Capital Offenses

In her editorial opposing capital punishment ("Capital Punishment: No," June), Lynn Scarlett argues that the state should not execute murderers because it should not be exempted from the moral standards that govern individuals. Would this argument not prohibit other punishments, such as imprisonment, which also involve the use of force?

Government is, by nature, force. Hence it does things that, taken out of context, violate the ethical standards of all freedom-loving people. There is a distinction, however, between the use of force and the initiation of force. It is from this distinction that the state obtains whatever sanction it has for the use of force or, indeed, for existence.

Since all people do not hold the same moral standards, what standards should the state use in determining just retribution for criminal actions? Should government use the ethical standards of the majority in dealing with everyone? The tyranny implicit in this approach is obvious. In its dealing with any given individual the state can surely do no better than to use that individual's own code. A murderer, by his action, clearly indicates that the moral standard governing him does not forbid premeditated killing. The state in executing him doesn't violate the moral standards of the one individual against whom the state is acting forcibly.

Frank A. Kaul
Lawrence, KS

The very reason murderers are punished at all, whether by death, life imprisonment, or a purgatory of endless court battles, is out of respect for the presumed wish of the victim to live. Note that the actions of a "murderer" could be exactly the same in a murder case as in a euthanasia case. It is the wishes of the victim that distinguish a heinous crime from an act of compassion.

If the entire question of whether a "murderer" really is a murderer depends on the wishes of the victim, why shouldn't the question of a murderer's punishment consider such wishes?

To be sure, murder victims would not be soft on their assailants. Not only do they fight tooth and nail to stay alive, they usually try to inflict the maximum damage to their murderer regardless of their own chances of survival. This is no surprise.

But who among us would not strike back at our own would-be murderer? Some people may take a more sympathetic view. If so, they can register with the police as individuals who, if murdered, do not want their murderer executed.

I, however, would prefer to see my murderer shaved with a rusty potato peeler and burned at the stake. Failing all that, I would at the very least want the court to carry out the sentence almost every murder victim would spend the very last breath of their life to bestow: death.

Jon Osborne
Palo Alto, CA

Why not apply free choice to capital punishment? Those who oppose the death penalty could put this preference in their wills. They could request that anyone who murders them be kept alive as long as their estates hold out. It is not fair to ask me to pay the cost. When the estate is depleted and no further voluntary contributions are forthcoming, the murderer would be executed. In other words, put your money where your mouth is. As for me, I'll leave a bullet in my will.

Nick Hull
Lenoir City, TN

I am surprised that Jacob Sullum did not note in his editorial ("Capital Punishment: Yes," June) the most compelling argument for capital punishment—the cost of incarceration. Why should taxpayers collectively spend thousands of dollars a year for decades, when a few cents worth of electricity would do the trick?

Dick Ambler
Flagstaff, AZ

Both sides argued from the tired old perspectives that have encompassed the question since the federal government through its legislative judiciary began meddling in state affairs over a century ago. What troubles me most about the libertarian movement, whose economic agenda I endorse heartily, is its equivocation on capital punishment which means to me that social liberty is closely akin to licentiousness in that area.

In this connection, my eye was caught by the advertisement for Liberty magazine, in which "Killing as Therapy" by Thomas Szasz was prominently displayed. I view capital punishment as just that when inflicted upon the social body. The problem in implementing it for that purpose is to guard against executions for mere ideas that do not result in antisocial actions. I believe that we should err in executions more on the side of the innocent than to fail in executing the guilty and that technical failures in modern jurisprudence should not prevent justice.

The problem in all this is the popular idea of "compassion," which envelops everything from the legalistic atrocity of "affirmative action" to animal "rights" to the idea that, in particular, human life should always be saved regardless of its value or perceived value to improvement of the human condition. In this respect, humanitarianism and humanism have both been failures in accomplishing anything beneficial to humanity.

Earl B. Lancaster
Peoria, IL

If agents of the federal government are allowed to kill innocent people by the thousands in places like Panama, it seems petty not to let agents of the state government kill the occasional serial killer or agents of city and county government kill the occasional dope dealer. Government asks so little in return, for protecting and serving, from we the people. Occasionally allowing government a good clean kill, within budget constraints, cannot do that much harm, now can it? Keeps them happy. Keeps us safe, huh!

Rudolph Laubscher
Los Angeles, CA

Artists' Rights and Wrongs

I found Eric Felten's article, "Postmodern Art Laws," (May) replete with honesty, straight talk, and logic, ingredients all too often missing in the business of art.

