What issues could we all agree on?

June 23rd, 2009

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I’m thinking about this after reading my friend John Spong’s excellent Texas Monthly cover feature on Ted Nugent. (Access available only to T.M. subscribers — sorry.) Nugent, you may know, is a huge gun rights advocate, and the article talks about the debates he gets into with gun control activists.

Anyway, gun control is not the type of issue I’m looking for here, because it’s too contentious. The same goes for abortion and immigration. What I’m looking for are issues that we all could come together on, but haven’t yet for whatever reason.

A possible example: capital punishment.

Obviously, the death penalty is pretty contentious, too, but I think that’s partly because of the way it’s argued. Here’s an incomplete sketch of some of the unconvincing arguments:

  • Some opponents of the death penalty have tried to cast it as cruel and unusual punishment, even though (a) modern methods aren’t cruel — or at least aren’t that cruel, and (b) the Constitution specifically mentions “capital” crimes, so the concept of the death penalty is hardly unusual.
  • Opponents of the death penalty have often said that the death penalty ought to be beneath us as an advanced society. This contention is often paired with the observation that the U.S. is one of the very few rich countries in the world that carries out executions, yet our crime rate isn’t better than many countries that have gone decades and decades without the death penalty. But these arguments are pretty hollow to the opposition, who simply don’t agree that the death penalty is debased, and don’t care that the U.S. is an outlier in this area.
  • Meanwhile, advocates for the death penalty talk about it as a deterrent, even though that utility is dubious at best. (We execute a lot of criminals compared to many other countries, but it doesn’t carve down the rate of murders.)
  • Advocates for the death penalty sometimes talk about it as giving closure to the families of victims. I support victims of crime wholeheartedly, but there may be other, better ways of gaining closure that don’t involve retributive justice, and that don’t prize the wishes of victims and their famiilies above the greater good of the society as a whole.

I’m well aware that these items, by themselves, are wide open to contention, but that’s what I’m getting at: this is where the the argument often stalls out, precisely because these points are so wide open to contention.

So here’s the much simpler line of argument I would focus on instead to advocate the abandonment of the death penalty:

  1. It’s super-expensive. Death rows are notoriously expensive, as taxpayers end up spending tons of money on rounds of appeals. No death sentences = less arguing in the courts and less expense to society.
  2. We occasionally execute the wrong people. It may be rare, but it’s certainly true that our criminal justice system has executed innocent men in the past. Whatever benefits may accrue to death sentences, it’s not worth the risk of executing the wrong person, surely?

Note that this argument doesn’t require people to agree on the moral standing of capital punishment. It doesn’t require comparisons to other countries. It doesn’t even require us to have a debate about the possible deterrent effects of capital punishment. It simply points out that we’re spending tons and tons of money on society’s worst members, and even after all that we sometimes execute innocent people, which just stinks. Why not switch to life-without-parole instead, save the money, and not have to waste time arguing about it anymore?

I don’t expect this to convince activists on one side or the other of this particular issue. (So if you are one, please spare me your ire in the comments.) But it might convince a broad range of people across the political spectrum.

What do you think? And what other issues might be framed this way?

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(Picture by Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons Noncommercial license.)

3 Responses to “What issues could we all agree on?”

  1. michael Says:

    Tim,
    Great post. My father and I were actully talking about the death penalty not long ago and one point in our discussion ties in to your second. Specifically, our legal system. Scores of studies have made it failry clear there’s a pretty massive racial bias in the court. Add biases regarding gender or even how attractive the defendant is, and fair, consistent sentences are truly in question.

  2. Rob L. Says:

    Great post. Sadly, in my experience, there are many people who are just way too stubborn to even consider the possibility that life without parole might cost taxpayers far less than a death sentence. Do you know of any good documentation on this?

  3. Tim Walker Says:

    Wait, Rob — you want me to do *research*? ;)

    I think part of the larger project would be to back all of this up with straightforward research.

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