The Death Penalty

I find that economics is a useful way to approach most problems. However, sometimes, economics cannot take you all the way to the end, and some amount of, well, something else – perhaps morality, perhaps something else, must be added to the mix. As a result, when looking at the tough questions, often a bit of one’s owns unsupported opinions creep in. This post is an attempt to look at such a question, and to keep the ratio of analysis to bias as high as possible. Whether I succeed or not… well, that’s what the comment section is for.

In the end, an economist has only one tool – if done right, every problem can be reduced to motivations and constraints. Usually, that means figuring out what each party considers its costs and its benefits. Now, the problem is that one of the motivations that many people have is to impose their costs on other people. As a result, in order for a market to produce the Invisible Hand socially optimal outcome (which is the point of capitalism, after all), property rights and rules must be set up in such a way to force each party to bear the costs of his/her decisions, as opposed to putting them on someone else.

And now for something completely different…. (I always wanted to segue Monty Python style.) In principal, I am in favor of the death penalty. In practice, it’s a bit harder – there are enough problems with the legal system, not the least of which are overpaid elitists like Roberts making decisions that you gotta worry about wrong convictions. Still, there are some cases where its difficult to envision a mistake being made – Charles Manson, for instance, will never be executed, but I don’t think anyone has any doubts about his innocence.

Let’s consider one of those incontrovertible cases…. a Ted Bundy or a Richard Ramirez. Now, the convict has already imposed massive externalities on others – those who have been brutally murdered have paid the ultimate price. But there are others who have paid a very high price for decisions made by the convict as well, namely the families and the friends of the victims.

It seems to me to be compounding the injustice to ask taxpayers that have already lost so much to the killer to pay, through their taxes, to keep the killer alive – I believe it costs about $25,000 a year to keep someone in jail. Now, there are those who would argue that this is no argument for imposing the death penalty, since doing so is also expensive. But, imposing the death penalty is expensive in large part because those who oppose it throw up barriers. If the same barriers were thrown up in front of giving people life sentences, or even sentences of more than 20 years, the costs for such sentences would be almost equally high.

Not all costs, of course, are pecuniary. Presumably, it is cheaper to send in some goons to beat some child killer to death than it is to strap him into a gas chamber or an electric chair. However, the costs to civilization of doing so are large. Even the act of killing someone can be accomplished with various degrees of barbarity or civilization.

Your thoughts?

(BTW… I intend to look at abortion using the same tools in an upcoming post. Please leave that discussion for another day.)