On the Death Penalty and Ideological Turing Tests

Actually trying to understand how those you disagree with think, rather than just accepting some straw man version, can make one a much better debater.  Bryan Caplan's ideological Turing test is not just about empathy and being open to opposing arguments, but it also pays dividends in making better arguments for one's own positions.  I love how Jesse Walker begins his pitch to Conservatives against the death penalty:

The typical conservative is well informed about the careless errors routinely made by the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Postal Service, and city hall. If he's a policy wonk, he may have bookmarked the Office of Management and Budget's online list of federal programs that manage to issue more than $750 million in mistaken payments each year. He understands the incentives that can make an entrenched bureaucracy unwilling to acknowledge, let alone correct, its mistakes. He doesn't trust the government to manage anything properly, even the things he thinks it should be managing.

Except, apparently, the minor matter of who gets to live or die. Bring up the death penalty, and many conservatives will suddenly exhibit enough faith in government competence to keep the Center for American Progress afloat for a year. Yet the system that kills convicts is riddled with errors.


  1. MPJ:

    FYI - It's spelled "Turing" test, named after the computer scientist Alan Turing.

  2. Vypuero:

    My belief is it has value as a tool to take off the table to get a murderer to cooperate or plea. This way we may be able to locate other victims, or to allow for an especially egregious crime to be punished more severely. There just needs to be one more step available, otherwise why not say kill a witness to keep a murder hidden - the most I can get is life? There has to be one more trump card in the arsenal to use against those who don't care about anything else.

  3. ErikEssig:

    Could Bryan Caplan pass an ideological Turing test re: immigration? I doubt it. He's no Arnold Kling ("taking the most charitable view of those who disagree" over at the askblog http://www.arnoldkling.com/blog/). FWIW, I'm a right wing extremist (according to my wife), but I'm against the death penalty as a general rule.

  4. Rick Caird:

    The counter argument is the criminal justice system has both a personal representative for the accused, a supposedly neutral judge, and a whole appeals process. All of those are missing in the functions referenced.

  5. Matthew Slyfield:

    In practice:

    The alleged personal representative for the accused is paid by the state and has too high of a case load to give any real personal attention to any one case.

    The supposedly neutral judge is also paid by the state and at the state level is elected. This can make things very difficult for the judge in a high profile case with an unpopular defendant.

  6. mlhouse:

    Juries (do not equal) government. I think it takes a significant amount of evidence of guilt for a jury of your peers to convict someone in a capital case. I think the days of racial verdicts and such are long past.

  7. mesocyclone:

    The very example seems to be a straw man argument. Plenty of conservatives who are for the death penalty understand that they system is not perfect.

  8. jdgalt:

    I don't. Minorities let "their own" off when obviously guilty a large part of the time.

    But that's not why I no longer support the death penalty. Trial has become a meaningless formality -- the DA's decision of whom to prosecute, and how heavily, determines most outcomes, and judges accept pretty much anything a cop says. So the system is as broken as it was during the Reign of Terror.

    The person who would do an honorable job as cop, judge, or DA can't get that job today. The only semblance of a solution I see is to avoid living where you have to rely on them to defend you.

  9. mlhouse:

    I don't think that juries accept pretty much anything a cop says, and setting aside the OJ Simpson jury, I don't think minority juries let their own off a large part of the time either.

    With exceptions that are found in almost any human endeavor, I believe that the modern day jury system is extremely fair in matters of capital crimes and that the appeals process bends over backwards looking for avenues to mitigate the death penalty for those convicted.

  10. MNHawk:

    Not this conservative. For a long time I've been anti-death penalty, precisely because I think our legal profession is too corrupt to implement it fairly and the American people are too stupid to even desire it to be.

  11. Che is dead:

    "... a series of academic studies over the last half-dozen years ... claim to settle a once hotly debated argument _ whether the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder. The analyses say yes. They count between three and 18 lives that would be saved by the execution of each convicted killer." -- The Washington Post


  12. Che is dead:

    "Whether innocent people have been executed is not a matter that lends itself to statistical analysis. We have the names of every person who has been executed — 1,373 since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. A few dozen lawyers could each take home a stack of case files for the weekend and find the innocent guy — if there were one. But despite years of searching by single-minded zealots, they still don’t have the name of one innocent person executed in at least the last half-century." -- Ann Coulter


  13. Che is dead:

    "HUNTSVILLE — As many as 60 people might be alive today in Texas because two dozen convicted killers were executed last year in the nation's most active capital punishment state, according to a study of death penalty deterrence by researchers from Sam Houston State University and Duke University. A review of executions and homicides in Texas by criminologist Raymond Teske at Sam Houston in Huntsville and Duke sociologists Kenneth Land and Hui Zheng concludes that a monthly decline of 0.5 to 2.5 homicides in Texas follows each execution." -- The Houston Courier


  14. Che is dead:

    "Most commentators who oppose capital punishment assert that an execution has no deterrent effect on future crimes. Recent evidence, however, suggests that the death penalty, when carried out, has an enormous deterrent effect on the number of murders. More precisely, our recent research shows that each execution carried out is correlated with about 74 fewer murders the following year. ...

