The hanging of Saddam Hussein has brought that ancient chestnut, the capital punishment debate, bobbing inevitably to the surface once more.
One popular line of argument that I come across here and there goes like this: abolishing capital punishment is undemocratic, since most of the general population of x are in favour of it, and it is only the political, liberal ‘elite’ of x that prevents its resurrection (where x = Britain or any other Western liberal democracy)
This argument illustrates a very common, but still almost unforgivable, failure to understand what democracy is all about.
Naturally enough, I’ll focus on Britain. Democracy, in the British sense, really means ‘representational democracy’. We elect a Government, but we also elect a House of Commons which includes an Opposition, from people among our ranks. We expect this House to debate the issues and thereby come to informed judgements. We allow them to make decisions on our behalf and we do not expect them to come to us to decide every matter while we’re getting on with our own business. In other words, we elect Governments because we want them to govern. But with this essential caveat: if they make a cock of it, we get to kick the useless blighters out.
So democracy is about creating leaders that do lead, but who are accountable and removable. But ‘representational’ has another important meaning: democracy is also about giving everybody a voice in the debate, and protecting the interests of minorities as far as is humanly possible.
One thing democracy emphatically is not, and should not be, is mob rule.
So with all this in mind, let’s go back to the original proposition above. Is it in fact true that “most people are in favour of capital punishment, and it is only the political, liberal ‘elite’ that prevents its resurrection”?
Well, in Britain it is certainly true that
1) the politicians have gradually debated capital punishment out of existence; yet
2) polls generally seem to show majorities of the public in favour of bringing back execution.
But take a closer look at point 2. What does it mean? What it actually means is that a majority of people in a Mori poll or similar have answered ‘yes’ to the (explicit or implicit) question “do some crimes deserve to be punished by death?”
Generally, these polls are only conducted after some lurid serial killer case, or after a policeman is shot. They are not part of a wider debate about allowing the state the power to kill convicted criminals.
Worse, poll results, as all politicians and pollsters are well aware, are largely pre-determined by the phrasing of the question.
Suppose we were to poll the same people with the question: “Given the risk of accidental or deliberate miscarriages of justice leading to the conviction of innocent people, for example in the cases of the Birmingham Six, should we trust the justice system to execute people?” You might expect the poll results to skew somewhat differently. Or suppose you were to show them pictures and profiles of High Court Judges, and then ask: “Should this man have the ultimate power of life and death over citizens of this country?”
"Do some crimes derserve to be punished by death?" is the first question that pops into most people's heads when they believe they are debating the 'capital punishment' issue.
But the reason that point 1 is true – that politicians have debated capital punishment out of existence – is that when you come to debate the death penalty, it eventually emerges that “Do some crimes deserve to be punished by death?” is the wrong question. It is a red herring.
Of course some crimes are unforgivable. Mass homicide, horrific child abuse, the murder of policemen – you can make perfectly good cases that each of these crimes deserve death as punishment. Nothing is easier than digging up stories of evil deeds and saying “this deserves death”.
But that is all irrelevant when you address the proper issue, which is: how should we best arrange our system of justice?
It eventually becomes clear in debates that the key question is this: in arranging our judicial system, and knowing it to be fallible, can we justify granting it the power to kill, when there is the viable alternative of life imprisonment?
And ultimately, the only possible answer is no. Because if you answer yes, you are finally reduced to the argument that it is ok to allow some innocent people to be killed, because it will only be a few, and it will be for the greater good of society.
At this point alarm bells should start to ring for anyone who calls himself a ‘conservative’. Or indeed, for anyone who is not a raving statist commie.
All British Parliaments since abolition in 1965 have allowed regular free votes on a bill to restore capital punishment and it has always been defeated. This includes times when the House has been dominated by right-wing Tory governments. Yet anti-death penalty arguments are usually associated with left-wing bleeding hearts arguing that ‘society is to blame’ for all crimes, not criminals.
In fact the strongest argument against capital punishment is a deeply conservative one. It is about acknowledging fallibility - of the state, and of the individuals who comprise it. Trusting the state to always get things right, to be omni-competent and incorruptible, and thus to always hang the right people, only makes sense through loony left goggles.
Trumpeting a state system that knowingly sacrifices a few individuals for the greater good of society is a strictly commie viewpoint.
Conservatives know that limiting the power of the state over its own citizens is essential. The first thing you should do is remove its power to kill them.