Gary Becker states that a common argument of those against the death penalty (including me) is that the state has no moral right to take the life of anyone. This is based on the idea that a person’s right to life is a sovereign right. Becker’s response is that, assuming that capital punishment deters more people from murdering others than other forms of punishment*, that more people will get murdered if the state does not employ capital punishment, and so the state is indirectly taking more lives by not employing capital punishment.
This is an ill considered and overly simplistic cost benefit argument. Following this, surely would also have to conclude that because cigarettes kill lots of people, the government has a moral obligation to kill those who make cigarettes, in order to save lives.
But then people would say that … people choose to smoke cigarettes, they don’t choose to get murdered, do they? Well, are you saying that marketing has no effect? Surely you’d have to kill all these people who are convincing others (including me) to kill themselves through smoking, as well.**
He misses the point that people have a sovereign right to live. If someone takes another’s life, this doesn’t justify the state killing him in revenge. Yes, the state should do something about it, but that doesn’t have to be killing someone.
In presenting this argument this prize winning economist embarrasses not just himself but his profession. He is clutching at straws, and cashing on previous work, to push an ideological line, for which he provides no evidence.
Big loss of respect.
* And this is a big, much questioned, assumption. Becker does not address the question of whether there is a deterrence, he just says he believes there to be one. He does note that Donahue and Wolfers recently found that there is little, if any deterrence resulting from the death penalty saying that;
“ Our estimates suggest not just reasonable doubt, but profound uncertainty. We re confident that the effects are not large, but we remain unsure even of whether they are positive or negative�?.
Becker says that he wrote to them about the reasons why he feels that the deterrent effects are missed, but he does not refer to them here. Maybe I should read that paper, which has been sitting on my desk for a while now.
** In fact, if you just killed everyone, in the long term, less people would die.