The Death Penalty
September 26, 2000
the death penalty deter crime? The New York Times
reports that the twelve states that dont have capital punishment
have, on the whole, lower homicide rates than those that do. Texas, for
example, has put 144 murderers to death under the current governor
fellow named Bush yet has a murder rate more than three
times as high as gentle Massachusetts, which has no death penalty.
Conclusion? One pundit draws the
moral: Capital punishment fails to deter. That
doesnt follow. It may be that without the death penalty even more
Texans would kill each other, and that with the death penalty even fewer
Massachuters, or what ever you call them, would kill each other. We
arent talking about laboratory conditions here. Many factors may
make the difference.
Penalties deter. Thats why the
government relies on them. If there were no penalty for failing to pay
taxes, do you think revenues would remain where they are? The Internal
Revenue Service is based on the assumption that fear is the best incentive
for a taxpayer, and liberals dont clamor for an end to its reign of
terror: they like that part of government.
But is the death penalty different? Of
course not. If you credibly tell someone to do as you say or youll
kill him, hell do as you say. It works at convenience stores.
A few years ago the
Washington Post reported that the war on
drugs was hampered by the reluctance of witnesses to testify.
Why? Because they were afraid of the death penalty, as administered by
drug dealers. At least that death penalty deterred. Which didnt stop
the Posts own columnists from insisting that the
death penalty doesnt work.
The difference is that when drug
dealers target you, you dont get a trial, a lawyer, and years of
appeals, as you do when the government charges you with murder. There
was a time when state and local governments meted out justice very
swiftly. A murderer might be hanged within days of committing his crime,
just as a witness today may be shot within hours of talking to the
You cant compare swift retribution with what even
Texas inflicts. The 144 killers executed under George W. Bush were
probably a small fraction of the total number of killers in the state, and
they had probably committed their murders many years before he took
office. As murderers go, they were no doubt extremely vicious and very
unlucky. They may have gotten justice, but it was neither certain nor
swift, and in the end it probably came as a surprise. Its unlikely
that they expected to pay the ultimate price when they committed their
crimes, some of which must have occurred during the early 1970s, when
the U.S. Supreme Court had banned the death penalty. (It later changed its
mind, allowing capital punishment under certain conditions.)
Thats the point. If a killer
doesnt expect to die for his crime, he may not be deterred, even if
there is a death penalty on the books. He presumably knows the odds. But if
he felt it was very likely that he would be arrested and swiftly put to
death, he might think twice.
Opponents of the death penalty
usually dodge the most basic question: Does a murderer deserve to die?
Its no use calling the death penalty barbaric, unfair, arbitrary, or
uncertain until youve faced the issue of simple justice. And most
opponents dont want to talk about it. This makes their arguments
My own view is that, other things
being equal, a murderer richly deserves to die. But you can say that and
still believe that the state shouldnt execute him. The state has
amply proved, over the centuries (and especially the twentieth century),
that it cant be trusted with life-and-death power over anyone. It
cant be trusted with other powers either: the power to draft
soldiers, the power to tax, the power to control the currency. It has
abused every power ever entrusted to it, and some of the men whose faces
adorn our money deserved the gallows.
The modern state is itself a criminal
enterprise. And though the death penalty is intrinsically just and does
deter, we dont want justice enforced by criminals.
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