In Favor Of Flogging

Suggest adding the whipping post to America’s system of criminal justice and most people recoil in horror. But offer a choice between five years in prison or 10 lashes and almost everybody picks the lash. What does that say about prison? … Never in the history of the world has a country locked up so many of its people. … Not even the most progressive reformer has a plan to reduce the prison population by 85 percent.  I do: Bring back the lash. Give convicts the choice of flogging in lieu of incarceration. …

Corporal punishment, said one early advocate of prisons, was a relic of “barbarous” British imperialism ill-suited to “a new country, simple manners, and a popular form of government.” … State by state, starting with Pennsylvania in 1790, … corporal punishment was struck from the criminal code. The idea was that penitentiaries would heal the criminally ill just as hospitals cured the physically sick. It didn’t work. … Of course some people are simply too dangerous to release — pedophiles, terrorists and the truly psychopathic, for instance. But they’re relatively few in number. … Incarceration destroys families and jobs, exactly what people need to have in order to stay away from crime. (more)

Yup. The US spends vast sums to affirm its myths of greatness, such on arms to affirm our saving the world from nazis, communists, etc. and on med to affirm our gift of modern med to the world. You might hope we’d give up eventually as myths become obviously wrong, but this prison myth, that we are kind because we won’t flog, has lasted for two centuries in the face of consistently contrary evidence, and gives no signs of abating.  Could our military and med myths last that long?

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  • Ted

    Color me unconvinced.

    I agree that 10 lashes is an easier sentence than 10 years. And that’s the problem. 10 lashes is not an effective deterrent against crime. So, you might say, up the ante and increase the number of lashes until it’s the same deterrent as 10 years of prison. Ok, now what has the system gained? Nothing. You’ve just added an additional punishment option as bad as the first.

    • So, you might say, up the ante and increase the number of lashes until it’s the same deterrent as 10 years of prison. Ok, now what has the system gained?.

      Cheaper costs for the criminal punishment system.


      • Ted

        Hmm, I don’t think the system gains cheaper costs, but perhaps an extra option expands the efficient frontier.

        Here’s what I was trying to say: the problem is that if you make the cheap flogging option just as deterring as the expensive prison option, then what incentive would any criminal have to choose the cheap flogging? To them, it’s as bad as the expensive prison. The only way you save money is if there’s an incentive to choose the cheap option, but you can’t provide an incentive to choose the cheap option without reducing the punishment.

        But that logic may be irrelevant.

    • Albert Ling

      What are you talking about? the system has gained the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to keep someone in prison for 10 years, and none of the negative externalities prisons produce. Did you even read the P.Moskos article?

      • wophugus

        But there you run into the real problem. A big point of the article is, “Come on, is ten years in prison really more humane than ten lashes?” But to equal the crime reducing effects of ten years in prison — not just in terms of deterrence, but accounting for all the incapacitation we get out of locking someone up for ten years — we aren’t talking about ten lashes, and we could very well be talking about something a lot more barbaric. I mean, honestly, it’s hard to imagine just how bad corporal punishment would have to be in order for me to be more deterred by a moment’s suffering (and remember, it has to be more, not the same, since there is no incapacitation effect) as I would be by ten years of losing my freedom. Are we talking a week of extensive torture here? Maiming? Do you really feel comfortable putting those powers in the hands of the state?

        Meanwhile, countries that are culturally and economically and in terms of population density very similar to ours (or more similar than most cultures that have extensively used corporal punishment, at least) are able to obtain intentional homicide rates a fraction of what we have without either corporal punishment or huge prison populations. I think it is a lot more likely that the solution to our prison problem lies in western europe (and in ending the drug war, obviously) than in colonial america. Colonial America had kind of a shitty criminal justice system that didn’t get very good results (see: and that was dependent on, in some areas, enslaving and brutalizing a lot of the people most likely to commit crime (IE, people on the bottom rung of society).

      • Ted

        Yes, I read the article.

  • Lashing does not have the most beneficial aspect of imprisonment – removal of that person from society. There is also the dynamic benefit of preventing prisoners from having children.

    Levitt has recently posted on the effect of the release of the 30,000 lowest risk prisoners from the Californian prison population.

  • Jason

    The risk of infection from lashes back in the 18th century made it a potential death sentence.

