The Death Penalty, The Economic Argument

This is the fourth (and final) part of a series, dealing with topics are normally informed by a religious point-of-view, but have somehow managed to leak into some secular world-views. They’ll be collected together under the arrogantly-titled ‘Conceits’ tag.

I’ve dealt with The Deterrence Effect in Part 1 and Part 2 of this sub-series, and I also laid out my Philosophical committments there too.

Now to build up the arguments in favour of the death penalty, we have to imagine a more-perfect world than the one we currently live in: a world with no false-positives. That is to say that no innocent people are wrongly convicted. Of coursethis is a fantasy world, that will never exist. The point here is to eliminate all the practical problems that pro-death folk handwave away when making their arguments. I’m prepared to grant all the handwaving, because they still don’t have a solid argument in favour of their position. This also means (and I apologise in advance) ignoring how the death penalty disproportionally affects people of colour. We are going to fantasy-land, where (somehow?) all of this has been resolved (because revenge-fantasies are always idealised, but hey, I’m not going to speculate on the psychology of people who put these arguments forward).

This is how Philosophy rolls: beat the best argument out there, regardless of how unrealistic it is, and all the other lesser arguments are automatically defeated alongside it.

So assuming we have a dangerous person who has committed some kind of unforgivable crime (you can fill in the details as you see fit), such that they would be locked away for an extended period of time. The concern here is that they will repeat the crime if released, and so must remain incarcerated for 50 years for the protection of society. Or killed by the state after a shorter time period (let’s say 5 years).

Again, let’s grant the fantasy-land version of this scenario: the cost of the death penalty to the public (start to finish, including all appeals court appearances) is 10% that of life imprisonment. I don’t really care what the specifics of those numbers are, because what’s important here is the relative cost (or, if you prefer your economics jargon, the opportunity cost of imprisonment over the death penalty).

Let’s dig in to that a little more: that 95% saving is not likely to be small, given the costs of imprisonment today. It is, in fact, likely to be quite large. And that savings could and (let’s pretend) would be reinvested into the socioeconomic areas that need it most. Lives would be saved with these savings. For every 1 scumbag executed, 19 kids could be lifted out of poverty and given a better future. Slam dunk, right?

Let’s call this The Economic Argument (which is, imo, the most interesting, but also the least presented. Go figure).

Problem number one: this argument applies equally to any kind of crime. If execution is always cheaper than imprisonment, and the money saved on execution can be spent to better the lives of the otherwise disadvantaged, then why reserve this calculation purely for ‘unforgivable’ crimes? This is a serious problem for this argument.

Problem number two is one of scope: the insistence that the criminal is an individual, with an unlimited range of choices about how their life will unfold. This is, like the rest, a story of fantasy. Much like the variety of illnesses that proliferate throughout society, criminality can be predicted at the aggregate level. The sources of criminality have been identified for decades: much like living next to a coal plant produces higher rates of cancer in the surrounding areas, pockets of low socio-economic populations produce higher rates of (blue-collar) criminality. I mean we can pretend that the data on this doesn’t exist, but I’m not going to join you in fantasy land: reality is where I’m at.

We can also look at these things on the international level, and ask why different countries produce more murders than others (and why IS Colorado killing so many minorities?) I mean, if we’re discussing “human nature” (whatever the hell that is), these rates should be similar, not ranging from 0.0 per 100,000 (Monaco and Palau) to 91.6 per 100,000 (Honduras). Even if we skip in an arbitrary 5 points from each end, we get a range of 0.3 (Singapore and Iceland) to 41.4 (Belize). There are clearly other factors in play.

And the primary factor is how we organise society. Not only do we have to ask ourselves, firstly, why is it acceptable to have society arranged in such a way that we have 4.8 people killed per 100,000 population (the United States)? Why is this an acceptable cost? Are people that less free in Canada that you’d rather have 4.8 per 100,000 killed over 1.6 per 100,000? And, of course, murders are the thin edge of the wedge. Sexual assaults are significantly higher than this.

Secondly, why is it appropriate then, given that we as a society have opted in to the system that produces these statistics, to say “you, the murderers that our collective society has produced, you must die for doing what is an apparently necessary output of our society”?

Mull on that.

We are all complicit. And the argument is to have the state murder those who are necessarily produced by the system to which we are complicit.

As opposed to changing the system, to investigating the root causes of crime, of what ideas filter on down that encourage/discourage people from acting on whims, choice after choice after choice, that result in dead children.

Advocation of the death penalty is an abdication of your responsibility towards the system of which you are a part by pretending that responsibility is solely in the hands of the agent in question.

Ultimately, the state should not have the power to execute, or kill, under all but the most dire of state-level conditions. Historically, states have abused this power (and continue to do so today, to bring the focus back to minority groups), and there is no reason to think that this will magically stop.

I can think of zero secular reasons to prefer the death penalty to incarceration. Feel differently? Provide an argument for it (but understand that I’m likely to be unsympathetic).

Part 1: The Death Penalty, Deterrence in Principle
Part 2: The Death Penalty, Deterrence in Practice
Part 3: The Death Penalty as Retribution
Part 4: The Death Penalty, The Economic Argument

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