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Libertarians Endorse Murder

OK, they don't endorse murder, exactly, but they come too close for comfort in a truly idiotic, and dishonest, article in Reason Magazine by Nick Gillespie. Its title is, "Why the Death Penalty Needs to Die."  Here's how it starts:  

Another week, another botched killing under the legal euphemism of capital punishment. After macabre screw-ups in Oklahoma and Ohio, it was Arizona's turn last week, when double-murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood III took about two hours to die. The specific problem this time around was an apparently unreliable "cocktail" of the drugs used in the lethal injection process. 

But let's face it: There's no good way to kill a person, even one as completely unsympathetic as Wood (he killed his ex-girlfriend and her father, shooting them at point-blank range). 

That's it!  The people we execute are no worse than "unsympathetic."  But "unsympathetic" is the last we hear in this article about any particular murder or the people who commit them.  The rest of it is just the usual supercilious, if surprisingly unoriginal, lecture.

It's not that libertarian ideas are bad; on the whole, they're quite good.  I only wish the people holding them would put some effective effort into pushing back the overweaning, tax-eating, initiative-destroying welfare state they say they oppose rather than trying to score brownie points with the press with this sort of snide breast-beating.
Let's take a look at some of the juicy assertions in the article.

As a libertarian, I'm not surprised that the state is so incompetent that it can't even kill people efficiently. But I'm far more outraged by the idea that anyone anywhere seriously thinks the death penalty passes for good politics or sane policy. It's expensive, ineffective, and most of all, deeply offensive to ideals of truly limited government. 

"Anyone anywhere" includes George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, not to mention Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and, for the last forty years, 60% or more of the American people.

Consider that between 1980 and 2012, California spent $4 billion administering death penalty cases while actually executing just 13 individuals, according to a study produced by Loyola Marymount Law Professor Paula Mitchell. 

It's all true.  If you take the state with the least functional death penalty and the least responsible legislature, and ask a hardcore abolitionist law professor about it, you can make the capital punishment look bad.  Is this what passes for journalism in libertarian circles?

What's more, Mitchell told Reason TV's Tracy Oppenheimer, when the death penalty is in play, "the legal costs [per case] skyrocket to an extra $134 million per year, well above the cost to implement life without possibility of parole." Given the severity and finality of the punishment, it makes all the sense in the world to make sure due process was followed in all death penalty cases. 

Notice the slick, if preposterous, assumption that "making sure due process [gets] followed" requires the absurd extremes with which California has burdened itself. Gillespie makes no mention of any other specific death penalty state  --  not because he's lazy, or doesn't know about them, but because looking elsewhere would undermine the high-handed indignation of his argument, and we can't have that.

I'm sure death costs more in California (everything else does) than in other states, but there's just never going to be a way to make it less than a huge waste of taxpayer money. And there's no question that innocent people end up Death Row. The Innocence Project has documented that at least 18 innocent people, who served a combined 229 years in prison before being exonerated, have been saved from possible execution over the past 15 years. 

Only the people who actually pay the taxes voted less than two years ago to retain the death penalty over exactly the arguments Gillespie repeats (he predictably omits this fact).  He also quotes the rabidly abolitionist Innocence Project in an attempt to imply that we've been executing innocent people.  We haven't, which is why Gillespie is content to (indeed, is required to) rely on the implication instead.

I mean, hello!  As Gillespie notes, in one of the few completely straightforward things he says, we've executed nearly 1400 people in the last fifty years or so, but Mr. Star Libertarian can't find a single one he can establish as innocent?

At least he's in good company.  Neither can anyone else.

Well, maybe you can't put a price tag on the law and order that is instilled by the death penalty, right? A 2009 study by University of Colorado scholars published in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology concludes flatly "the consensus among criminologists is that the death penalty does not add any significant deterrent effect above that of long-term imprisonment." It's not even close, actually, with fully 88 percent of criminal-justice experts responding to a poll saying the death penalty does not act as a deterrent of murder...

