Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Capital punishment as pseudo-economics

The New York Times has an article about the debate about capital punishment and its deterrent effect, considered as an issue in economics:

For the first time in a generation, the question of whether the death penalty deters murders has captured the attention of scholars in law and economics, setting off an intense new debate about one of the central justifications for capital punishment.


The studies, performed by economists in the past decade, compare the number of executions in different jurisdictions with homicide rates over time — while trying to eliminate the effects of crime rates, conviction rates and other factors — and say that murder rates tend to fall as executions rise. One influential study looked at 3,054 counties over two decades.

As the article points out, the critics of this view (of which I am one) say that violent crime and economics are not the same thing, and that there are many more complexities involved than any of the studies show. Apart from that, no one has done any sort of controlled experiment — and, indeed, no one could, as it would be flamingly unethical.

There are many factors that influence one’s choice to commit a violent crime, and consideration of the consequences, particularly looked at with an economic eye toward “expected gain”, is often not one of them. Of course, the same might be said for buying an expensive sports car, or some such, but even then it’s clearly not the same.

There’s too much variability in how sentences are imposed and carried out, and the variability exists between different locales — even different locales with the same law but different practice — as well as between different time periods. Further, the time from commission of the crime, to conviction and sentencing, to execution or commutation of the sentence can be quite long, making it difficult to try to connect in a meaningful way the criminal’s motivation with the consequences.

And, of course, the variability exists among different subgroups of the population, and there are also cultural differences among those subgroups. Does the threat of capital punishment exert different pressures on whites, blacks, and Asians, for example? The studies don’t look at that in enough detail.

There’s too much of a gap between real consequences and expected consequences, and the size of that gap is very subjective on the perpetrator’s part. It’s not enough to compare crime rates with punishment here; we have to know whether the one committing the crime thought he was likely to be punished, and how. There are always criminals who think that they won’t get caught, or that they have a plan to escape the worst penalty. Maybe they thought they’d plea-bargain, and that didn’t work out for them. Or, on the other side, maybe they were deterred, but the reality would have included a plea bargain.

What all of that means is that even when looked at from an economic “cost/benefit analysis” point of view, the threat of capital punishment applies a far more complex effect to the “cost” of committing a crime than anyone is considering here.

But even supposing a true deterrent effect, we still have to consider whether it’s what we want to do. Of course we want to save lives. We might even say that it’s worth killing a few people to save even more lives. But is it worth killing a few innocent people? Are we willing to go there? We clearly have, in the past, and it’s one reason we’ve cut back on our use of the death penalty. Of course, going back to the economic argument, the more restrained our use of it is, the less it should theoretically deter. How many innocent people is it OK to kill; where’s the cost/benefit analysis of that?

And then are we willing to do anything to “save lives”? If we decided that the deterrent effect of whipping someone to death was greater than that of using lethal injection, would we feel justified in reverting to that? Would we go back to hanging, drawing, and quartering if we thought it were a sufficiently more effective deterrent? I think not, and so it’s not just the saving of lives that’s at issue. It’s too easy to say that we have a humane way to do it, and hide behind that and say it’s OK — a point that’s been highlighted with the recent court cases questioning the humanity of our lethal-injection method.

It’s clear that we can’t simply put an veneer of economic theory over the rotten wood of capital punishment, and show it off as nice furniture. I find it bizarre that some are trying.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Given your position, wouldn't you like to know if the economics research showed that the death penalty did not discourage murder? Or if the economics research even showed that the death penalty increased murder? (e.g. a murderer might do anything not to get caught, including killing police officers or nosy neighbours)

If we do research, we have to accept the outcome -- not necessarily as truth, but as the outcome of a particular study. You can't assume the researchers had the goal of putting a veneer of respectability on capital punishment; they may have the same repugnance you do but still honestly report the results of an open study.