    I also think our current system of sentences is way too long for certain criminal acts (in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves). The social cost incurred by society due to an individual selling drugs is not on the order of millions of dollars using the few million dollar actuarial value of a productive human life. It is orders of magnitude less. Therefore, the sentence should be orders of magnitude less than the 40 or so productive years, which comes down to months or weeks. That we might say is equivalent to a few lashes.

  • Ben Bernanke

    >>Of course some people are simply too dangerous to release — pedophiles<<

    Now, now… there are 12-year-olds who happily consent to sex. Seriously.

    Flogging as an option seems fine, but I would go beyond that. Offer them painless death as well, as an option. Let them sell their organs to support their families or compensate their victims, as an option.

    And for God's sake, reduce the number of victimless crimes already! Voluntary prostitution, consensual incest, buying or even selling drugs – none of these things should have been a crime in the first place. Simply stop meddling with people's choices and basic freedoms, and you'll get prison numbers reduced by a good chunk.

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  • Abelard Lindsey

    It begs the question of why the U.S. has locked up a higher percentage of its population than nearly any other society in history, including the Soviet Union following the end of Stalin’s purges. Do criminals really make up that high percentage of our population? Why would we have a higher percentage of criminals than the rest of the world? Why don’t the other countries, including the dictatorships, lock up as many of their criminals as we do ours?

  • Abelard, – and the question would be: are those not in prison benefiting enough to justify the harm to the marginal prisoner? Presumably we all agree that there are some people in jail who were convicted of things that shouldn’t be illegal, or of things they aren’t in fact guilty of (we may disagree on the particulars). But higher-than-ever levels of punishment are merely suspicious, not necessarily wrong.

  • nazgulnarsil

    in a multicultural society locking up people whose value diverge significantly from the norm will result in a lot more incarceration than in less multicultural societies.

    Of course values can diverge in acceptable and non acceptable dimensions, but the point holds.

  • Heinlein talked about this in Starship Troopers. In that future world, the idea of prison was ridiculous since public flogging, combined with a kind of threat that you only have so many chances to effup, pretty much eradicated crime.

  • Spandrell

    No mention of blacks? And you guys pretend to overcome bias?

  • Rudd-O

    The ‘justice system’ is not about justice. It is about humiliating and eliciting compliance through organized terror.

    • It is not even about eliciting compliance. The concept of deterrence doesn’t work. If it did work, the US would have lower crime rates than Europe because the US locks up more people for longer than does Europe.

      The purpose of the criminal justice system is to “other” people who are convicted of crimes and to reduce their status; to reduce their status sufficiently so that they can be discriminated against, their lives made more difficult, their children allowed fewer opportunities, their health made to suffer and in the limit starved, tortured and killed.

      Flogging would be a suitable treatment to accomplish this. So would any other kind of torture. The problem is, that the criminal justice system doesn’t prevent crime or protect its citizens, all it does is enforce a social status hierarchy with the law makers and law enforcers at the top and those the law makers and law enforcers don’t like at the bottom. Why is alcohol legal and marijuana illegal? Only because the law makers and law enforcers have arbitrarily decided it should be that way.

      Why don’t you just kill them quickly and get it over with? Why make their lives so difficult that they will die early anyway? That is the whole point of all of this.

      • You can’t compare different countries as if all things are equal. That’s not a natural experiment. There are things more like natural experiments in the form of laws that have a strict age cutoff, or sometimes different laws in otherwise similar neighboring jurisdictions.

  • Alrenous

    >But offer a choice between five years in prison or 10 lashes and almost everybody picks the lash.

    Can I get a cite on this? I believe it, but I want to make sure it’s not just some anti-prison bias. (Or anti-authority or anti-status quo. I’d pick the lash, personally.)

    Justice is only so if swift and terrible. Our civilization’s ‘justice’ system, like all government programs, is the opposite of swift and indifferent to terror, and thus almost purely pointless cruelty. The only positive effect is that you can’t burgle while in prison, but it is doubtful that prisons are cost-effective even leaving aside destruction of social bonds and such. Yes, I’m claiming anarcho-chaos would be less costly than the present prison system.

  • Drewfus

    An advantage to flogging is that the punishment does not have to be as great as compared to a jail sentence, because the punishment occurs closer to the crime, and is consequently more effective.

