Debating the Death Penalty

Jesse Walker vs. William Tucker


The American Spectator, a conservative magazine, recently invited me to debate William Tucker about the death penalty. Our point/counterpoint, which appeared in the July/August Spectator, is now online. Here's how my side of the dispute begins:

The typical conservative is well informed about the careless errors routinely made by the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Service, and city hall. If he's a policy wonk, he may have bookmarked the Office of Management and Budget's online list of federal programs that manage to issue more than $750 million in mistaken payments each year. He understands the incentives that can make an entrenched bureaucracy unwilling to acknowledge, let alone correct, its mistakes. He doesn't trust the government to manage anything properly, even the things he thinks it should be managing.

Except, apparently, the minor matter of who gets to live or die. Bring up the death penalty, and many conservatives will suddenly exhibit enough faith in government competence to keep the Center for American Progress afloat for a year. Yet the system that kills convicts is riddled with errors.

To read the rest, follow the link.

Tucker, meanwhile, points out that murder rates rose after the death penalty was abolished nationwide and fell after "states started executing people in significant numbers in the 1990s." But states that do not have the death penalty have also seen murder rates decline in the same period—indeed, they've enjoyed a somewhat greater decline—so I'm not convinced he's found the reason for the rise and fall.

He also offers an argument about incentives:

For a criminal pulling off a holdup—or a rapist, or a "surprised" burglar caught by a homeowner—there's a very simple logic at work. The victims of your crimes are also the principal witnesses. They will call the police the minute you depart. They can identify you. They will probably testify at your trial. There's a very simple way to prevent all this: kill them.

The purpose of the death penalty is to draw a bright line between a felony and felony murder. If the penalty for rape or robbery is jail time, and for murder is more jail time after that, there isn't a huge incentive to prevent you from pulling the trigger.

I didn't mention it in my Spectator piece, but I have invoked that same bright line elsewhere to show why, if there is a death penalty, it should not apply to any crime less serious than murder. If a criminal can be executed for, say, kidnapping, he may well decide that he might as well kill people to evade capture, since arrest already means a strong possibility of being put to death. But while that bright line makes sense as an argument against a particularly poor way of applying the death penalty, I don't think it works as well as an argument for the death penalty itself. The same incentive, after all, applies to a murderer: He might decide to kill more people to evade capture too.

At any rate, you can read both Tucker's full argument and mine here, and then you can join the debate yourselves in the comments.