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Heroes of Progress, Pt. 38: Cesare Beccaria

Blog Post | Human Freedom

Heroes of Progress, Pt. 38: Cesare Beccaria

Introducing the Enlightenment thinker known as the father of modern criminal justice, Cesare Beccaria.

Today marks the 38th installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the well-being of humanity. You can find the 37th part of this series here.

This week, our hero is the 18th century Italian criminologist Cesare Beccaria. Beccaria was the first modern writer to advocate for the abolition of capital punishment and the end of cruel torturous punishments. Beccaria believed that penalties for crimes should be proportional to the severity of the offense and that criminals should not be punished until proven guilty in a court of law. Many consider Beccaria to be the father of criminal justice. Thanks to his work, many nations were inspired to enact extensive legislative reforms to ensure due process, and the end of torture and capital punishment.

Cesare Beccaria was born March 15, 1738 in Milan, Italy. His father was an aristocrat on a moderate income. At the age of eight, Beccaria was sent to a Jesuit boarding school in Parma. Beccaria excelled in mathematics, although his early student days gave little indication of his intellectual brilliance. As a child, Beccaria was prone to a volatile temperament, which caused periods of immense enthusiasm, followed by periods of depression and inactivity – a trait that would be with him for the rest of his life.

In 1754, Beccaria enrolled in Pavia University and by 1758, he received his law degree. In his mid-twenties, Beccaria became friends with Pietro and Alessandro Verri – two brothers and writers from the Milanese aristocracy. Together, the young men formed a literary society named “The Academy of Fists.” The playfully-named group dedicated itself to the promotion of economic, political and administrative reforms. The society read many of the French and British Enlightenment thinkers and together they set up their own magazine named Il Caffè. The magazine was modeled on the English Spectator and sought to introduce Italians to Enlightenment ideas.

In 1763, inspired by his involvement in The Academy of Fists, Beccaria turned his attention to the study of criminal law. Although he had no prior experience working on criminal justice, in 1764 Beccaria published his most influential essay, titled On Crimes and Punishments.

The short essay heavily critiqued the use of torture, the arbitrary discretionary power of judges, the lack of consistency and equality of sentencing, and the use capital punishment. Beccaria argued that sentences should be scaled to the severity of an offense, and should only be severe enough to ensure security and order. He wrote that anything beyond that would be tyranny. The goal of Beccaria’s essay was to critique the existing legal system that he felt was unclear and imprecise, and largely based on a mixture of Roman law and local customs, rather than rationality. Beccaria believed that the opacity of the laws was a deliberate way for the government to control the populace.

Beccaria’s essay argued that the effectiveness of criminal justice depends mostly on the certainty of punishment, rather than its severity. Unlike many works before it, Beccaria’s publication also advocated the principle that no one should be sentenced until proven guilty in a court of law.

Beccaria’s essay became a success and it was quickly translated into French, English, Dutch, German and Spanish. Initially, out of fear of government backlash, Beccaria chose to publish the essay anonymously. But, after its rapid success, Beccaria soon republished it and credited himself as the author. Soon after its publication, Catherine the Great of Russia publicly endorsed Beccaria’s ideas, and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams noted their importance in guiding the Founding Fathers, and influencing the Bill of Rights and the American Constitution. Legislative reforms in Sweden, Russia and the Habsburg Empire were heavily influenced by Beccaria’s treatise, and the essay exerted enormous influence on criminal law reforms across other parts of the European continent.

In the late 1760s, Beccaria turned his attention to the study of economics, though none of his later works achieved the same success as On Crimes and Punishments. In 1768, he accepted the chair in public economy and commerce at the Palatine School in Milan. Two years later, Beccaria was appointed to the Supreme Economic Council of Milan. While in office, Beccaria largely focused on the issues of public education and labor policy. One of Beccaria’s later reports also played an important role in influencing France’s subsequent adoption of the metric system.

Beccaria’s later life was tarnished by family difficulties and health problems. Property disputes between his siblings resulted in litigation, which distracted him for many years. He cut short his visit to Paris in 1766 due to homesickness and never ventured abroad again.  Over many years, a myth grew that Beccaria’s literary silence was due to his expulsion from the Milanese government. In actuality, his silence was caused by periodic bouts of depression. Although Beccaria was initially enthusiastic about the French Revolution, he spent his last few months saddened by the violence of the “Reign of Terror.” He died on November 28, 1794 in his birthplace of Milan, Italy.

