Thursday, July 22, 2010

Great Articles on Crime and Punishment in the Economist

For those few of you who aren't already regular readers of the Economist I strongly encourage you to take a look at these two articles on crime and punishment in America. The basic argument isn't something an educated reader won't already know, punishments are too harsh in America and are doing little to deter crime. But it is a great overview and gives some very good specific points.

I'm debating with myself whether to do a more complete post on this topic. To properly argue my points will take quite a bit of time to properly lay out my ideas to make a coherent argument, a little beyond what I think a blog is designed for. For now, I'll just list the central points I'd want to make without a supporting argument.

- There is no purpose served in fulfilling people's desire for retribution. While it's a natural human urge I do believe mankind has developed over history and we need to set aside childish things, this being one of them.

- I've come to hate the word law. Laws serve two purposes. One, to establish a standard way of doing things when there are near infinite possiblities on how things are done. Most laws actually take this form.

Second, to provide disincentives to behavior that injures, or has the potential to injure, others. The purpose of laws are so that we can all live together and interact with each other despite wildly diverging belief systems and values. Laws should not presuppose these beliefs and values and work just fine completely independently of them. They preserve both mine and your beliefs and values and protect us from the behavior of each other when they these beliefs and values (or simple desires and emotions) conflict by clearly establishing limits to us imposing on others.

My problem with the word is that too many people ascribe a mystical nature to "law." Breaking a law mystically transforms what was previously a law abiding member of the community into a criminal. It reminds me of the mysticism inherent in Marx's theory of labor value actually. It's downright silly. Breaking a law simply means that you've taken an action which should result in standard disincentives being applied to you by society in the interest of letting us all live together in community. No more, no less. There isn't any mystical transformation going on that separates the criminal from the great bulk of humanity, whatever rhetoric gets bandied around.

- I explicitly reject the notion that morality is an intrinsic component of the law. Morality is a separate sphere that overlaps with the law but I see morality as an internal force while law is simply a way of smoothing friction between people forced to live with each other in community. They are distinctly separate spheres that by their nature happen to frequently interact.

I've gone on longer than I intended in a stream of consciousness sort of way. I may develop these ideas later.

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