Does Gillespie ever do his own research rather than looking to reliably abolitionist academics and "polls" of people who agree with his pre-packaged conclusion?  If he'd care to, he would find a thorough collection of studies at CJLF, the clear majority of which conclude that, as any normal person would think, the death penalty does deter some murders (although findings about how many are deterred vary widely).

...the murder rate per 100,000 residents in non-death-penalty states has been consistently lower than the rate in states with executions.That's because the vast majority of murders aren't planned-out crimes of the century or CSI-style serial killings, but opportunistic tragedies fueled by drugs, booze, and mental illness. "The threat of execution at some future date is unlikely to enter the minds of those acting under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, those who are in the grip of fear or rage, those who are panicking while committing another crime (such as a robbery), or those who suffer from mental illness or mental retardation and do not fully understand the gravity of their crime," explains Amnesty International. 

Note, once more, how slick this is.  The death penalty is not designed for, and seldom if ever sought  --  much less carried out  --  against those who genuinely act in a panic, lack the capacity to form intent, or are mentally ill or retarded (as opposed to faking mental illness or retardation).  Since capital punishment was never thought to be able to deter such people, and isn't used in their cases, Gillespie's complaint about its non-deterrence in such episodes has all the persuasive punch of a dull seventh grade debater.

Here's one more [reason to end the death penalty] that would hold true even if through some miracle the government could make the finances work, guarantee absolute accuracy in convicting only guilty perps, and show that executions significantly deterred crime: The state's first role--and arguably its only one--is protecting the lives and property of its citizens. In everything it does--from collecting taxes to seizing property for public works to incentivizing "good" behaviors and habits--it should use the least violence or coercion possible. No matter how despicable murderers can be, the state can make sure we're safe by locking them up behind bars for the rest of their--and our--lives. That's not only a cheaper answer than state-sanctioned murder, it's a more moral one, too. 

Two gigantic blunders leap out from this paragraph.

First, it's simply and grossly false that "the state can make sure we're safe by locking them up behind bars for the rest of their...lives."  Does Gillespie live in a cave?  How many dozens of times have convicted murderers who were sentenced to prison rather than executed killed again?  Or is it hundreds rather than dozens?  Gillespie assumes, in the face of a mountain of contrary facts, that the same state he ridicules as incompetent can infallibly prevent murder (and all manner of other violence) if we'd just use imprisonment as the only punishment for capital crimes.  Indeed, his argument here is so obviously thoughtless that one cannot help believing he's just trying to put one over on gullible readers.

Second, his proposed solution, LWOP, is flagrantly inconsistent with libertarian principles.  Since when, under those principles, is the state empowered to put human beings in tiny cells until they die?  What of our devotion to freedom? Are we to abandon it "for the rest of their--and our--lives"?  Has government-sponsored risk assessment improved that much from the beginning of Gillespie's article to the end? And  can the the dimwits who operate the death penalty system suddenly be trusted to administer a lifetime of incarceration that insures both humane treatment for the prisoner and safety for everyone else?

Yet with all that, the principal problem with the article lies not in what it covers but in what it omits:  Not once does Gillespie ask whether the death penalty is just. Perhaps, in order to answer that, he might want to interview someone outside the circle of his snickering academic buddies  --  someone like Dr. William Petit.


You have outlined the fatal flaw of libertarianism. It is so hostile and distrustful of government (not to mention ideologically rigid) that its logical conclusion is paralysis in the face of evil.

Gillespie recommends LWOP. As you state, if we cannot trust government to administer the DP,then how can we trust it to run a prison safely and put the right people in prison until they die? Is the government MORE likely to get the right verdict in a LWOP case? Can we trust it even with parking tickets?

Perhaps "Libertarian Doug™" can explain it to me.

