Response on Capital Punishment-BECKER
I will not go over the same ground again, but I have a few responses to the comments on my latest capital punishment posting.
Many of you raised again the issue of whether it is possible to determine whether capital punishment deters murders. The studies have been very sophisticated, and have tried to account for most of the factors raised in various comments. The studies are certainly far more sophisticated than simply correlating the murder rate with whether or not capital punishment is used. Still, I have said in both postings that the data are limited, and so it is not possible to say with great confidence that capital punishment deters. But I must add that while I do believe it deters, I do not assume that all murderers would be deterred, or that all think about the punishment consequences when committing murder. Public policies in all areas only need that a sufficient number of persons respond to the incentives created by the policies.
I mainly asked in my two postings: if capital punishment were known to reduce significantly the number of murders, can someone opposed to the government taking lives remain opposed? I argued no. I was pleased to receive this week from my colleague Cass Sunstein an article that he and Adrian Vermuele will publish shortly. They argue in much greater detail than I did that a government that refuses to use capital punishment when it would significantly reduce the number of murders is indirectly taking the lives of those persons who would not be murdered had such punishment been used.
In response to comments about the effect of capital punishment on the behavior of murderers I have already recognized that ‚ÄúOne complication is that capital punishment may make a murderer fight harder to avoid being captured, which could lead to more deaths. That argument has to be weighed in judging the case for capital punishment‚Äù. Some of you repeated that argument in other words, but if true it would imply that capital punishment does not deter murders and may increase them. We come back to the deterrence question again.
The National Academy of Science study is old, of modest quality, and far from definitive. We mentioned, as do Sunstein and Vermuele, recent studies using new data that also suggest a big deterrent effect of capital punishment. But I repeat that I do not want to oversell the strength of the evidence on deterrence.
In response to Eric Rasmussen, I would argue that murderers utility should be counted, although Eric as you know, George Stigler and I differed on this issue in publications more than 35 years ago. On the embezzlement issue, to me the marginal deterrence argument, and that embezzlements are partly just financial transfers among persons, along with other arguments, makes me opposed to using capital punishment against embezzlers, or against persons committing similar financial crimes.