Wednesday, May 26, 2004

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?


Blogger ryan bradley said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:10 AM  
Blogger ryan bradley said...

Man. You can't edit a post after it's been posted? geeeeeez.

Anyway, No, I doubt he would change his mind if he accepted that capital punishment deters no one. In writing a CP paper about a year ago I concluded that pretty much everyone comes to an opinion on CP based solely on their personal morality and then giraffe to support their opinion as necessary. Giraffing probably isn't even the right term, considering that there is almost no supporting evidence that CP is a deterant..One NY governor went so far as to say despite the evidence, his "gut feeling" was that CP is a deterant. Should I find the paper I'll quote more accurately.

Further, I have to question Landburg's stance considering that a considerable number of viruses are written cross seas which I believe means the US has little jurisdiction to apply the death penalty. That being the case, executing one or two native malware writers natively today isn't going to deter someone in asia from writing a virus next week.

11:34 AM  
Blogger ryan bradley said...

here it is:

Governor William Weld (Massachusetts from 1991-1997) once stated that “Beyond a certain point you have got to make a choice and go with your gut. My gut is that … capital punishment is a deterrent.” How's that for objectivity in government?

11:45 AM  

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