Beccaria’s work fundamentally changed the criminal justice systems in many countries for the better. As the first modern writer to have advocated for the abolition of capital punishment, he can be regarded as the founder of the anti-capital punishment movement that still exist in many countries today. Thanks to Beccaria, cruel and unusual punishments are no longer the norm in much of the world. As a result of his advocacy, a fathomless amount of human suffering and injustice has been avoided. For these reasons, Cesare Beccaria is our 38th Hero of Progress.

Blog Post | Violence

Despite Federal Return Capital Punishment Is Dying Out

The move to reinstate capital punishment federally in the United States represents a reversal after more than a decade-long hiatus in the federal use of capital punishment.

The U.S. federal government recently ordered the death penalty to be reinstated for the first time in sixteen years and has scheduled the execution of five death row inmates. This policy change goes against the widespread trend toward fewer executions.

Twenty-one U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, have totally abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Seven of those states abolished the practice in my lifetime. New Hampshire just officially abolished it in 2019.

In many U.S. states where executions are still legal, none have been carried out for years and the law is mainly symbolic. Kansas, for example, has not executed any prisoners in over forty years. The U.S. federal government, similarly, never officially abolished the death penalty but has had a moratorium on the practice since 2004 – a moratorium ended by the new policy ordered by Attorney General William Barr.

Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has chronicled the decline of capital punishment in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. He estimated that the execution rate in the United States has been falling for four centuries, from nearly 3.5 executions per 100,000 people in the 17th century. His graph is pictured below.

Trends against capital punishment can also be observed abroad as well. Consider Europe. Prior to the Enlightenment, European nations once used the death penalty for a vast number of crimes. England, for example, had 222 capital offenses in its legal system well into the 18th century. Until the early 19th century, it deemed many minor crimes, such as stealing anything worth more than four dollars in today’s currency, to be worthy of execution. As the values of the Enlightenment spread, that number of capital offenses shrunk to four by the middle of the 19th century. Today, in Europe, capital punishment remains legal only in Belarus and Russia.

This year, Malaysia abolished mandatory capital punishment. Last year, Burkina Faso abolished the death penalty in its new penal code. Moreover, Gambia and Malaysia declared an official moratorium on executions. Last year, Amnesty International noted, at least 690 executions took place in 20 countries. That number was 31 percent lower than in 2017. The vast majority of recorded executions happen in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Iraq.

Then there are China and North Korea. The two communist countries execute more people than other countries and may well execute more people individually than the rest of the world combined. Unfortunately, there are no reliable statistics for those secretive societies.

The move to reinstate capital punishment federally in the United States represents a reversal after more than a decade-long hiatus in the federal use of capital punishment. But opponents of the practice can take heart in the successful abolition of the death penalty in an increasing number of U.S. states and countries around the world.

This post also appeared in Cato At Liberty.

Blog Post | Violence

Is Moral Progress Real or Just a Myth?

The better things get, the more we will be on the lookout for things to worry about.

Slavery was once ubiquitous throughout the world. Today, it is illegal everywhere. Is that a sign of moral progress or a temporary accomplishment that’s bound not to last? Put differently, are human beings capable of evolving toward higher states of ethical behaviour, or must slavery, along with other forgotten cruelties, inevitably reappear? Some backsliding is surely to occur, but history suggests that a full return to the savage days of yore is highly unlikely.

Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilisation that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. The early laws of the Babylonians, who overran Sumer in 18th century BC, appear to have taken ownership of one person by another for granted. Thus, the Code of Hammurabi states, “If a slave say to his master, ‘You are not my master,’ if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear.” Over the succeeding 4,000 years, chattel slavery would be practised, at one point or another, by every civilisation.

Prior to the Age of Steam, humanity depended on energy produced primarily by people and animals. An extra pair of field hands was always welcome and conquered people, if they escaped execution, were frequently put to work as slaves. There were no internment camps to hold captive populations and prisons were mere short-term holding cells, where the accused awaited trial, punishment and execution. In any case, low agricultural productivity and the concomitant food shortages meant that feeding a captured, but idle population was impractical.

