What is crime? What is punishment? And who is good? Who is bad?

Crime and punishment seems to be under a great deal of discussion lately, and it's one of those issues that always seems to be lurking in the background, even when the issue is not directly about crime and punishment. Roman Polanski, for example is not an ordinary sex scandal, but is a debate about crime and punishment. The drug and abortion issues are really about whether these things should be considered crimes, and if so, how they should properly be punished.

In a recent post I titled "Who are the real criminals?" I looked at the phenomenon of overcriminalization (focusing on federal law), and pointed out a number egregious examples.

While it wasn't really what I was talking about, commenter "Dwight" drew a contrast between "dishonest" and "badness" criminals, and raised an entirely new topic:

So do you think that we have a shortage of dishonest to badness criminals? Graft and corruption seemed to be more prevalent than ever. Should pension fraud cases be pursued, or is it OK to steal money from the government? How about income tax fraud?

Righties supposedly want law and order, but whose law and whose order?

I don't know how much of a "rightie" I am in general, but I do tend to be pretty intolerant when it comes to violent crime. I'm a fervent believer in self defense -- both as an individual right, and by way of protecting society against people who have shown themselves willing to commit crimes of violence. The idea being that if violent, dangerous, psychopathic people are either dead or locked up, they will not be able to hurt those of us who are not violent and dangerous psychopaths.

That's where I guess I'd have to be considered a "conservative" -- if such labels apply. However, I am a liberal in the sense that I would not use prison as punishment for non-violent criminals, and I would not punish victimless (vice type) crimes at all. As to what the punishment should be for tax cheating, pension fraud, and white collar crime in general, I don't know. But I'm thinking that most of these offenders (and they are offenders) would qualify for work in the vast bureaucracies that the rest of us can't escape, so maybe I'd use them as white collar paper slaves. (Under supervision, of course, so they can't steal on the job.) And if that's not punishment enough to satisfy society's lust for revenge and blood (as, say, in the case of Bernie Madoff), then society might have the right to demand a public flogging of some sort. But if they're not violent, I see prison as pointless. Prisons are expensive, overcrowded, and violent places, which IMO should be reserved for violent offenders, the primary goal being to protect society, not to punish.

So while it would be dishonest of me to call myself a conservative, I see a lot of dishonest and negative stereotyping of conservatives in the area of crime and punishment -- some of which tempt me to embrace the label of "conservative" by way of reaction.

A recent example of this is a piece that Andrew Sullivan linked (he titled it "Conservatism And Capital Punishment") about an apparently innocent man who was executed in Texas. Apparently, "conservatives" are to blame, because "they" don't care whether or not innocent people are wrongly executed. Plus, they believe that science doesn't matter!

This Nightline piece is amazing. It's worth watching the two people largely responsible for Willingham's death. It's worth thinking on the fact that John Jackson, the original prosecutor (who, based on Willingham's music choice, believes he killed his kids as some form of devil worship) is now a Texas judge. It's worth thinking on the fact that we have arson investigators who think science doesn't matter.

Texas justice is essentially sorcery, and there will be people who say that we can perfect it, that we can close the loop-holes. They're wrong. The problem isn't with loopholes--it's with us. We are fallible. Conservatives, more than anyone, should know that--it undergirds their entire philosophy. They don't think government can perfect much of anything. What makes them think we can perfect murder? I'd have a lot more respect if they just came out and said, "Yeah, it isn't perfect, but it's a price we should be willing to pay.

It is claimed that the execution is supported by conservatives who do not care whether the man was innocent. Because, you know, they are mean, vindictive, and above-all angry people who take delight in punishment, and think the guy just needed execution whether he was innocent or not.

Some of the comments I found there typify this view of conservatism.

Conservatism is not a philosophy, but a club for resentful whites:

We are fallible. Conservatives, more than anyone, should know that--it under-girds their entire philosophy.

If conservatism were a philosophy, that would be true. But it's actually a club for resentful white people (and Michael Steele) to recite a few shifting, angry slogans. Principles, and policy, have nothing to do with it.

Some humility in the machinery of death-- and in theology-- would certainly be a welcome addition to conservatism. But resentment isn't about humility.

Conservatives are religious nuts who believe that people who are well off are favored by God, and people who suffer are disfavored by God and therefore do not deserve pity:
It's no accident that so many of these people are Christian fundamentalists. They honestly believe that they got what they did because God gave them a deserved reward. Ergo, people who experience unfairness must have done something to deserve it. It's a blame the victim mentality, that conveniently jibes with Republican ideologies that ignore ingrained racism and entrenched poverty. The only thing I can find that all Republican positions have in common these days is "I got mine, screw you." There seems to be no acknowledgement of others suffering in today's conservatism.
Now, while that sounds like something R.J. Rushdoony and his ilk might say, if it's anywhere in the Republican platform or if it is considered a "conservative principle," that would mean things are far worse than I thought.

Will someone please let me know?

Then of course there's Texas. Apparently, that's a place which has a huge monopoly on conservative principles, and where all conservatives believe that it's just fine to execute the innocent -- just as long as they're guilty of something else:

When I was growing up in Texas, the loudest proponents of the death penalty self-identified as conservatives. And when I visit my home town, I've heard self-identified conservatives (politicans and private citizens) say that not only do they support the death penalty but also it's OK with them if an innocent person or two is executed by mistake.

