PolySciFi Blog

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Bring back corporal punishment

While responding to XRLQ's question posed to those who don't think waterboarding is torture (could it be used as punishment? I think so under the right circumstances), I had the following insight - we should bring back corporal punishment.

Here's my rationale.

The primary goals of the penal system are:

In general, incarceration serves all three purposes (and is likely the most practical way to work towards rehabilitation). However, when you incarcerate someone, you remove their potential contribution to society/economy. Thus we frequently impose fines when the expected impact from recidivism is low.

Unfortunately fines provide for some means for deterrence but do little to address the latter two goals. Further, fines are uneven in deterrence as the effect of fines varies with wealth (and its fluidity). This is addressed in some countries by tying fines to income (which isn't wealth, but that's how it's done). I'm not a big fan of this as it inherently violates privacy and the principle of equal treatment before the law (secondary goals to this problem, but important social goals/principles nonetheless).

In comparison, corporal punishment (say a public flogging or caning) still suffers viz a viz incarceration by not directly limiting recidivism opportunities nor directly promoting rehabilitation. But corporal punishment retains the benefit of fines (preserving the potential benefit to society of not taking a productive member out of circulation) while not suffering from the other problems of fines while . In general, 20 lashes is 20 lashes1 so deterence is independent of wealth without resorting to divulging private information or being treated unequally before the law.

Further, I think the kinds of corporal punishment we would consider would have approximately the same level of "tunability" as fines or incarceration so there should theoretically be no drop-off in optimality (e.g., 1,2,3,n lashes as befits the crime). Additionally, there would likely be no need to continuously review the appropriateness of fines in light of rising income and inflation as again 20 lashes is 20 lashes. As an additional benefit corporal punishment does not take money out of the generally more productive private economy and put it to use in the generally less efficient government programs.

Thus, I think under most metrics used for social planning, corporal punishment will be superior to fines. The only place I can see where corporal punishment is inferior to fines is the ease of unduing a punishment if erroneously convicted. However, we can and sometimes do compensate people who were wrongly convicted and incarcerated (you can't get time back but you can be paid for the inconvenience) so that problem can be mitigated. So in general, there would be some details to work out, but I think they could be resolved.

So who else thinks that a good caning would be a better punishment mechanism than fines? Alternately, correct me. Where did my reasoning go astray?

1. While deterence via corporal punishment is largely independent of wealth/income - it would still depend on pain tolerance, but I think the variance in pain tolerance is generally less than the variance in wealth.

2. Other details include assessing appropriateness - how many lashes is really equivalent to a speeding fine- and setting up a punishment mechanism which minimizes the time required to dole out corporal punishment.


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