Slavery existed in ancient Egypt, India, Greece, China, Rome and pre-Columbian America. The Arab slave trade took off during the Muslim conquests of the Middle Ages. The word “slave” probably derives from Late Latin word sclavus, which in turn denotes the Slavic peoples of Central and Eastern Europe who were enslaved by the Ottoman Turks.

The number of countries where slavery is legal has plummeted in the last two centuries

Slavery in the Caribbean and the south-eastern United States, which was practised between the 16th and 19th centuries AD, saw millions of Africans brought to the New World for that very purpose. Yet slavery amongst African tribes, especially in West Africa, was also common and persisted until very recently. In fact, Mauritania became the last country to outlaw slavery in 1981 and, due to its persistence, criminalise the practice of enslavement in 2007.

As chattel slavery disappeared, our definition of slavery has expanded to include such practices as forced labour, sexual slavery and debt bondage. This is a common psychological behaviour called “prevalence-induced concept change.” As Harvard University psychologists David Levari and Daniel Gilbert found, people who were asked to identify “blue dots” tended to call purple dots “blue” as blue dots become rarer. Similarly, people who were asked to identify threatening faces tended to describe faces as threatening as threatening faces become rarer.

“From low-level perception of colour to higher-level judgments of ethics,” the two psychologists wrote, “there is a robust tendency for perceptual and judgmental standards to ‘creep’ when they ought not to.” Human psychology, then, partly explains the persistent allure of pessimism. As bad things become rarer, the human brain makes the definition of “bad” more encompassing.

This interplay between human nature and ethical behaviour strikes at the core of what we mean by progress. Some people, like the British philosopher John Gray, deny the possibility of moral progress. As he wrote, “I define progress … as any kind of advance that’s cumulative, so that what’s achieved at one period is the basis for later achievement that then, over time, becomes more and more irreversible. In science and technology, progress isn’t a myth. However, the myth is that the progress achieved in science and technology can occur in ethics, politics, or, more simply, civilisation.”

But Gray’s pessimism is difficult to reconcile with the disappearance of once common practices, such as human sacrifice and cannibalism. Human sacrifice has been looked down upon since the Roman times. Today, no rational being believes sacrificing virgins can bring about better harvests. Better fertilisation and pest control are much safer bets for aspiring farmers.

Hannibal Lecter notwithstanding, cannibalism has been extremely rare for centuries. Even during the communist famines in China and the Soviet Union, very few people resorted to eating their fellow human beings, preferring starvation instead. It is unlikely that even a potential collapse of global food supply would reverse the trend away from eating human flesh.

A civilisational collapse could, of course, resurrect some abhorrent practices. But some of the knowledge and internalised ethical precepts that humanity has so painstakingly accumulated over millennia will surely remain, thus moderating peoples’ behaviour even in the direst of times. In the meantime, we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that progress is “self-cloaking.” The better things get, the more we will be on the lookout for things to worry about.

This first appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Overall Mortality

Capital Punishment Has Declined Dramatically

The death penalty used to be the norm for most countries around the world, today just a handful of authoritarian countries account for almost all state executions.

An image of a person being prepared to be executed by the guillotine.

According to press reports, Saudi Arabian prosecutors will be seeking the death penalty for five of the 11 suspects who stand accused of killing The Washington Post contributing journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of last year. Amnesty International notes that Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most prolific executioners. Of the 993 reported executions that took place in 2017, the Gulf state was responsible for 146 of them – just under 15 per cent of the global total for the year.

The grisly murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi notwithstanding, the use of the death penalty has been falling since the second half of the 19th century and relatively few countries partake in the practice today. Let’s have a brief look at the history of the death penalty and the reasons for its declining use.

Since time immemorial, people have suffered capital punishment for a plethora of crimes – real and imagined. The Bible, for example, commands the death penalty for murder, kidnapping, attacking or cursing one’s parents, sacrificing one’s child to Moloch, willful negligence, sorcery, being a medium or spiritist, breaking the Sabbath, sacrificing to idol gods, blaspheming against God, false prophecy, giving false testimony in a capital case, adultery, incest, rape of a betrothed or married woman, homosexuality, bestiality, prostitution, pretending to be a virgin, and so on and so on.

