaties. When Europeans finally woke up to Hitler’s agenda, it was too late. Their nations were conquered. One of the most horrible acts of Nazi Germany was the Holocaust, which cost an estimated 11 million lives. Those innocents lost their lives because of the unwillingness of Europeans to protect themselves against tyranny.

Westerners getting the backbone to defend ourselves from terrorists may have to await a deadly attack on our homeland. You say, “What do you mean, Williams?” America’s liberals have given terrorists an open invitation to penetrate our country through our unprotected southern border. Terrorists can easily come in with dirty bombs to make one of our major cities uninhabitable through radiation. They could just as easily plant chemical or biological weapons in our cities. If they did any of these acts — leading to the deaths of millions of Americans — I wonder whether our liberal Democratic politicians would be able to respond or they would continue to mouth that “Islam teaches peace” and “Islam is a religion of peace.”

Unfortunately for our nation’s future and that of the world, we see giving handouts as the most important function of government rather than its most basic function: defending us from barbarians.

Exactly. The title of my post, “A Grand Strategy for the United States,” is a play on Strategy for the  West (1954), by Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cotesworth Slessor. Slessor was, by some accounts, a principal author of nuclear deterrence. Aside from his role in the development of a strategy for keeping the USSR at bay, Slessor is perhaps best known for this observation:

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditure on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free. (Strategy for the West, p. 75)

Doctrinaire libertarians seem unable to grasp this. Like “liberals,” they tend to reject the notion of a strong defense because they are repelled by the “tribalism” represented by state sovereignty. One such doctrinaire libertarian is Don Boudreaux, who — like Walter E. Williams — teaches economics at George Mason University.

A post by Boudreaux at his blog Cafe Hayek caused me to write “Liberalism and Sovereignty,” where I say this:

Boudreaux … states a (truly) liberal value, namely, that respect for others should not depend on where they happen to live. Boudreaux embellishes that theme in the the next several paragraphs of his post; for example:

[L]iberalism rejects the notion that there is anything much special or compelling about political relationships.  It is tribalistic, atavistic, to regard those who look more like you to be more worthy of your regard than are those who look less like you.  It is tribalistic, atavistic, to regard those who speak your native tongue to be more worthy of your affection and concern than are those whose native tongues differ from yours.

For the true liberal, the human race is the human race.  The struggle is to cast off as much as possible primitive sentiments about “us” being different from “them.”

The problem with such sentiments — correct as they may be — is the implication that we have nothing more to fear from people of foreign lands than we have to fear from our own friends and neighbors. Yet, as Boudreaux himself acknowledges,

[t]he liberal is fully aware that such sentiments [about “us” being different from “them”] are rooted in humans’ evolved psychology, and so are not easily cast off.  But the liberal does his or her best to rise above those atavistic sentiments,

Yes, the liberal does strive to rise above such sentiments, but not everyone else makes the same effort, as Boudreaux admits. Therein lies the problem.

Americans — as a mostly undifferentiated mass — are disdained and hated by many foreigners (and by many an American “liberal”). The disdain and hatred arise from a variety of imperatives, ranging from pseudo-intellectual snobbery to nationalistic rivalry to anti-Western fanaticism. When those imperative lead to aggression (threatened or actual), that aggression is aimed at all of us: liberal, “liberal,” conservative, libertarian, bellicose, pacifistic, rational, and irrational.

Having grasped that reality, the Framers “did ordain and establish” the Constitution “in Order to . . . provide for the common defence” (among other things). That is to say, the Framers recognized the importance of establishing the United States as a sovereign state for limited and specified purposes, while preserving the sovereignty of its constituent States and their inhabitants for all other purposes.

If Americans do not mutually defend themselves through the sovereign state which was established for that purpose, who will? That is the question which liberals (both true and false) often fail to ask. Instead, they tend to propound internationalism for its own sake. It is a mindless internationalism, one that often disdains America’s sovereignty, and the defense thereof.

Mindless internationalism equates sovereignty with  jingoism, protectionism, militarism, and other deplorable “isms.” It ignores or denies the hard reality that Americans and their legitimate overseas interests are threatened by nationalistic rivalries and anti-Western fanaticism.

In the real world of powerful rivals and determined, resourceful fanatics, the benefits afforded Americans by our (somewhat eroded) constitutional contract — most notably the enjoyment of civil liberties, the blessings of  free markets and free trade, and the protections of a common defense — are inseparable from and dependent upon the sovereign power of the United States.  To cede that sovereignty for the sake of mindless internationalism is to risk the complete loss of the benefits promised by the Constitution.

Signature

Free Will, Crime, and Punishment

Humans often are confronted with situations that they could not and did not foresee in detail, even if those situations were anticipated in outline. Consider aerial combat (dogfighting), before the age of air-to-air missiles.