Doug does seem to be eager to align himself with libertarians whenever they want to go easier on criminals, but I swear he gets real quiet when they want to cut, or at least slow the growth of, government handouts.

Goodness gracious!

I won't defend Gillespie's comments, but I would like to assert that he does not represent the sole line of libertarian thinking on capital punishment. Economist Walter Block (a noted libertarian), pulling from an example given in Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia highlights what I think is an alternative line of libertarian thought about capital punishment in his new book "Towards a Libertarian Society". On CP, Block says;

"What the murderer has done, essentially, to his victim is, in effect, steal his life away. If there were but a machine that could transfer the life out of the dead victim and into the live murderer it would be the paradigm case of justice to force him into this machine, and make him disgorge the life he had stolen. It would be a matter of supreme injustice to refuse to do so. Who knows? Maybe in 500 years such a machine will actually be created. It doesn’t matter. By use of this example, we can demonstrate that the murderer’s life is forfeit now, for justice is timeless."

Thanks very much for your comment. I was trying to think of a libertarian who supports the DP, but couldn't in the time I gave myself. I'm glad you did, and my bet is that there are any number of libertarians who agree.

My main gripe with Mr. Gillespie concerns how thoughtless, condescending, lazy and sometimes flat-out false his remarks are.

I think "libertarian-ism" is something of a term art people use to justify their belief that government should not be involved in activity X.

That being said, it is my belief that at its most basic level government is supposed to promote public safety (criminal justice including death penalty) and common defense (military). So really a true libertarian would not have a problem with the death penalty on the grounds the government should not be killing people.

Bill, if you are so opposed to "thoughtless, condescending, lazy and sometimes flat-out false his remarks," why do you keep asserting (WRONGLY) that "I gets real quiet when they want to cut, or at least slow the growth of, government handouts"? I am pretty sure I have told you repeatedly (both on my blog and elsewhere) that I favor raising the SS/Medicare eligibility age to 70 --- which would cut/slow the growth of the biggest and most costly current government handouts. In addition, I am pretty sure I told you of my interest in cutting off unemployment benefits at 26 weeks if/when a person looking for work fails to move to another location to seek work after that amount of time. Such a proposal also would, I believe, cut/slow the growth of another handout. I have other cutting proposals, too, (mostly concerning wasteful military spending and foreign aid and tax credit giveaways) but they are most uninformed instincts because I do not spend all that much time studying government growth except in the criminal justice system where I do my research and writing.

As for the criminal justice system, as I think you and Tarls know well, I consistently advocate against what I consider ineffective and expensive growth in government criminal justice programming (such as the federal war on marijuana and excessive use of imprisonment for nonviolent offenders). What I am not sure about -- which makes me an agnostic on the death penalty --- is whether government growth in this arena is truly ineffective and expensive. Obviously it is in California, but that is not at all obvious is states like Texas and Virginia and my own Ohio in which a real effort is made to carry out a number of executions.

In addition, as I think you likely understand and perhaps agree with, I think LWOP can often be an ineffective and expensive government program, which is why I am a stronger advocate against LWOP than against the death penalty AND why I have consistently complained about liberals being eager to expand the ranks of the LWOP population in order get rid of an alternative (the DP) which might be less ineffective and less expensive than LWOP if administered properly.

I continue to believe, Bill and Tarls, that you want to question my libertarian affinity because you like to imagine a world in which people who generally distrust government still trust the federal government to prohibit drugs and all government to lock the right people in cages for the right amount of time. That is fine, you can imagine such a world and I won't assert you are not "true" anything. But unless and until you really have a basis for saying/proving that true libertarians favor the federal drug war and mass incarceration, I do not think the fact that liberals agree (and social conservatives like you two) disagree with my views (and, e.g., Rand Paul's views) on the federal drug war and mass incarceration that these views prove I do not have real libertarian tendencies.

