No power in the hands of the state is more sobering than the power to end a human life. Only a handful of nations on Earth retain this power and the United States is the only western democracy among them.
Being an outlier on such an issue would be no problem so long as the United States derives some practical benefit from it, such as a demonstrable deterrent effect that has a downward impact on violent crime.
This is most certainly not the case. Capital punishment not only completely fails to deter people from violent acts but it is far from the most efficient means of dealing with the worst members of the human species.
It is hard to make the argument against the death penalty in the emotionally-charged atmosphere surrounding this issue, especially when the most satisfying emotional arguments are on the pro side of the debate.
The arguments against the state’s power to end human life are, ironically but by necessity, cold-bloodedly rational and mostly devoid of emotion, beyond the kneejerk horror over our democratic government of the people, by the people, and for the people, killing in the people’s name.
Is There Any Deterrent Effect?
Murder is, almost by definition, one of the least rational actions a human can take. When one person ends the life of another, it is usually in the throes of uncontrolled anger. Even when someone kills cold-bloodedly, planning the murder meticulously and carrying it out seemingly without emotion, there is still an unquenched rage that short-circuits the normal human empathy, squeamishness, and instinct for self-preservation that normally stays our hand.
In the case of sociopaths, psychopaths, people with similar disorders, there is often no such human empathy or other instincts for the rage to short-circuit, but that anger is still there.
Regardless of the mental health of a person, murder (and other violent crime) is the result of intense emotion overriding the normal human thought processes, pushing rationality aside.
Deterrence is the concept that, if we make the consequences of violence sufficiently awful to the perpetrator, this will stay the murderer’s hand and stop the crime in its tracks. It requires that the person engage in a thoughtful cost/benefit analysis before acting and weigh his or her options.
But the act of murder, as I have shown, is devoid of the rational deliberations necessary for deterrence to take place. If at any point the rational mind intrudes into the desire to kill, that desire would most likely evaporate, even without the death penalty to consider. For the rational mind, there are plenty of deterrents, short of death, to keep us out of the ranks for murderers.
In other words, if people rational enough for deterrence to have any effect, they are not likely to be murderers in the first place. For capital punishment to have any impact, we would have impose it on infractions like jaywalking or tax evasion, which perfectly rational people commit all the time.
Some people reading this and disagreeing vehemently with my point will probably argue that, “Killing the son-of-a-bitch will certainly deter him from hurting anyone else.” I know this would happen, because I’ve heard people make this very argument before, so I am hardly arguing against a straw man.
That is a very, very non-standard, and quite incorrect, use of the verb “to deter.” According to such a person, the whole of idea of nuclear deterrence was that, once we had one nuclear war, we wouldn’t have any more after that. That’s true, but not really the desired outcome.
Nuclear deterrence worked because (mostly) rational men and women didn’t want to be the last generation of human beings on earth. It probably wouldn’t have worked if someone like al Qaeda had been a major nuclear power.
So capital punishment fails as a deterrent because the very people it seeks to deter are, in the moment of acting, past all reason.
If we need any proof that capital punishment has little if any deterrent effect, we need to look at the state where capital punishment is used more often than some people floss their teeth. Texas has averaged 24 executions per year since 1997, putting over 400 people to death in that time.
If capital punishment really had a demonstrable deterrent effect, we would expect the number of executions to fall precipitously in a state that exercised that power most freely, because the violent crime would plummet as violently-inclined people would think better of that option.
Or maybe we should look at states without the death penalty. If the deterrent effect of state executions is a thing, then the streets in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota should make the movie Escape from New York look like a Disney movie, while the states with capital punishment should make the average Disney movie seem like something directed by Tarantino.
Neither is true, course. Texas sits dead smack in the middle among the fifty states when it comes to violent crimes, and its murder rate neatly tracks with the rise and fall of the national rate. In other words, the Lone Star state’s prodigious enthusiasm for putting people to death has produced a level of violent crime that is exactly average. On the other hand, states with no death penalty are all over that chart, top to bottom, seeming to show that the lack of capital punishment has no predictable effect on violent crime.
It is true that the cumulative murder rate in states with capital punishment is higher than it is in states without, but here it is hard to tell which is the cart and which is the horse. It may well be that states with high rates of violent crime are more inclined to maintain the death penalty on the books than experiment with abolishing it.
It would probably be impossible to do a true apples-to-apples comparison, unless we convince Texas to put a moratorium on executions and new death sentences for a number of years and then compare crime rates with the previous years. If the violent crime rate continued to track with the national averages, then clearly capital punishment was having no discernable effect on the situation.
But that seems to be the only rational conclusion to draw from the existing data anyway, so why bother?