    The conclusion that each execution carried out is associated with the saving of dozens of innocent lives creates an extraordinarily difficult moral dilemma for those who campaign against the death penalty. Until now, those activists could look into the eyes of a convicted killer, hear his or her sad story, work tirelessly to set aside the execution and, with that goal accomplished, feel good about themselves for having "saved a life." These data suggest that the moral equation is not nearly that simplistic." -- Mr. Adler is a professor of marketing and Mr. Summers is a professor of quantitative methods at Pepperdine University.


  15. Mercury:

    One could argue that the death penalty is a (if not the) primary, founding principal of the social contract between the individual and the state.
    Soverign/state authority came into being way back when specifically to short circut the common, endless blood-feuds that characterized early civilization. If you take away that authority, other aspects of the larger trust/relationship/contract may unwind, become weakened etc.
    One could also argue that it's different now, we're much more evolved now, the trade-offs are too great etc. but in any event, that's how we got here.
    By the way, killing which results from due-process and killing which results from a drone-strike (which is not limited to non-citizens) are both death penalties.

  16. Daublin:

    It's an admirable try, but I'm not sure whether this would really pass the Ideological Turing Test. Are you yourself in favor of the death penalty, Warren? If so, does he anticipate your objections to his stance?

    My own best try has to do with setting a culture that is desirable to live in. Given the choice between a culture where murder is treated lightly, and where the appearance of murder is sometimes punished too harshly, I could see someone wanting to prefer the latter.

    I don't know for sure whether my try is any better than Jesse's, but if my try is correct, then Jesse's try will miss the mark. My hypothetical death-penalty fan would think Jesse is just being absolutist. If you want to convince my hypothetical death-penalty fan, I think you have to paint an alternative society: show them what *does* happen when murders occur, and convince them that this is a better culture to live in.

  17. B Cole:

    The same thing applies, ironically, to the federal government at large.

    A lot of right-wingers (correctly) disparage the federal government, for all of it blundering and waste. And your income and capital gains tax dollars are what runs the federal government. (FICA taxes run SS and Medicare, largely).

    You know what eats up the lion's share of your income and capital gains taxes? National security/VA outlays. But right-wingers, in general, think defense/VA spending is faultless and justified to the last dime. Despite the fact we face no military enemies, and the "danger" is some Islamic hillbillies. And despite the fact that the VA has become poorly run but runaway welfare program.

    The table below lays bare the truth. The federal government is about 80 percent national defense/VA.

    Federal Employment By Agency

    Defense (civilian)

    Defense (uniformed) 1, 429,995

    Defense (reserves)

    VA 304,665

    VA (receiving monthly disability) 3,700,000

    Homeland Security 183,455

    Justice 117,916

    Treasury 110,099

    USDA 106,867


    H&HS 69,839


    Commerce 56,856

    State 39,016

    Labor 17,592

    HUD 9585

    Education 4452

  18. markm:

    Cole, you began by talking about where the money went, then switched to the head count. Was that because you are too lazy to look up the budget, or because the $$$ figures utterly contradicts your point? According to the pie chart here, defense was only 18% of the federal spending in 2013, compared to 23% for Social Security or 25% for Medicare+Medicaid.


    This 18% seems to not include the VA budget of $124 billion. Add that to $651 billion for Defense, and you get 22% of the 3.5 billion total - that's still a little less than Social Security.

    Your head count is also dishonest. It counts VA pensioners and reservists as equivalent to full time federal employees.

    The military may have a considerably larger proportion of federal employees than of the budget, because the lower ranks are paid far worse than most government employees. Considering the hours that are often required, an unmarried soldier in the lower enlisted ranks is often making less than minimum wage.


  19. jdgalt:

    The reason I say the prosecutor decides most outcomes is that, so long as they have the power to hugely overcharge and then plea bargain, every charge is as good as conviction and most cases never get to trial.

    As far as I'm concerned we need to ban plea bargains, try every case, and appoint judges who will aggressively use the 8th Amendment to put an end to overcharging.

    I don't care what it costs because it will save millions of people (mostly poor people) their freedom, which is what government is for.

    Any system that "works like an assembly line" isn't justice.

  20. mlhouse:

    Are you claiming some defendents plea bargain into the death sentence? I dont think anyone is that dumb.

    AS far as plea bargains, I think you have the issue completely backwards. I would argue that the vast bulk of the defendants that take plea bargains benefit from them because they are guilty and there exists enough evidence to convict them of a much greater crime. Prosecutors offer the plae bargain simply because they are overwhelmed with the criminal elements of this country.

  21. B Cole:

    Markm: if you are still reading...note what I wrote: federal agencies are what eat up your income and capital gains taxes...FICA taxes fund SS and Medicare....
    DoD, VA, DHS, black budget... $1 trillion a year...don't forget interest payments....

  22. jdgalt:

    No, I doubt anyone plea bargains into the death sentence. But the death sentence is one of many excessive sentences that may get people to plea bargain into long prison terms when, in a fair system, they would go to trial and get either 20 years or nothing.

    And no, plea bargains don't help defendants. Prosecutors are "overwhelmed" only because this country has criminalized so many things that government ought to ignore.