As a sculptor working in Arlington, Virginia, for the past 10 years, I have firsthand knowledge of the difficulties encountered in making a living as an artist. I certainly do not wish any potential clients to be afraid to invest in my work for fear of litigation imposed by a law which has no constitutional base.

When dealing with a client, either through commission or on an individual-sale basis, it is always my hope that the person will care for and display the work as it is intended. In fact, the majority of purchasers of my work are spending hard-earned monies on an item that has a special depth of meaning to them. For this very reason it is unlikely the art will be misused once it leaves the studio. However, I fully recognize that the work of art purchased, although created by me, is no longer my property, and the owners may do with it as they please.

In 1980, I was commissioned to paint a large wall mural in a Rehobeth, Maryland, beach home. I know for a fact that the home has been sold and the mural painted over. Do I have a right to sue the seller or new owner for painting over the wall rather than removing it? I don't think so! It is not my home, nor my wall. Needless to say, it is unlikely the original commission contract would ever have been signed had the purchaser thought that I might sue him or the new owner for damaging something that, in reality, no longer belongs to me.

I am in total agreement with the individual-contract approach to the sale of art. Every artist has a right to sell to whom he or she pleases and a right to stipulate in the contract conditions (care, installation, resale benefits, etc.) of the sale. In turn, the buyer can refuse the purchase should he or she be uncomfortable with said conditions.

Respect for art, as with all things, must be learned through education and communication, not the passing of more ludicrous laws. Ms. Yoneoka would do well by example to her high school students to care more for her own work by storing it properly. Mr. Goodnight may consider the option of putting his murals on removable panels if he is concerned about their future welfare.

As important as my sculpture and its integrity is to me, the fundamental doctrines of individual and property rights are far more important. If these are discarded it will not be long before artists are being told what they can and cannot create.

M.A. Johnson
Arlington, VA

It may now be illegal to tamper with or destroy a work of art. We have seen the recent onslaught of legislation to prohibit "obscene" art. This raises the interesting question: What do you do with art that has been created by one person and is considered by another to be obscene? You can picture pieces of art being passed around like hot potatoes: owners of art galleries sneaking into other galleries to leave their unwanted pieces; private individuals putting art out with their neighbors' trash late at night; maybe even huge warehouses built for art which can't be viewed, yet can't be destroyed. You would never guess that these laws are supported by artists.

Gary H. Multer
East Boston, MA

Enemies of Responsibility

Fern Chapman's review of Enemies of Eros ("An Indictment of Choice," June) raises an interesting possibility when she refers to the lack of stigma attached to men who fail to support their children.

What if the social pressure now exerted against smokers were, instead, rallied against fly-away fathers? What if businesses forgot about recreational drug use but fired anyone who abandoned parental obligations? What if pro-lifers picketed, instead, those men who dump care of their kids on the taxpayers? What if Hollywood shifted its disdain from business to the slimeballs who drive sports cars while their children go barefoot? What if Black Pride turned inward long enough to deny the worth of that 50 percent of black fathers who deposit their children directly on the welfare rolls?

A lot of what-ifs, but certainly a more rational crusade than most of the public's efforts today. I don't expect it to happen, because I suspect a lot of today's crusaders against abortion and denigrators of women's equality are skip-out fathers attempting to justify their lack of responsibility by blaming women for everything wrong with society.

Walter E. Wallis
Palo Alto, CA

Seams in the Zone

I really enjoyed William Tucker's "Zoned Out" (May). He addressed many of the problems of zoning and showed how free people can solve the problems that zoning is supposed to solve without any governmental coercion. Unfortunately, Tucker wrote two paragraphs too many.

Tucker states that "the only truly promising feature" of a coercive act of the state government is that it forces local governments to pay for their "fair share" of housing costs. He said, "That, at least, is an accomplishment."

I disagree. The centralization of power should never be praised. While local governments ought to bear the costs they impose, I do not believe that two wrongs make a right. As bad as local zoning is, the state zoning that such policies will inevitably bring is deadly medicine to the already ailing concept of limited government.

William R. Carr
San Jose, CA

Burning Issue

Jacob Sullum's editorial about smoking legislation and policies ("Beyond the Smokescreen," May) shed some interesting light on this issue. Unfortunately, Mr. Sullum failed to recognize that a person's body is his/her private property.

