The question of capital punishment, by and large, is one I prefer to sidestep: while I have a long (and growing) list of people whose demise I believe would greatly enhance life as I know it, I am not keen on having the State act as my agent in arranging for same. (If you think this boils down to "If you had any guts, you'd kill them yourself," you might be right.) When the pollsters ask about it, and they always do, I list myself as a half-hearted supporter at best.

Then there's Lindsay Beyerstein, who doesn't support it at all. When I first read this piece, I took it as a reduction ad absurdum, liberally (so to speak) spiced with moral equivalence. But by the third reading, it had ceased to be as simple as all that.

The pitch: Ken Lay is, we are told, already dead. However, death-penalty supporters, Beyerstein says, should have considered Lay and his ilk as candidates for state-sponsored snuffing:

I don't support the death penalty, but if I did, Kenny Boy would have been first in line. Ken Lay did far more harm than the average murderer, or even the average terrorist. He left thousands of people destitute, including workers whose pensions evaporated and students whose college savings disappeared. How many people will die in poverty because of Lay? How many students lost the opportunity to go to college because of the Enron swindle? How many lives were shortened because the innocent employees of Enron and Arthur Andersen lost their jobs and health benefits?

On the larger scale, Lay's crimes also undermined trust in the stock market. His influence peddling damaged the integrity of American government. Enron money helped the Republicans take the White House. It's not for nothing that Kenny Boy got to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Let's not forget that Enron inflicted deliberate power outages in order to extort money from the energy consumers of California. Did anyone die as a result? If you kill someone in the process of holding up a liquor store in a death-penalty state, you're liable to be executed for your crime, even if you didn't intend to kill the victim.

If the severity of the punishment is supposed to be proportionate to the severity of the crime, Ken Lay did enough harm for capital sentence, several times over.

Factoring out some minor bits of hyperbole — rather a lot of money from rather a lot of sources helped the Republicans take the White House — this is a fairly solid argument, unless you're persuaded that someone has to bleed on the street for "severity" to come into play, which I am not. It seems pretty clear that Lay's machinations caused more widespread devastation than would the average guy holding up a liquor store, even if no one actually died as a result.

Of course, Lay wasn't the only evildoer at the Big E, and Beyerstein acknowledges such:

In practice, applying the concept of felony murder wouldn't work for massive white collar crime because there's too much diffusion of responsibility. Unless the state were prepared to execute a very large number of equally complicit people, it would be unfair to single Ken Lay out for death because a pedestrian got run over during an illegal power outage, or because a patient on a respirator died when the power went off during one of Enron's extortion attempts.

And I wonder: the deterrent effect of the death penalty is generally debatable, except as regards the person who gets it, who may be safely said to be deterred (and, shortly thereafter, interred) on a permanent basis. Would corporate thugs be more easily deterred than street thugs?

Maybe the answer to corporate crime is a corporate death penalty: the next Enron, rather than being allowed to escape through the bankrupcty court, would be summarily executed by the revocation of its charter, its assets seized and devoted to restitution, its executives barred from any executive suites thenceforth. This, of course, won't happen — most of the stockholders of BaalCo (or whatever) had no idea what the directors and officers were doing, and they'd end up paying most of the price — but what's the alternative?

Had I my druthers, your Ken Lays and your Bernie Ebbers and such would be working down at the car wash at $5.15 an hour. If nothing else, we'd get an increase in the minimum wage in a matter of weeks.

The Vent

  8 July 2006

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