Back of the Envelope?
In this Slate article, Steven Landsburg argues the premise that it might be more economically advantageous to execute people who write computer worms than to execute murderers.
He calculates the value of a human life based on the sort of actuarial calculations that make the insurance industry widely despised. Then he evaluates the relative societal economic impact of executing murderers and hackers.
My beef? He bases the value of executing murderers on a "consensus" figure that estimates that executing a murderer deters ten murders. The problem is, it has not, to my knowledge, been empirically shown that the death penalty deters murders at all.
Not at all:
According to the FBI's Preliminary Uniform Crime Report for 2002, the murder rate in the South increased by 2.1% while the murder rate in the Northeast decreased by almost 5%. The South accounts for 82% of all executions since 1976; the Northeast accounts for less than 1%. Read the report. (FBI Preliminary Uniform Crime Report 2002, June 16, 2003).
Landsburg then inadequately attempts to answer those opposed to the death penalty:
Some might argue that capital punishment has moral costs and benefits beyond its practical consequences in terms of lives lost and lives saved. Those who make such arguments will want to modify a lot of the calculations in this column. As for myself, I hold that the government's job is to improve our lives, not to impose its morality. In this, I take my stand with the president of the United States, who, in a 2000 debate against Al Gore, said quite explicitly that nothing other than deterrence can justify the death penalty.(emphasis added).
If Mr. Landburg were to accept that capital punishment deters no one, do you think he would change his stance?