The morality of government

The right to bear arms

The morality of war


Who owns land?


The right to independence

American independence

Basque independence

Northern Ireland

Countries by population

The free market


Crime and punishment

The health industry


Crime and punishment

No-one has ever found a really good way of responding to crime, and neither have I. However, here are some thoughts on the subject.


Imprisoning people is a remarkably poor way of responding to crime. Consider:

  • It does the victims of crime no good.
  • It costs a lot of money — according to the BBC, keeping one person in a British prison costs “a minimum of £24,000 a year” — and this penalizes innocent people (taxpayers).
  • Far from rehabilitating criminals, it tends to turn them into worse criminals.
  • Imprisoning people for non-violent crimes is in general a disproportionate and immoral punishment.

The only things to be said for it are that it does act as a deterrent, and it does prevent criminals from committing more crimes. But this works only if they're kept in solitary confinement for life. Otherwise they can and do commit crimes against other prisoners while they're inside, and further crimes when they're let out.

In my opinion, prison should be used (if at all) only for dangerous, violent criminals, who should be kept in solitary confinement for life, out of contact with other prisoners. Such prisoners should have no property: their assets should be confiscated and sold to compensate their victims or to pay part of the cost of keeping them.

For other criminals, see the various alternatives below.


A fine is a much better punishment in several ways:

  • It penalizes the criminal without imposing costs on anyone else.
  • It can be used (and should be used) to compensate the victim.
  • It's an appropriate and proportionate punishment for non-violent crimes.
  • If the supposed criminal later turns out to be innocent, it can be repaid with interest.

However, it also has some disadvantages:

  • A fine seems an inadequate response to violent crimes.
  • Rich criminals can laugh at fines.
  • Poor criminals may be unable to pay.
  • It can give people a financial incentive to frame other people for crimes they didn't commit.

A novel economic punishment

If someone commits theft without violence, it's not really appropriate to use force on him, as he's not a user of force. But he's clearly not a respecter of property.

Therefore, it would seem appropriate for the law to declare that he's no longer legally entitled to own property; unless and until he repays what he's stolen, with interest, in which case he can be regarded as rehabilitated.

Not being entitled to own property would, I think, be painful for anyone, rich or poor, except for people so poor that they already own little or nothing. And I don't think many people want to live forever in that state.

Therefore, this seems a moral, cheap, and possibly effective way of responding to property crimes, though of course I don't know exactly how it would work out in practice.


Execution has been well tried over the course of history, and it's not noticeably more effective than prison in reducing the overall crime rate. However, it does have some advantages:

  • It's an appropriate and proportionate response to murder.
  • Unlike any other treatment, it's 100% effective in preventing a criminal from committing any further crimes.
  • It costs almost nothing.

It also has some drawbacks:

  • If it turns out to have been a mistake, you can't correct it later; and any society that executes people will undoubtedly execute some innocent people. At one time, I regarded this as a fatal drawback. Then it occurred to me that large numbers of innocent people are killed every week in road accidents, but no-one campaigns for the abolition of the motor car. Apparently the death of innocent people isn't as important as I thought.
  • It does the victim of the original crime no good. However, if the victim is dead, nothing can do him any good.
  • To legalize killing in particular cases may to some extent legitimize killing in general, and thereby encourage murder. This sounds plausible in theory, and there may be some truth in it. However, in practice, as long as we're constantly bombarded with films and video games that glorify violence and killing, I doubt that an occasional execution conducted quietly will make any significant difference.

I'm not really keen on execution, but I'm a bit surprised that it's out of fashion in most developed countries, as it seems a better solution than prison for the most dangerous criminals. As already noted, I have a low opinion of prison as a solution to anything.

If execution is used, and it turns out that an innocent person has been executed, I believe the law should require heavy compensation to be paid to the next of kin. This does the executed person no good, but it gives the government a financial incentive to minimize the number of wrongful executions.

Footnotes: Death Row and Sane enough to execute?.


Various countries have been experimenting with electronic tags that can be attached irremovably to a criminal, keeping track of his exact position and raising an alarm at a monitoring station if he goes somewhere he's not supposed to go. These are used, for instance, to confine criminals to their homes at night, or to prevent them from entering certain areas. If they don't respect their bounds, they can go to prison instead.

These tags are much cheaper than prison, but must be less effective both as a deterrent and as a way of preventing further crimes.

In future, electronic monitoring of convicted criminals will surely become more sophisticated, more effective, and more common. Perhaps the tag will come to contain its own enforcement, by disabling the criminal in some way if he tries to commit a crime. In this case, prisons may become unnecessary.

Routine surveillance

Monitoring of criminals will be combined with increased surveillance of the general public. Video cameras are already present in a number of public places to record any crimes that may be committed there. In future, there will be more cameras in more places, and at some stage they'll be linked to computers capable of alerting human monitors immediately if anything seems to require attention. It's reasonable to expect that computers will become capable of recognizing specific kinds of criminal behaviour, and specific people with criminal records (this becomes easy if they're tagged).

The message to anyone doing anything naughty in a public place will be, “Smile, you're on Candid Camera.”

Increasing numbers of people will choose to install surveillance equipment in their own homes as well, to combat burglary.


If someone offends against society by committing a crime, and he can't afford to pay adequate compensation, it seems quite reasonable for his society to confiscate whatever assets he has, and then throw him out. This is less drastic than execution and should normally be much cheaper than imprisonment. However, in the modern world it has some drawbacks:

  • These days, the world is fully populated, and if you want to exile a criminal you have to find some other country that's willing to accept him. (However, if he's a foreigner, this drawback disappears, because presumably his home country is obliged to accept him.)
  • Now that most people go abroad periodically for business or pleasure, exiling a criminal may not be as good a solution as it once seemed.
  • Now that international travel is cheap, exiles can quite easily change their names and come back again — though this drawback may disappear in the foreseeable future. Efficient routine surveillance backed by computer recognition will eventually be able to detect anyone present in a country whose characteristics have previously been recorded.

Exile may still be worth considering in some cases, especially for foreign criminals.


The idea of re-educating criminals into useful and law-abiding members of society seems very attractive. But I put it at the bottom of this page because:

  • Unless it works fairly reliably, it's not a useful alternative to other methods of dealing with crime.
  • If it works reliably, it could reasonably be described as brainwashing.

Brainwashing — changing someone's mentality without his consent — effectively extinguishes the personality that previously existed, and seems to me more or less equivalent to execution. Like execution, it's not reversible: I can't imagine it's even theoretically possible to restore the mind to the state it was in before.

Thus, this apparently-attractive option boils down to a more sophisticated, more expensive, and less reliable form of execution.