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Guido is wrong on capital punishment

July 29th, 2011 Posted in Crime, Libertarians by

The launch of the government’s new e-petitions service has inspired Britain’s leading political blogger and libertarian Guido Fawkes to launch a campaign for a vote to restore capital punishment for “child and cop killers”.

“We shall at least see which MPs believe salus populi suprema est lex, and those that put the welfare of child killers above the wider community. Let them be counted.”

He believes such a move would have popular support, and may well be right, instinctive sympathy for murderers is in short supply.

That though should not be enough for a populist liberal or libertarian commentator to reach for the noose.

The principle problem with the death penalty is that to be just it relies on certain guilt. A post-mortem appeal is of value only to the cause of history, not the accused. Life in prison, which should mean life for those Guido is targeting, at least carries some opportunity for compensation.

To believe in the death penalty one must either believe in the infaliability of the state justice system, I suspect Guido does not. Or like the former Conservative MP for Selly Oak, Sir Anthony Beaumont-Dark, a strong influence on my youthful liberalism, that:

“a few miscarriages here and there are worth the price of protecting the public” – 1989, at a speech to KES Birmingham

The few at that time were the recently released Guildford Four, wrongly convicted of 1975 pub bombings, shortly followed by the over-turning of similar convictions for the Maguire Seven and Birmingham Six.

I do not believe those lives are worth the limited comfort of knowing some genuine killers can never kill again. I certainly don’t believe the state can be entrusted to make those choices. Even modern forensic techniques have not eliminated injustices. The death penalty is a tool, open to irreversible abuse and error, not guarantor of individual liberty.

A second reason against capital punishment is deterrence. Perhaps Guido is more compassionate than I am, but I would rather a genuine child killer, like Anders Breivik, spent the rest of their long natural lives facing the consequences of their choices, rather than getting off on early release. Child killers in particular face potential terrors and threats in prison that can see them spend long periods in solitary confinement with only the ghosts of their evil for company. That should be a far worse deterrent than a six foot drop.

Where I would concede change in the current system is that those with no hope of release, should after a minimum sentence be allowed to request assisted suicide. It should though, as with assisted dying for the terminally ill, be their choice and humane. Surely that would be a better reform campaign for a lover of freedom than a returning powers to the state to act as the lynch mob of last resort.

7 Responses to “Guido is wrong on capital punishment”

  1. Matt Says:

    Funny that Guido, a supposed libertarian, rightly scornful of state control, is in favour of the greatest state control possible: that of life or death. Or maybe he believes that the state never misuses its power. Hypocrite.


  2. Geoffrey Payne Says:

    Granting the state powers to execute and inprison people is of course giving the state more power, which I imagine libertarians ought to be against.


  3. Richard Says:

    I seem to recall Murray Rothbard being in favour of the death penalty and one doesn’t get much more libertarian than him.


  4. Tom Papworth Says:

    @Matt @Geoffrey: in theory the death penalty could be meted out by an agency other than the state. Anarchists generally admit that something has to replace the state as the mechanism for enforcing justice, even if is in just self-defence.

    Having said that (@Richard) I also recall Rothbard arguing very strongly against punishment, saying instead that justice should only go as far as restoration. I’m not sure that capital punishment can be squared with that.

    It’s interesting that Andy should mention the 1989 KES speech, because at about the same time I recall discussing exactly this topic with one of the managers at work. I used the rather youthful personal argument: “What if your husband was mistakenly found guilty and sentenced to death?”, to which she replied “It would be worth it to have the death penalty and so prevent all those terrible crimes.” Of course, I knew that the death penalty meant no such thing, but worse I also knew that she was lying.

    In addition, “the limited comfort of knowing some genuine killers can never kill again” can be achieved through permanent imprisonment.

    Where I do think Andy goes wrong is in the last two paragraphs. Firstly, they are contradictory (a long sentence is preferable because it is more harsh than instant death, but we will let them commit suicide, thus not suffering the longer sentence).

    Secondly, even for the most brutal killers, the sentence should not be about revenge. There are only three justifiable motives for a sentence: rehabilitation (which may be impossible in the most extreme cases); public safety; and deterrence. Making the sentence more extreme simply to vent our anger at an abhorrent crime has no place in a civilised society.


  5. Tricky Dicky Says:

    Guido needs to master his brief. Protocol 13 of the ECHR prohibits the reintroduction of the death penalty. Of course the UK could leave the Council of Europe. But how likely is this? Not very despite all the huffing and puffing from various quarters. That is really the end of the matter. As for public opinion. This is why we have independent courts of law. Mob justice is not British justice.


  6. Dan Falchikov Says:

    Guido is no Libertarian – he’s one of Vince’s right wing nutters.


  7. Graeme Cowie Says:

    The death penalty is wrong, not simply because of fallible justice systems, but because of something so fundamental that Guido Fawkes betrays his true positioning as anything but libertarian. The idea that anyone should have the power to kill a natural person in cold blood when other more proportional, less invasive acts can remove their immediate threat to the liberty of others, is preposterous.

    It’s even more ridiculous that natural persons could vest such a power in the state. It is not necessary to achieve the ends of justice, and displaces it with a Hobbesian-like state of war, where the irrational motive of revenge governs action and fosters distrust.


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