Tobacco smoke invades, pollutes, and poisons nonsmokers who are innocent bystanders. By burning tobacco in enclosed air spaces, smokers are assaulting nonsmokers' skin, hair, eyes, lungs, clothes, etc.

If Mr. Sullum's reasoning is applied to other issues, robbery, rape, and murder would also be justifiable as long as these acts were committed in someone else's home, business, or airplane.

The most fundamental property is one's own body, and policies, private or public, that prohibit indoor smoking protect everyone's private property from the toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke.

William T. Godshall
Pittsburgh, PA

Mr. Sullum replies: While smoking may be an "assault" in the colloquial sense—as in "I was assaulted by the sound of the Dead Kennedys' 'Kill the Poor'"—it is not an assault in the legal or moral sense. Intent is crucial to the usual understanding of assault. If you hit me with your car accidentally, that is not an assault; if you run me down on purpose, that is.

Coercion is another necessary ingredient of assault. No one is compelled to inhale smoke on an airplane, in a restaurant, or in a neighbor's living room. People who are offended by smoke have the option of going elsewhere. They have no a priori right to use someone else's property and dictate the terms of that use.

While smoking is not an assault, it is an activity, like playing music on a stereo, that may cause incidental harm or annoyance to others. If the guy next door is disturbing you by blasting the Dead Kennedys, you have a right to demand that he turn the volume down. But if you can hear the stereo only because you're standing in his living room (or his café or dance club), you have no such right, even if you fear damage to your hearing. He could legitimately insist that listening to the Dead Kennedys—or putting up with cigarette smoke—is a condition of visiting him or patronizing his business.

Right to Buy

Daniel Gross's "Don't Block the Exit" (Apr.) was an excellent and fair-minded overview of the right-to-die controversy. But he erred in saying that the Hemlock Society's books are not sold to the general public. All our publications, including the book on how to end your own life, Let Me Die Before I Wake, have been on sale in bookstores and available in libraries since 1982. True, we did hold the book in 1981 for members only, but we were widely criticized for self-censorship, and since then the book has sold well over 100,000 copies.

Derek Humphry
Executive Director
National Hemlock Society
Eugene, OR

Industrial Wastes

Virginia Postrel's editorial "A New Industrial Policy" (June) suggests deregulating industry "to take politics out of the marketplace." She then provides examples of excessive regulation and warns about the thrust of a new socialistic industrial policy that would promote government favoritism for "a privileged few companies or industries." One may add, for a few favored technologies.

We have seen the pervasiveness of the latter in the activities of Craig Fields, formerly director of the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency. He consistently used tax revenues to underwrite the commercial technologies of his choice, to establish an OPEC-style government consortium, and to subsidize a number of existing corporations. Wiser heads prevailed, and he was recently transferred to a different Pentagon job.

This move, however, hasn't dissuaded socialistic planners. Their industrial policy would permanently institute in federal law Fields's practice of centrally planned, tax-funded technologies, leading to more central planning in the future. Many new federal jobs would become available for unemployed economists and academics.

Often overlooked in the discussion of industrial policy is a complete body of federal law that uses tax revenue for a single purpose: to keep newcomers out of markets controlled by existing corporations. There are now 87 economically concentrated industries whose corporate members no longer compete among themselves within domestic markets. By keeping newcomers out of markets controlled by stultified firms, "Yankee ingenuity" has all but left world markets.

The tax code has been twisted into a capital-protection instrument designed to shield these oligopolies. Section 174, the R&D tax deduction, subsidizes the R&D costs of abandoned corporate ventures but not the same costs incurred by failed newcomers. In 1989, the U.S. Treasury lost more than $20 billion to subsidize corporations that have been or will be abandoned. Yet not one dollar of this huge subsidy assisted newcomers.

Employer-paid fringe benefits—now averaging 43 percent of employees' before-tax incomes—also receive tax-code preference. Yet self-employed people trying to establish new enterprises aren't so lucky. They pay a greater proportion of taxable income in FICA taxes and receive fewer deductions for life- and health-insurance premiums.

These are but a few of many examples of venture inequities promoted by federal law. They prevent entrepreneurs from going into business, cause an economic concentration of domestic industries, and erode our competitiveness in world markets. Only a fool would believe that the United States can effectively compete when U.S. corporations—shielded by government regulations—need not fear competition from existing companies or from newcomers in domestic markets.

David G. Soergel
Gaithersburg, MD