I agree with Stacy up thread, who hypothesized that these are Just World-ers. They seem to assume that both (a) the state's innocent victims were guilty of something else and thus "bad people" and (b) as they themselves are "good people", they are in no danger of personally becoming one of these victims. As many of these people equally vocally call themselves "good Christians", this seems a very peculiar way to love our neighbours as ourselves. Perhaps these people have very small neighbourhoods?

Ever know any conservatives like that? I haven't. But then, perhaps I lived too long in California and on the East Coast. Do the "real folks" in the rest of the country believe in frying people innocent of capital crimes simply because they're "bad people"?

Another conservative "principle" seems to be that if someone is trashy and cluttering up respectable white society, then by all means it's OK to pull the switch on him:

I think the subtext of so much of the behavior of the people responsible for Willingham's execution, at least as depicted in the New Yorker article, was a more chilling version of this. Killing him, whether or not he was guilty of the crime with which he was charged, WAS a price they were willing to pay. To them, Cameron Willingham was nothing but trash. Even if he wasn't guilty of murdering his three children in cold blood, he was guilty of being poor and distasteful to respectable white Texan society. Their world was better off without him cluttering it up, so why bother taking the necessary pains to provide him with justice under the law?
I'm sorry, but I know a number of conservatives, and while most of them support the death penalty, I have never met a single conservative who supports the idea of executing an innocent man simply because he's a "bad person" who deserves it. Say what you want about conservatives, but I really don't think that type of mindset is a principle of conservatism. Sure, there may be some people calling themselves conservatives who think the guy got what was coming to him whether he was guilty of that particular crime or not, but to call that conservatism is like calling a lynch mob "conservative." Or calling violent rioters and looters "liberal."

I say this as someone who supports the death penalty. In order for it to work, society needs to be extremely scrupulous in ensuring that innocent people are not executed, because cases involving executions of the innocent become the best single argument in favor of abolishing the death penalty.

However, there does seem to be a difference between conservatives and liberals in one important respect. Conservatives might not want to execute people for the crime of being bad, but neither do they want to hire bad people and put them to work at ACORN, or in the census. (Not a new idea, BTW. Philadelphia has made hiring ex-felons an official priority.)

What's up with that?

Is there a disagreement between conservatives and liberals over who is good, and who is bad? Or does it involve the concepts themselves?

posted by Eric on 10.09.09 at 03:00 PM


As your post notes, they're debating caricatures.

In the 90s I was for welfare reform, so naturally I wanted poor children dying in the streets. Not just any poor, but mostly black poor, so I was a racist hater.

Nevermind that welfare reform was good for everybody involved (except for people who make themselves feel better by "helping" poor people). That means nothing.

I'm an evil racist now for something else.

Whether illegal immigration or not liking Obama's policies, it's not what I do, it's that I don't believe in their religion.

You're worse than I am, I'm just an unbeliever, you're a heretic.

You've seen the light and rejected it.
The Global Warmiest Circle of Hell will be yours my friend.

Veeshir   ·  October 9, 2009 6:21 PM

I'm headed for the lowest circle -- where all the ice is!

Eric Scheie   ·  October 9, 2009 7:03 PM

That's what I said, the Global Warmiest Circle.

Veeshir   ·  October 9, 2009 8:02 PM

"It's no accident that so many of these people are Christian fundamentalists. They honestly believe that they got what they did because God gave them a deserved reward."

Err, we believe in grace, the exact opposite of getting what you deserve: getting the good you don't deserve while NOT getting the punishment you do deserve.

This is a trustworthy saying that deserves complete acceptance: To this world Messiah came, sinful people to reclaim. I am the worst of them.

Definitions of grace around these fundie circles are: "God's Riches At Christ's Expense" and "unmerited favor."

Are there "fundamentalists" that teach otherwise?

Deb   ·  October 10, 2009 9:54 AM

Depends on your definition of "fundamentalist".

You can sooner expect agreement between clocks than philosophers and theologians.

Veeshir   ·  October 10, 2009 11:18 AM

Yes, premillenial Dispensationalism matters -- especially to postmillenial Dispensationalists!

And people once killed each other over transubstantiation.

Eric Scheie   ·  October 10, 2009 12:54 PM

Disagreeable cusses, ain't we?

Veeshir   ·  October 10, 2009 1:36 PM

"And people once killed each other over transubstantiation. "

Well, that was their excuse, anyway.

Wonder where they got the idea that God needed them to do that?

Deb   ·  October 11, 2009 3:16 AM

I used the term "dishonest to badness" criminals, only because "honest to goodness criminals" seemed inappropriate, but at any rate, we seem to have no shortage of violent criminals or white collar ones. Yes, we probably should have, and to some degree do have gradations of prisons for various kinds of offenders.

I suspect that we could use more honest people, but we all are what we are. We are imperfect, justice is imperfect.

Therefore, it seems that captital cases should require some special "certainty" before people are executed, maybe a kind of reasonable (or scanty) doubt which does not free the suspect, but keeps him from being executed. At the moment it seems too often to be all or nothing. Anyone have any ides on how to implement such a system?

Dwight   ·  October 11, 2009 9:33 PM

Anyone have any ides on how to implement such a system?

The problem is that the people in charge like it the way it is.
The more laws the more power the state has over you. That's the goal of gov't.

Veeshir   ·  October 11, 2009 11:14 PM

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