    A problem with flogging is that it consists of violence, and becomes a sign of social breakdown in it’s own right. As a sign of failure of social relationships in it’s own right, violence cannot really be used in an attempt to improve those relationships.

    • Konkvistador

      I disagree. It signals clearly state monopoly on violence. And that is the basis of government.

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  • Drewfus

    Brutality signals brutality. It is what it is. Interpreting anything else, including evidence for some open-ended ‘monopoly on violence’ might be your take on it, but what if no one else agrees?

  • Douglas Knight

    It is worth noting that Singapore uses corporal punishment and has the death penalty for drugs. It is the only country I know of with more executions than murders. This is compatible with it being a safe, rich country. It is much safer than the US and similar to Japan. In fact, it is a city, so it is more natural to compare it to cities. It is probably the safest big city in the world.

    • Michael Kirkland

      That sounds like an extraordinarily dangerous city to me. It would also be pretty easy to kill someone if you knew when they were about to go through a drug checkpoint.

      • Douglas Knight

        If you like, count all the executions as murders; then it’s comparable to London or Tokyo.

  • Michael Kirkland

    The problem with the lash is that it’s cheap. There’s no incentive for the system to withhold punishment in trivial sentences, so you end up with people serving the equivalent of years in prison for things like spitting on the sidewalk or extramarital sex.

    The only way it could work would be if the corrections system was required to give the offender the equivalent of the cost to imprison them, say $100,000 per lash/year.

    • ad

      There’s no incentive for the system to withhold punishment

      Sure there is. Corporal punishment looks ugly and unpleasant, and people do not want to be associated with ordering it. That is why it was abandoned in the first place. Jailing criminals does not looks as bad.

      Jail is admittedly more expensive, but to the prison officers unions, this is a point in its favour.

  • A proud Finn

    In Finland we are on a completely different track with our justice system.

    For common assault, you get typically a fine comparable to your 30-80 days salary. For aggrevated assault you get probation up to 2 years. If you don’t commit many other crimes you will not end up in jail. If you cause serious injury you get typically 1-5 years in prison.

    If you happen to kill someone without intent, you get something between one year probation to maximum around 6 years in prison. For second degree murder you get typically 10 years.

    For using drugs you get a fine, for selling drugs typically a probation. Only big importers end up in jail. For DUI you get a fine or probation. Only very high intoxication levels (more than 0.3% BAC) may cause a jail sentence. And probably not for the first time anyway.

    For a burglary you typically get probation, for several burglaries 1-3 years in jail. Robbery may cause something from 1 to even 10 years, if you end up robbing a bank or large amount of money. For “normal robbery” in a small drugstore 1-2 years probation is a typical sentence.

    If you are a first-timer you spend only half time in jail and the rest on parole. So 6 is 3 and 10 is 5 in Finnish prison math. We do have nothing comparable to “three strikes law” whatsoever. If you are considered habitual offender, you may have to spend your whole sentence in jail (10 = 10).

    There are handful of people who have committed for example 3 murders in a row, each after they are released from previous sentence. However, huge majority of our criminals will never end up in prison again. Instead they are integrated back in society.

    Our prison system is not for revenge, but for rehabilitation. I think our system just rocks. We have only 3000 prisoners in country of five million. And I feel very safe on the streets. I do not fear violence, but neither do I fear our government if I happen to end up doing something stupid. Our justice system is for the people, not the other way around.

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  • You can find my discussions of the general issue raised here in two places–an old JPE article of mine:

    “Why Not Hang Them All: The Virtues of Inefficient Punishment,” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 107, no. 6 1999 pp. S259-269.

    and the chapter on crime in my _Law’s Order_, conveniently webbed at:

    The relevant passage starts with the subhead “Why Not Hang Them All?”

    • Your main argument is rent-seeking, and that has much less force against flogging than fines or slavery. You’d really claim we don’t want flogging because we are afraid they’ll be too much flogging? Seems we could monitor that overall level pretty well.

      • Michael Kirkland

        One might imagine that we could, but that does not seem to be the case. How many politicians run on a platform of rational analysis of corrections versus simplistic “tough on crime” posturing?

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  • Steve

    not to mix topics, but who will care for the lashee after the lashings? could we prove our med is better than in other countries by requiring lashing and then providing the lashee with world class health care?