A couple of days ago, I took note of the unchecked spending our new federal budget provides for the continued explosive growth of the welfare state. Today I want to spell out, very briefly, the fundamental connection between the welfare state and a dysfunctional criminal law. It might already be obvious; to readers of this blog it probably is. But it's worth repeating because it is the central divide in domestic policy in our country.
Either we view citizens as responsible for their own lives and behavior or not. If we do, we don't need and shouldn't have a welfare state of anything approaching its current gargantuan reach. And we can embrace a criminal law grounded in the moral confidence of independent adults -- the confidence, for example, to execute dangerous and malevolent killers, and do so without apologizing to the chattering class in the academy or the press. It is likewise the confidence to imprison criminals for their punishment and our safety. It enables us to reject calls to spurn accountability in favor of a phony and corrosive "compassion." We can reserve authentic compassion for the victims of crime, and we won't confuse victims with victimizers.
The alternative theory views a citizen not as a responsible actor but as a vessel of forces beyond his control. There is little or no genuine free will or choice. There is only the overwhelming affliction of racism, militarism, childhood trauma, brain lesions and so on. So viewed, citizens are not responsible. The state is responsible. It is thus up to the state to put food on the dining room table and excuses on the courtroom table. Criminals are the real victims; those more traditionally thought of as victims of crime are mere inconvenient collateral damage of the capitalist behemoth, and will be treated as such.
For most of its history, our country has looked upon its citizens as responsible actors. Taking that view, it has prospered like no other civilization in history -- prosperity marked by respect for individual autonomy, the rights and dignity of minorities, private property and the rule of law. But that view has been under attack for quite some time, and is under attack today as seldom before. It is under attack by a government that assumes we cannot provide for ourselves and have neither the moral authority nor the wit to treat criminals for what they are or, for that matter, war criminals for what they are. Indeed it's a government so lacking in moral clarity that it can't tell the one from the other.
The new budget is a literally gigantic reminder of the ideas we need to, and are going to, fight.
UPDATE: Some commenters have objected that this entry is off topic and shows that C&C has turned into a soapbox for conservative causes generally. That is incorrect.
The entry is relevant to criminal law and sentencing in two ways. Directly and immediately, the open-the-prison-gates movement is gaining traction by arguing that the cost of imprisonment (not to mention the death penalty) is unsustainable in light of the deficits state governments, and particularly the federal government, are facing. But the real cause of these deficits is the explosion of entitlement spending. To fail to point this out is to give a free ride to the anti-imprisonment movement -- in essence, to allow it to make incarceration the culprit when assuredly it is not. If we are to contain deficit spending, neither prisons nor the law enforcement system is the place to look. Entitlement spending is.
Second, over the long term, but at least equally important, public support for sober sentencing will not survive the underlying ethos of the welfare state. That ethos is that individuals cannot really be held responsible for their own lives and behavior (or even for paying their own bills with earned income). The ethos of unapologetic criminal punishment is, contrariwise, that individuals are really responsible for their own lives and behavior (if they weren't, the morality of punishing them would be open to serious question). To the extent the government indulges more and more entitlement spending and the assumptions about human nature that underlie it, the very foundations of just punishment are undermined. Thus entitlement spending is very much relevant to the core subjects here.