Saturday, February 11, 2006
Let the eye fit the tooth
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; let the punishment fit the crime; let the cliché fit the occasion! Questions of crime and punishment, and law and order, are always hot topics: presently within the rubric of the Muslim response to the (infamous) Danish/Mohammad cartoons. Rather than rake these hot coals, I want to consider a more general point of view.
In addition to commentary about the Muslim Mayhem, two (synchronistic) low-key media events raised questions of offence/punishment at the more general level this past week. First, Phillip Adams spoke with philosopher Ted Honderich about the morality of punishment (Ted's homepage is here). Next, the Australian ran the headline: Doubling jail time would cut burglary ; which was mostly a re-hash of a NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics press release.
Ted was spruiking the re-release of his 1969 book, Punishment. He believes that punishment can only be justified by its effects; though because he doesn’t believe in the utilitarian theory of justice – he wheeled out the familiar Holocaust critique: would it have been OK if it maximized utility? – he doesn’t much believe in punishment. He views property relations as a political construct, and therefore doubts the argument for their enforcement.
The criminologists found that the doubling the incarceration rate for convicted burglars would reduce the direct loss associated with burglary by about $156m, or that doubling the sentence length for the current proportion of convicted burglars would cut the cost by $104m per annum. Annual cost of the present prison population is $78m per annum, resulting in an annual net benefit of (approximately) $78m from locking more of them up, and $26m from getting tougher on the worst ones. These are static estimates, and my guess is that the benefit would be greater still, as some criminals would probably be put off by a doubling of the probability of punishment, or the severity of punishment.
So I guess we should both goal more of them, and goal them for longer: it seems like a pretty good deal – if you’re not a communist philosopher who’s squeamish about imposing your politically derived system of property relations on the criminals.
Before going on, I should declare a prejudice: I find it difficult to come to terms with a man whose thinking leads to conclusions such as: ‘ I think it gives the Palestinians a moral right to their terrorism ’. Notwithstanding this, he’s very clever, and his comments demand attention, as they are the product of rational inquiry. A way into the limits of his brand of moral philosophy is suggested by the bottom line of his controversial 2002 tome After the Terror: he concludes that ‘We [the west] can be held partly responsible for the 3,000 deaths at the twin towers and at the Pentagon’. Why? I hear you ask: because are complicit in the impoverishment of the third world via the American-backed globalization policies on the part of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.
My punt is that Prof Honderich doesn’t get economics.
It’s not capitalism’s fault they’re poor: except in so far as the cold war is concerned. And while we may bear some responsibility for electing Government’s that supported corrupt middle eastern oppressors (but hey, we won the cold war, and prevented a nuclear holocaust!), it’s not capitalism’s fault – so the twin towers were not a morally acceptable target.
Similarly, he doesn’t appreciate that the wealth we enjoy is the product of our system of economic relations. Refusing to punish property crime would erode property rights, and reduce wealth in both capitalist and developing countries … thereby creating more terrorists? It’s strange that Prof H, who seems to think that unpunished property theft – by corrupt mid-east governments – went a long way toward getting us in this mess in the first place, would support a policy that essentially amounts to more of the same.
Well functioning, wealth creating, capitalism requires clearly defined and enforced property rights. To the extent that poverty and corruption explains Islamofascism, it's more punishment of property crime that we need.
Posted by Matt Johnson at 11:08 PM