A Libertarian Case Against the Death Penalty


There are certain situations where results matter more than intentions.

An engineer who builds a bridge, for example, may have intended for it to be successful, but a faulty design would render him liable if someone lost their life while crossing said bridge.

A CEO who intended to make his company richer only to end up declaring bankruptcy is again remembered for his results, not intentions.

The idea that actions are judged by their outcomes and not by their intentions is something that is seen in the real world all the time, and yet people feel anxious and ambivalent in using this as a medium to judge law-makers and politicians.

We then make the mistake of believing that the egregious outcomes of some laws should be excused provided that they were originally written in good faith.

The death penalty is one such law. Although written with seemingly good intentions, it has still brought about more harm than good.

Yes, everyone wants to hang murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and the rest of society’s scum as it seems to be the right thing to do and it appears to be with good intentions.

The reason why civilized countries have abolished the death penalty, however, is because they realized that it is actually not as just as the self-righteous claim it to be.

More specifically, the death penalty is not justified because of its high cost for the taxpayer, and its incompatibility with an individual’s natural and universally-understood rights. These two affronts to liberty — an assault on the taxpayer and an assault on civil liberties is why libertarians are the only ones within the right-wing community to despise capital punishment.

To begin, the death penalty is not justified (i.e. it is not reasonable or fair) because it is both highly inefficient and highly ineffective for the taxpayer. Primarily, the death penalty is ineffective because it neglects to do its job as a punishment in a civilized legal code: deter crime. There is not a single nation-state in the world that has, through implementing capital punishment, achieved a lower crime rate.

In fact, American states that still have the death penalty have, on average, a 25% higher homicide rate than states that do not have such a punishment (“Deterrence: States Without the Death Penalty Have Had Consistently Lower Murder Rates”).

We see in the above citation that everyone loses when the death penalty is in effect, and that this punishment only brings about more pain and sorrow for our society, not less. If a penalty only serves to perpetuate a problem that it was meant to solve, then it has no business being included in the criminal code.

On top of not being effective, the death penalty is simply not efficient even if you believe the end goal isn’t to deter crime but to instead exact revenge. I say this because the death penalty curses society with an unfair financial burden.

The State of Maryland is just one of many places where the death penalty serves as a colossal waste of tax dollars as the “death penalty cases cost 3 times more than the non-death penalty ones”.

On top of this, we see a similar complaint with law professor, Jeffrey Fagan, who estimates that the cost of an individual state execution can range anywhere between $2.5 million and $5 million.

Both Fagan and the State of Maryland teach us that the death penalty is a more expensive alternative than simply incarcerating a violent felon because defense lawyers will seek a lot more appeals for court cases if their client is otherwise faced with certain death.

These appeals combined with the time and money needed to hear and file them all cost the taxpayer extra money.

I think it goes without saying that we, as libertarians, have a very low tolerance for taxation as we can often be heard equating it to theft (which it is), and that is why we can never advocate for a policy that only triples the amount of theft we allow our robbers politicians to get away with.

Furthermore, when the taxpayer is really paying for a system that does not benefit them at all, it is easy to realize that the death penalty really isn’t worth paying for.

With regard to the economic argument here, something can also be said about the issue of opportunity costs because the death penalty diverts resources from more effective programs that have actually been proven to reduce crime, i.e. money spent on taking a life (plus the tedious legal work behind it) is money that could have been used on the families of murder to accommodate psychological healing.

The money could have also been used for mental health research that could preclude others from going down a criminal path or even be used to uplift poverty-stricken communities and provide them with the resources and education needed to make crime unnecessary for one’s survival.

Moreover, introducing the death penalty would be in violation of one’s rights as declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

In particular, article 3 of the UDHR states that everyone has the right to “life, liberty and the security of the person.”

The reason why this creed is so important is because it shows that life is an unalienable right bestowed on to every human being and that taking away this right would not only violate constitutional law, but also natural law.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are supposed to, in theory, be immune to positive law passed by humans. What this means is that no legislature is supposed to be able to draft a law that strips away any of these rights nor can an independent judiciary order one to surrender them. The state, in theory, is not even supposed to be the one to dispense the “right to live” but rather, they are obligated to protect and defend it.

A failure to protect and defend this right, even for society’s most unwanted, will mean that the state is stooping down to the very murderers that they wish to hang.

Ultimately, the death penalty is not just breaking some abnormal right or privilege — it is breaking a universally-understood right. And to violate such a right in its rawest, most natural form is grounds for an outcry from the libertarian community.

In the end, if there is one thing that libertarians will go to war over, it is, as their name implies, liberty. I then assert that the community should continue on with its crusade against things like the death penalty for it violates both the financial liberty of the taxpayer and the natural liberty of the individual.

We must remember that just because it may sound good to finally get revenge on those who have raped, murdered, or committed acts of terrorism against their fellow citizens, the greater injustice will always be allowing that thirst for revenge to trivialize both the taxpayer as well as the sacred possessions of life and liberty for all.

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* Christopher X. Henry has just graduated high school and will be attending the University of Toronto to study political science. He wishes to become a lawyer, writer, and politician and has taken up writing as a hobby for both Being Libertarian and his own blog and Facebook page, Freedom Papers.

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