The enemy pilot (Red) comes “out of the sun,” as he is trained to do, and as the friendly pilot (Blue) is trained to anticipate. Blue, upon seeing his adversary, must decide in an instant how to evade Red — if it is not too late to do so. Assume that Blue survives the crucial early moments of his encounter with Red. Blue’s decision about what to do next (probably) will accord with his training; that is, he will choose one of the maneuvers that he was trained in, though he may not execute it in “textbook” style. But the maneuver that he chooses, and how he specifically executes it, will depend on his (very rapid) assessment of the environment (e.g., the enemy’s rate and angle of closure, altitude, presence of clouds, topography), the condition of his aircraft and its armament (e.g., maneuverability, climb rate, ability to withstand the stress of a violent maneuver, accuracy of the machine gun, number of rounds in the magazine, amount of fuel in the tank), and his own confidence in his ability to do what he “should” do, given his necessarily imperfect assessment of the situation, his options, and his ability to exercise each of them.

The key word in all of that is “judgment.” Regardless of Blue’s genetic and behaviorial inheritance, he is in a life-or-death situation, and his goal — unless he is suicidal — is to get out of it alive. More than that, he wants to elude Red’s initial onslaught so that he can kill Red. Blue therefore assesses his options with those goals in mind, overriding whatever “instincts” might lead him to panic or choose an inappropriate option, given the specific circumstances of his encounter with Red.

Similarly, but less dramatically, humans (in the Western world, at least) make judgments about how they should act so that they can  have enough money to buy a house, be healthy, maintain a stable and happy family life, retire comfortably, and so on.  The judgments — and the behavior that follows from them — may not “come naturally”: saving instead of squandering, drinking moderately instead of heavily, remaining faithful to one’s spouse, and so on.

Thus I have no doubt that I — and most humans — can (and do) act deliberately in ways that are not strictly determined by genetic inheritance, behavioral conditioning, the moon’s cycle, the position of the stars, or any such influence. (It does seem to me that determinism has a lot in common with astrology.) Determinists bear the burden of proving that freely chosen, purposive behavior is an illusion.

Some determinists hew to their faith because it allows them to view criminals as automata who are not responsible for their actions and, therefore, undeserving of punishment. Illogically, these criminal-coddling determinists usually favor “rehabilitation” over punishment. That position is illogical because:

  • If there is free will, punishment can deter wrong-doing and keep wrong-doers out of circulation (for a while, at least). Rehabilitation will work only in those unusual cases where criminals are able to transform themselves, so that their judgments no longer have anti-social consequences.
  • If free will is lacking (either generally or for persons with certain disorders of the brain), rehabilitation is impossible because criminals are “destined” to commit anti-social acts. But punishment (incarceration or execution) will keep them from committing such acts (temporarily or permanently).

Related reading: “Is Free Will an Illusion?” (a virtual colloquium at The Chronicle of Higher Education)

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
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)
Lock ‘Em Up
Legislating Morality
Legislating Morality (II)

Legislating Morality (II)

Donald Boudreaux is co-proprietor of Cafe Hayek. I agree with him on almost everything (defense being the notable exception), but I can’t swallow this:

Too bad that too few people realize – as does the Rev. Robertson today [regarding marijuana], and as did Mr. Rockefeller 80 years ago [regarding alcohol] – that government cannot prohibit private behaviors without unleashing consequences far worse than those of the prohibited behaviors themselves.

That’s a too-sweeping statement. Does the “prohibition” of theft and murder unleash consequences “far worse than those of the prohibited behaviors”? I don’t think so.

On the contrary, the “prohibition” by statute and ordinance of direct harms to life, liberty, and property enables the state to perform one of its two legitimate functions, which is to punish those harms and thereby deter their commission (at least partially). (The other legitimate function is to defend us from foreign predators.)

Where is the line between legitimate and illegitimate state action properly drawn? That’s a tough question. My general answer is that the state should be authorized to act in defense of long-standing social norms. Those norms used to encompass the last six of the Ten Commandments, which “prohibit” certain interpersonal transgressions: murder, adultery, theft, libel and slander, and covetousness. But under the dispensation of the “liberal” state, murder is not punished timely or adequately, adultery is encouraged (and marriages and families broken) by no-fault divorce laws, libel and slander are commonplace, and “social justice” is covetousness rampant.

I would say that “prohibition” has a rightful place in the maintenance of civil society.

Related posts:
The Principles of Actionable Harm
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Myopic Moaning about the War on Drugs
Saving the Innocent
Facets of Liberty
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Lock ‘Em Up
Legislating Morality

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?

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)