Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Death-Penalty Debate Represents a Market Failure

by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers


June 12, 2012

The debate over the death penalty offers a vivid illustration of a tragic flaw in the market of ideas: Strong beliefs attract a lot more attention, and can have a lot more influence, than the truth.

In recent years, five U.S. states have eliminated capital punishment, and several others are currently reconsidering their policies. Advocates of the death penalty insist the moves will lead to more murders. They point to a number of studies conducted over the past couple of decades that purport to find clear evidence supporting their view. Experts happily serve up unequivocal congressional testimony, and feed their analyses to lobby groups.

The reality, unsatisfying and inconvenient as it may be, is that we simply don’t know how capital punishment affects the homicide rate. That’s the conclusion of the National Academy of Sciences, which typically plays the role of impartial arbiter in these social-science debates. Their expert panel recently concluded that existing research “is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates,” and that such studies “should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment.”


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