Jonah Goldberg: Tactics vs. principles in debate on death penalty
Zheng Xiaoyu was executed last week. The former head of China’s food and drug administration lost his appeal to the Supreme People’s Court, according to the Times of London, “in an unusually swift legal process clearly intended to warn other Communist Party officials that those found guilty of corruption will not be spared.”
Zheng had allegedly received bribes in exchange for approving dangerous or otherwise sketchy drugs. One fake antibiotic has been linked to at least 10 deaths in China, and that appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. Assuming the charges are true, few should weep for Minister Zheng.
Zheng’s execution received ample coverage around the world. But, as best I can tell, there has been next to no outrage about it. Major news outlets that usually have human rights groups and death penalty opponents on speed dial seem content to treat this as a business story or as a window into the otherworldly realm that is China.
The silence over the obvious implications of Zheng’s execution is both conspicuous and telling.
Haven’t we been told for decades – with reams of statistics at the ready – that the death penalty doesn’t work as a deterrent?
So why are so many people willing to accept the Chinese government’s position that Zheng’s execution is a necessary tool in combating corruption? Are Chinese bureaucrats some subspecies of human being uniquely susceptible to this sort of suasion? Or is it that American murderers are uniquely immune to such threats?
My guess is that the comparative silence over the Zheng case can be chalked up to tactical considerations. There are so many more politically useful death penalty victims. Wasting a lot of time on Zheng would be counterproductive. When transparently guilty serial killers and child murderers are executed, death penalty opponents rarely pound the table as loudly as when guilt is less clear-cut or when the convict in question is more politically convenient.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about this. If you’re determined to get rid of capital punishment, you’re going to press your case where it’s strongest and conserve your resources at other times. Animal rights activists get better traction when cute, cuddly animals are in the crosshairs than when rats are under the knife. Abortion opponents have a winning issue with partial birth abortion and are on defense when opposing the right to terminate very early pregnancies, particularly in cases of rape or incest. Consistent outrage is a luxury political activists can rarely afford.
But that shouldn’t affect how we think about such issues. Political tactics are not a substitute for political principles, and yet people confuse the two all the time. The death penalty is always more popular when crime rates are high. We think that if Murderer A is executed for killing someone else’s child, that will make it much less likely that Murderer B or C will murder our own child. When murder rates are low, support for the death penalty decreases because people are less afraid.
This utilitarian calculus is not only understandable but rational and deeply seductive. Death penalty opponents understand this, which is why they insist deterrence has no effect. I think this is poppycock, the studies saying otherwise be damned. It defies common sense to think Chinese officials won’t be deterred at all by Zheng’s demise. At minimum, this will raise the price of bribes in China – which, as any economist will tell you, means that at the margins there will be fewer bribes. That the statistical evidence in the U.S. allegedly doesn’t support the deterrence argument is more of a commentary on the inefficiencies of our criminal justice system.
But the point is that it shouldn’t matter whether capital punishment is a deterrent. The death penalty cannot be justified by the deterrence argument alone. As the late sociologist Ernest van den Haag wrote, “Deterring the crimes, not yet committed, of others does not morally justify execution of any convict (except to utilitarians, who think usefulness is a moral justification).” It is child’s play to make the utilitarian case for executing shoplifters, but as all but the most morally stunted should see, hanging one shoplifter cannot be justified by the argument that it will deter another.
Like van den Haag, I support the death penalty because I believe that in some cases it is just. But, save perhaps in the realm of military justice or some truly grave crisis, executing to set an example for others is an indefensible rationalization of mob rule. That is what they have in China and, too often, that is what some advocates of the death penalty argue for here.
Jonah Goldberg is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears in The Union.
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