Silver Lining Part III: Reply to Critics

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"It is an ill wind that blows no good." "There is a silver lining in every cloud." These are precious bits of "folk wisdom" that have come down to us through the ages, based on the experience of thousands of generations of people. Those who reject such everyday lessons reckon without the amalgamation of precious knowledge garnered by the human race. This information can cheer us up: there is plenty of misery in the world; surely, a look on the bright side should not be dismissed out of hand. More important, it is true and undeniable that, even in many horrific occurrences, there is something that can be salvaged. To deny this is to commit error.

In two previous columns I tried to point out positive aspects of otherwise horrendous and unjustified occurrences. In "A Silver Lining in Drug Prohibition," I noted a benefit that emanates from our present illegitimate drug laws: some rapists, murderers, and thieves, who are not caught for these crimes but are instead punished for selling heroin. I focused on the fact that while it was improper to incarcerate anyone for the victimless crime of dealing drugs, still, it is nice that a few real criminals, who would otherwise be floating around perpetrating their misdeeds, are instead behind bars. In "A Silver Lining in Unjust Executions," I defended the position that while several inmates of death row were executed for crimes they did not commit (a very serious violation of libertarian principle), some of them were guilty of other murders for which they were not caught, and thus a certain rough justice could be said to have taken place even in these circumstances.

But note: I did not advocate any such policies. I took on, merely, the role of the commentator. I only recorded the fact that some good could result from these practices.

Today, I wish to deal with some of the many and serious objections that have been sent to me via e-mail concerning these previous two columns, lest misunderstanding and lack of communication continue to plague this series.

A. Reductio ad absurdum

  1. "By your reasoning, it seems to me, there would be a silver lining if we randomly punished 1 out of every 1000 citizens." — Dick from Gulfport

  2. "I’d heard the argument you raised quite a while ago, from a federal prosecuting attorney. I was in a small conference on drug policy. I was arguing for legalization, and this prosecuting attorney was arguing very vehemently about the benefits of our drug laws. The biggest benefit he kept coming back to was just the one you cited as a silver lining.

    "This prosecuting attorney said the people they were putting away for drug crimes were bad people, guilty of murder, robbery, and other serious crimes. My response was, “If they are murderers or robbers, try them for those crimes and put them in jail for their most serious offenses.” His response was that often it is hard to get a conviction, evidence may not be as solid, etc., so it was easier to try them for drug crimes and put them in jail for drugs, even though they were guilty of much worse. In short, he used the same argument you did.

    "I understand your argument, even though I disagree with it, and I can see that you can extend it well beyond the actions of government. Why not make your next column “A Silver Lining in Shark Attacks,” or “A Silver Lining in Lightning Strikes,” or “A Silver Lining in Automobile Fatalities.” After all, it is almost certain that some murderers die in traffic accidents, which eliminates the need to even try them. And because murderers are likely to be bigger risk-takers than the average person, they probably drive more recklessly, and die in traffic accidents more than in proportion to their numbers. By preventing traffic accidents we allow some of these murderers to go on killing." — Randy Holcombe

  3. "… one could argue that some certain percentage of those exterminated by the Nazis were evil people — there are certain numbers of evil people in any given population — murderers, rapists, whatever.  It seems to me that your argument goes that a certain percentage of those wrongfully executed are actually guilty of other capital crimes and this constitutes the “upside” to wrongful execution.  Likewise one could also argue that a certain percentages of jaywalkers are likely guilty some capital offense or other so there might be some merit in executing jaywalkers."  — Doug Carkuff

These three attempts at a reductio ad absurdum are in some sense correct. That is, I could have written about the silver linings of random punishments, shark attacks and executing jaywalkers. I accept these logical implications. There are silver linings in all these cases. Take random punishments as an example. Here is a comment from another reader, germane to that issue:

"There was very little crime during the Japanese occupation of World War II. The reason was that, when a crime was reported, the Japanese would come into a village and ask the headman to turn over the person who committed it. If the headman said he didn’t know, the Japanese would take someone at random and chop his head off. As a result, you could leave money on your table, with the front door wide open, and know it would be safe." — Henry Heffner

Is it unfair to punish randomly? Yes. Is it contrary to libertarianism? Again, yes, and a very vociferous yes. But, is it likely that crime would decrease under such horrific and unlibertarian conditions? That is, does this story of the Japanese occupation ring true? It is difficult to see how this can be denied. Is it a good thing that people can leave money unprotected in their homes? No one could doubt this. Thus, Q.E.D.: there is a silver lining in this very unjustified policy. Do I favor this policy? No, a thousand times no. But I am not thereby precluded from noticing, not applauding, just noticing, some good effects.

Why, then, did I write about drugs and executions of the innocent, when the same principle applies equally to random punishments, executing jaywalkers, shark attacks, lightning strikes, or automobile fatalities? For one thing, none of the latter was in the news, while my chosen topics were. For another, our friends on the left side of the aisle had been using executions of the innocent as a stick with which to beat up on those of us who favor the death penalty, and I wanted to counter them. They had not reckoned with the fact that many of those death row inmates executed for a crime they did not commit were hardly Boy Scouts. To wit, some were likely guilty of other murders for which they were not found guilty. As yet another reader put matters, "I have long (been of the opinion) that just because some one is exonerated of a vile crime he is not thus necessarily a prospect for citizen of the year…" — Steven Smith.

Similarly, with drugs. Lots of do-gooders on the distaff side wring their hands at the unfairness of incarcerating so many minorities for drug crimes. It seemed to me important to note, that is, note, not defend, that many of those captured by the drug laws were guilty of real crimes, and thus our streets were safer as a result.

I care not one whit that Professor Holcombe’s prosecuting attorney "used the same argument (I) did." First of all, he used this argument to justify this practice; I did not. To the extent I "used this argument," it was merely descriptive. Indeed, I took pains to distance myself from the stance of this prosecuting attorney. For me, the very opposite was the case. I condemned the drug laws. I merely noted a benefit of them. He supported them. Am I supposed to be blind to the positive effects of drug laws, just because I oppose them? Secondly, if Hitler maintained that A>B, B>C, therefore A>C, I would not renounce this argument for that reason.

B. Misunderstanding

"Many people say that u2018it is better to let 10 killers go free, than to execute one innocent’. You say it is better to kill the innocent because he probably deserves to die anyway. Look at it another way, it is always bad because in every case the REAL murderer remains u2018at large’ to kill again."

This is a misinterpretation of what I said. I never compared allowing 10 murderers to go free, vs. executing one innocent. I never said it was good to kill an innocent person. I never said that it was proper, even, to execute a murderer for a crime he did not commit. I only said that some denizens of death row, executed for a crime they did not commit, were guilty of other murders; they were not entirely innocent.

Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans. See his Autobiography Archive.

Walter Block Archives


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