Indeed, I would be quite eager to finally get from either of you an example of posts/comments of mine that show I do not have real libertarian tendencies. I believe I have written more than 20,000 posts and comments on my various blogs over the last decade, and I would genuinely like to have you point to at least a handful of these posts that show me to articulate strong non-libertarian positions.

Thanks in advance for helping me to better understand why folks like you who sometimes claim to have at least some affinity for a libertarian perspectives are so eager here (and elsewhere) to assert I am not really drawn to libertarian perspectives.

Glad to see you back, Libertarian Doug™.

Some questions from the beginning of the month that you failed to answer:

Are you "libertarian" on Obamacare?
Are you "libertarian" on welfare?
Are you "libertarian" on gun control?
Are you "libertarian" on government funding of Ohio State University?
Are you "libertarian" on tort reform?
Are you "libertarian" on regulations?
Are you "libertarian" on K-12 public education?
Are you "libertarian" on Social Security?

Please explain with detail how your beliefs are libertarian on these issues.

Libertarians only care about pot and homosexual marriage. They ignore the welfare state and its expansion and Libertarian Doug is no different. A real libertarian would be opposed to unemployment insurance and Social Security, but Fake Libertarian Doug endorses both programs. He also opposes the liberty of Americans not to be a crime victim. He thinks that prisons are filled with tokers of maryjane when in fact only the most violent and dangerous criminals actually go to prison. And he wants to release murders so they can kill again. In fact, Fake Libertarian Doug is no different from the neo-Marxists in the Demoncrat Party who want to enslave Americans to the socialist State and have them killed in the streets by criminals. Libertarianism is a false front for radical racist socialist criminals who want to prey on productive and peaceful people.

Here are some of my basic views on some of the issues you raise, Tarls:

-- I am against most gun control measures, though I favor market-driven smart gun technologies in en effort to try to minimize the harms created by misuse of guns.

-- I am troubled by lots of excessive government regulations on economic activities, especially when they backed by federal criminal justice powers (e.g., I hope SCOTUS overturns the conviction in Yates v. US).

-- I favor school choice and vouchers and a robust private school and home-schooling rights, though I do support some public funding of some schools to help ensure we have an informed citizenry for a well-functioning democracy.

-- I favor raising the age for SS and Medicare, and I favor stringent work/education requirements for welfare and other government benefits like aspects of Obamacare. I am not against some bit of a social safety net, but I would significant favor more private market forces and accountability brought to bear in these arenas (e.g., I favor a federal balanced budget amendment).

-- I tend to be against severe government restrictions on bringing tort suits, though I also would endorse reasonable limits on how much can be recovered for certain types of injuries.

I am not sure if I have addressed all your questions or if you think I pass some kind of libertarian litmus test. That said, I am not sure anyone can (or should) be a philosophical purist on man fronts in complicated American society. But I tend to like a lot (but not all) of the positions espoused by Milton Friedman, and I am especially troubled and skeptical of any claim(s) that government agents generally achieve important goals better than private players and private markets.

Hope that provides the kind of response you seek, and I continue to request that you point me to any of my writings in the past that suggest I favor a radical socialist state or otherwise champion societal values other than freedom and limited government.

I also think a "real libertarian" would be against the bloated defense budget as it would most certainly be less expensive to hire mercenaries on retainer to undertake various operations. It would create competition in the marketplace too, if the Navy SEALS had to compete with a mercenary group of Balkan War veterans / war criminals they'd come up with ways to be more efficient and charge less and everyone would benefit from the competition.

Seriously, this just proves my point that libertarian is just a term to describe government regulations or activities one does not like.

I am, matthew, against our bloated defense budget, though Tarls did not ask about that. More broadly, I do agree that the libertarian label is sometimes brought out by those eager for a label to justify criticism of a particular government program. But I think the only ones who can and should consistently use that label to describe their views are those who generally believe private markets and individual actors will typically and consistently and more justly solve most social and economic problems better than public agencies and collective action.

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