“Kill Everyone Now”: Capital Punishment & the Economics of Deterrence

Other than listening to my favourite NoMeansNo song, I’ve spent much of the last few weeks contemplating how to kill my other half. Nasty stuff like whether I should use a blunt object or go for something more cerebral, perhaps something from Agatha Christie and a sneaky use of poison frogs? She likes frogs. There’s a Canadian irony in that. Now don’t think I’m having a mental breakdown or I’m admitting that I’m a psychopath on a jolly. This has all been part of academic study: i.e. introducing the ‘economics of crime’ to my first year students.

The economics of crime is arguably underappreciated. This is perhaps the fault of the economist’s tendency towards academic isolationism. Take the contribution of Gary Becker, the grandpa of economic imperialism, and the myriad of research subsequently spawned. Here, armed with the tools of equilibrium and economic rationality, the economist tries to understand issues that previously have been seen as the standard fodder for the alternative ‘wordy’ social sciences. The contributions look cheery as we set contributions right across the board. With fine-tuned empirical skills, we provide detailed analysis into crime trends. With an ability to isolate policy effects, we can evaluate the success or failure of changes to the criminal justice system. Our tools can be used to broaden the debate into the sources of crime. From analysis into the impact of unemployment to considering the impact of arms trafficking on security and economic development, there is no stopping our influence. However, the ‘economics of crime’ can also be used as part of a critical heart. It can be used to show two aspects. First, critique of the relevance of the ‘price mechanism’. Second, when the economist needs to turn their hearing aid on and adapt their analysis according to lessons learnt elsewhere.

Let’s start with the internal economic debate. Why does the wife still breathe? She continues to live because the costs are high. I am rather likely to be caught, despite watching most Sherlock Holmes episodes because of an early appreciation for Jeremy Brett’s acting. a-prisioner1-copy-copyThe thought of potential life imprisonment isn’t a comfortable one for me. I will also suffer desperately from guilt and, don’t mention it to her as she might get big headed, I’d miss her quips and heart-to-hearts. Moreover, the benefits are desperately low. There’s no windfall from a generous life insurance to fall back on. No means to hand in my resignation at work and retire to a life of pottering in the Cheviot Hills. If you buy this ‘calculating’ approach you then have particularly powerful arguments in favour of deterrence. Make prison sentences longer. Make prison life more difficult. And ultimately include the death penalty. The bottom line for this analysis is that the economist, armed with a supply and demand analysis dead suited to contemplating the purchase of necessities such as figrolls, can be neatly adjusted to work out whether I should commit heinous crime. We all become ‘potential criminals’, with that decision essentially just based on a cost-benefit analysis. This then describes the importance of punishment. By increasing either the risk of being caught or the severity of punishment, we can change the ‘price’ associated with criminal activity. The ‘other half’ therefore survives, at least for now…

But hang on there! Let’s sum up the problems with this approach:

  • Are we rational when we commit acts of crime? If, for example, I kill the other half in a moment of madness provoked by a disagreement over who makes the tea am I really utility maximising? There is no consideration of emotion and there is complete disregard for the complexities of our behaviour. As we take into account irrationality of actions, deterrence theory looks increasingly dodgy.
  • Where is the reference to ethics? It’s swept under the beige carpet! dunc-fqDeterrence arguably works best if you execute quickly and, to get people contemplating over their naughtiness, down-right nastily. There is evidence, for example, that deterrence operates with the ‘chair’, but doesn’t with run-of-the-mill alternatives such as the ‘firing squad’. Would we be happy with the consequences, as we would assuredly have multiple ‘oops’ moments as we brutally slay the innocent ‘mistakes’?

It’s this latter point that opens up a potentially more damaging aspect often neglected by the economist, unless they’re already hooked into the inconvenient complexity of endogeneity. Would ‘state murder’ actually encourage a more aggressive society? This possibility is summed by the ‘brutalisation hypothesis’, where capital punishment is seen to legitimise ‘deleting’ your enemies. Capital punishment can then actually increase the risk of being a victim of homicide.

Ultimately, what’s the point in my rant? To sum up, capital punishment is a properly hard-core subject area. It provides a unique test of standard economic approaches and, if considered carefully, allows us to appreciate the limits of our models. The wife isn’t alive because of my cost-benefit analysis. No need to ring the police quite yet Louise! The ‘price mechanism’, while suited to appreciating my demand for lard (with chip making outcomes superior to the modern chip equivalent), cannot explain my behavioural outcome: I’m not a potential murderer. The economic defence of capital punishment falls short of sense as it starts off from the wrong footing: a standard rational choice approach crowing about our ‘constrained maximisation’ nature. Rather than focusing on the utility function subject to constraints, we have to shift emphasis to the constraints that we face. Take the US states that still utilise the death penalty. This isn’t part of some notion of optimal punishment regime. It’s a hangover from past lynch mob conservatism.jubilee_interior_2-copy Those social norms dictate what we see as fair game: from executing a prisoner to where we would entertain aggression against others. Texas Duncan wouldn’t be the same as Suffolk Duncan. They would be radically different. A black swan reality that makes predictive modelling of my behaviour as useful as a Disney fantasy about Hoodlum Hounds.

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