Sunday, November 27, 2005

Singapore Swing

Via Brian Weatherson at Crooked Timber, I learn that Singapore plans to execute (by hanging) an Australian citizen who was transporting drugs from Cambodia to Australia – and traveled through a Singaporean airport en route.

Weatherson asks the natural questions about (a) why this ought to be considered a crime against Singapore and (b) whether the punishment fits the crime. One might also wonder (c) why this ought to be considered a crime at all. But what sprang to my mind was David D. Friedman’s argument in Law’s Order: if you impose your legal system’s harshest punishment for a particular crime, you cannot impose any additional punishment to deter related crimes committed by the same person.

Say you’re trafficking drugs in Singapore, and a witness observes you making a sale. What is your incentive not to shoot the witness? Or suppose the police have the goods on you, and they’ve just arrived at your door to make an arrest. What is your incentive not to go down in a hail of bullets? What are they gonna do – hang you twice?

7 comments:

Murky Thoughts said...

What is your incentive not to go down in a hail of bullets?

If you even have to ask, you are so not the action hero I thought you were.

Chris Fulmer said...

If you carry Friedman's argument to its extreme, then you should never impose the harshest punishment for any crime. Say that you give the death penalty for murdering more than 6 people at a time -- essentially, the 7th person is free. If the limit is 7, then the 8th person is free, and so on....

What if the deterrance were an increased chance of prosecution? Smuggle drugs in Singapore and there's (say) a 20% chance that they catch you. But, kill somebody and there's a 75% chance. Now, you can have the same punishment for everybody, but still deter people from committing worse crimes.

Glen Whitman said...

CF -- It's logically impossible, of course, not to impose your legal system's harshest punishment for any crime (because then it wouldn't be the harshest punishment). So at some point, the problem Friedman points out cannot be avoided. The lesson is that you don't want to impose your harshest punishment for too small a crime.

And yes, the probability of punishment can certainly make a difference. But when you consider, for instance, the shooting-the-witness scenario, the important point becomes clear: when the harshest punishment is imposed for Crime A, there is no legal incentive to forgo some Crime B that will *reduce* your probability of conviction for Crime A.

Blar said...

It's logically impossible, of course, not to impose your legal system's harshest punishment for any crime (because then it wouldn't be the harshest punishment).

Technically, that's not true. There could be no upper bound on the harshness of punishment. For instance, punishment could be ten minutes of torture per murder committed (with each lesser crime earning smaller amounts of additional torture for the perpetrator). Or, there could be an upper bound that serves as a limit but is never reached. Say that punishments never exceed an hour of torture. Then the first murder could net the murderer 30 minutes of torture, the second 15 additional minutes, the third 7.5 minutes more, etc. (with lesser crimes again earning smaller amounts of additional torture). This punishment scheme would produce diminishing marginal deterrence, but it would never reach the zero level that Friedman warns of.

In practice, with capital punishment and long prison sentences as the main serious punishment options, it would be unlikely for punishment to lack an upper bound, and instituting a punishment scheme that approaches a limit without reaching it would probably not be worth the trouble. But they're not logically impossible.

Murky Thoughts said...

It's logically impossible in a nation with a finite list of punishments that doesn't change quickly on the time scale of deterrence.

Glen Whitman said...

Blar -- The two punishment schemes you imagine don't have a harshest punishment, in which case my claim that it's impossible not to impose your legal system's harshest punishment is simply not applicable.

Dimestudent said...

Enforcing laws against "victimless drug crimes" is itself a crime against humanity.

The Bible forbids punishment of victimless "crimes" because criminal punishment must be exactly proportional to the injury done to another person —

Exodus 21:23 "life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise"

Leviticus 24:20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured.

Deuteronomy 19:21 Your eye shall not pity; it shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.


Excessive punishment was forbidden. The punishment had to be exactly equal to the injury. Without an injury to another person there is no crime under Bible Law.

Punishing victimless crimes was a speciality of Nazi Germany, but now we see American prisons overloaded with people who have done no harm to their fellow man. Drug prohibition is a very serious sin against God and man.

It is a serious crime against humanity to punish a person where no injury was done to another.