There’s a reason the death penalty has all but disappeared from the modern world – it doesnt fit into any modern political philosophies. For libertarians, it’s an unjustifiably dangerous power to grant a government: it poses a huge threat, but accomplishes little good. For liberals, it’s inhumane, irreversible, and unequally applied – which is especially problematic given the US’s flawed criminal justice process. In short, whether your political philosophy has it that government is a necessary evil; or that it’s a tool for positive change, there’s simply no place for the death penalty.
The US and Japan are the two holdouts. (Japan’s execution rate has been about one-sixth that of the US over the past 20 years.) The only countries that execute more people than the US are Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and Iraq. Right behind the US on the list are North Korea, Pakistan and Yemen. Sometimes you’ll look around at the other guests at the party – and realize you shouldnt have come.
If, instead of looking at the number of executions, you look at execution RATES, it’s even creepier. One informal study found that in 2010 Alabama and Mississippi ranked 8th and 10th respectively, with a rate of 1 execution per 1 million inhabitants – bracketing #9, Saudi Arabia.
Since conservatism contains no principles, the death penalty fits in fine. Government is big and scary when it forces you to wear a motorcycle helmet or puts warning labels on Marlboros. But killin’ folks? Pass the grits, y’all – big government, small government – it’s all good to a conservative.
When pressed, a conservative is prone to cough up several unconvincing “rationales” for maintaining the death penalty into the 21st century. The good news is that they’re all meritless. The bad news is that a rationale to a conservative is a bike to a fish (and-or lipstick on a pig).
1. It’s a deterrent
Nope. The few studies purporting to show otherwise are statistical bus-wrecks – they fail to distinguish between capital and non-capital murder; they limit their sample to particular states and time-periods to obtain their results (data mining); they fail to weigh the effect of the death penalty against life without parole or other punishments. But dont take my word for it – the National Research Council dismissed the ENTIRE body of research in their 2012 report. And for what it’s worth, the view that the death penalty is NOT a deterrent is shared by 87% of all criminologists.
2. It’s cost-effective
Not even close. Taking a capital case to its gruesome conclusion will run you $2 million to $5 million – while life without parole cases can be wrapped up for a cool 1 mil. Incarceration costs vary widely among the states, averaging $30k per prisoner per year – but just $20k in Texas, e.g. (which would rank 8th in executions if it were its own country – beating out North Korea). You can lock ’em up a good half-century and still come out ahead. Of course if the US repealed the Bill of Rights and the Writ of Habeus Corpus, offin’ folks might cost pennies on your incarceration dollar. That’s the calculation made by certain conservative Congressmen, who effectively tried to do just that back in 2005 with their Orwellian-named “Streamlined Procedures Act.” (It never became law.)
3. It’s just
It’s just what? Oh – “justice!” – but even if we politely avoid extending the logical justness of killing killers – to raping rapists, burning arsonists, beating up batterers and other 11th century niceties – we’re left balancing this “justice” against the prospective injustice of executing the wrong guy. This naturally leads you back to another basic reason why the death penalty has itself been killed in practically every advanced nation: it stands to do far more harm than good.
Dispensing with conservative “rationales” will not change an opinion that wasnt based in fact or logic to begin with. We’re forced to confront the reality: that conservatives like the death penalty simply because they like it. Killin’ folks is awesome, period.
Liberals and libertarians need to change the terms of the debate. Killing killers doesnt make you “tough on crime.” It makes you soft on human rights and lax on limited government. It means you’re so frightened by criminals, that you’d sacrifice your liberty to be rid of a few more. There’s a reason why half of the specific rights in the Bill of Rights are rights of the accused: the founders werent afraid of criminals – they were afraid of government power. If conservative policies must be driven by fear, then in this case they should be fearful of the police power, prosecutors and courts – and not so happily empower them to kill people. As Ben Franklin put it: a man who would sacrifice liberty for security deserves neither – and will lose both.