by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
In a fascinating discussion at nationalreview.com, Kevin Williamson reminds us that, “The duty to punish is distinct from the desire to punish,” and that the latter can lead us badly astray:
The desire to punish distorts policy-making decisions across the political spectrum…. A horrific example of this can be found in our debate over crime. We have the occasional mass-shooting spectacular, which always dominate the headlines for a day or two but which are, in the context of American crime, statistically insignificant. We also have a great deal of murder committed by ordinary criminals going about ordinary criminal business. The National Rifle Association has nothing to do with either of those, but one of our major political tendencies has a very strong desire to punish the NRA for being an effective advocate of a very popular cause. The desire to punish can be very selective: Our mass shooters are the product of failed mental-health practices (members of which political party do you imagine dominate the ranks of public mental-health facilities?), failed schools (members of which party dominate the public schools?), failed families (members of which party have spent 25 years pooh-poohing “family values” as a blend of bigotry and nostalgia?) and, of course, of their own personal demons. There is a long list of people and institutions that bear some of the blame, but the desire to punish is especially intense when it comes to people who are not like us. So when a product of a fractured family and a single-mother household slips through a social safety net staffed by unionized Democratic voters, the obvious party to blame is the party that has nothing whatsoever to do with the situation….
Despite some important Republican and conservative leadership on the issue, our national stance on criminal justice is still far more oriented to the punitive than the effective. The desire to punish Christians and social conservatives for their views on homosexuality and gay marriage is far more powerful than the desire to facilitate gay Americans’ ability to organize their own lives as they see fit. In the schools, we punish little boys for being little boys, and afterwards we punish adult men for “toxic masculinity.” We want to punish insurance companies and drug manufacturers for the crime of providing insurance and drugs, and to punish financial firms for making money from the provision of services that their clients desire. We won’t punish people who took out irresponsible mortgages (including many who committed fraud to do so) but we’ll sure as hell punish banks for lending those people money to buy houses, which has been redefined as an act of predation. We’ll punish fraternities for the crimes of white privilege and male privilege, even if we have to invent fictitious rapes to do it….
Strange that we who by accident of birth are among the 0.3 percent most fortunate of all the human beings who have ever lived should not take a more generous view of other accidents of birth. Strange that we who are so fortunate should be so taken with finding someone – anyone – to blame…. It is a dangerous thing, playing God’s game. But if we must — and sometimes we must — we might at the very least make an effort to try to get it right.