As late as the 18th century, the British legal system included no fewer than 222 capital crimes. The Black Act of 1723 alone created 50 capital offences for such crimes as shoplifting and stealing of sheep, cattle and horses. According to Professor John H. Langbein from Yale University, before the death penalty for theft was abolished in 1832, “English law was notorious for prescribing the death penalty for a vast range of offenses as slight as the theft of goods valued at twelve pence.” (the equivalent of about $4 today).

Types of executions included beheading, burning, crushing, boiling to death, impalement, hanging, being broken on the wheel, sawing and crucifixion. Drawing and quartering was usually reserved for regicides such as François Ravaillac, who assassinated the French King Henry IV in 1610. As the British historian Alistair Horne noted, before being disemboweled and torn apart by four horses, Ravaillac “was scalded with burning Sulphur, molten lead and boiling oil and resin, his flesh then being torn by pincers.”

It’s no coincidence that the guillotine was introduced during the French Revolution to make death relatively quick and painless. The thinkers whose writings inspired the revolt favoured a more proportionate, rational and humane justice system. Voltaire, for instance, opposed punishment for violations of religious dogma. Montesquieu wanted punishment to fit the crime and opposed the use of torture. Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham opposed capital punishment outright, reasoning that life behind bars was a greater deterrent to heinous crimes than summary execution.

As the ideas of the Enlightenment spread, punishment became less gruesome and the number of capital offences dwindled. In the United Kingdom alone, the number of capital offences fell from 222 to four in the first half of the 19th century. Society did not suddenly become more chaotic as a result. On the contrary, as Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker showed in his 2012 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, violence decreased. As such, reform-minded governments felt emboldened to go further and abolish the death penalty altogether.

Venezuela led the way with the abolition of capital punishment in 1863. Other states followed, though it took another century, before the abolitionist movement really took off in the 1960s. In 2017, Amnesty International noted that “106 countries (a majority of the world’s states) had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes and 142 countries (more than two-thirds) had abolished the death penalty in law or practice.”

That year, only 23 countries are known to have carried out the death penalty. Of the reported 993 executions, 84 per cent took place in just four countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan. However, the above number does not include China, which is likely to have executed more people than all the other countries put together. According to Amnesty International, “the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China is unknown as this data is classified as a state secret; the global figure … excludes the thousands of executions believed to have been carried out in China.”

Looking on the bright side, the death penalty is now a relative rarity, concentrated for the most part in a handful of authoritarian countries. On the other hand, a decline in total state executions is unlikely to happen until we see fundamental political reform in some of the world’s most illiberal countries.

This first appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Wealth & Poverty

What Millennials Should Know About the Soviet Union

Let’s quickly walk through some of the history that those who idealize communism ought to consider.

The admiration of young people for communist leaders is slightly down from last year, according to the annual report on U.S. attitudes toward socialism, which was released by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Joseph Stalin saw the greatest fall in popularity, from 12 percent of millennials reporting a favorable impression of him down to 6 percent. However, a horrifying 23 percent of Americans between ages 21 and 29 believe that Stalin was a “hero.” Also, 32 percent of millennials hold a favorable view of Karl Marx, slightly down from 34 percent last year.

This drop in popularity is comforting, but only slightly. Chances are you have friends who still idealize socialism, communism, and the men who enforced these ideologies with an iron hand. But what they probably don’t realize is the awful truth about these utopian visions of a better world. Let’s quickly walk through some of the history they ought to consider.

Sitting in the reading room of the British Museum, Marx theorized that society was a struggle between wage laborers and the owners of the means of production, and that the latter were “class enemies.” He feared that factory owners were exploiting factory workers, farm owners were exploiting day laborers, and so on. Many university students today share his fear of exploitation, rail against “the one percent” and the “privileged,” and desire a class-free society.

“I wonder what Karl Marx would have made of [the factory workers I met],” said Leslie T. Chang in her TED talk, The Voices of China’s Workers. She continued: “His view of the world persists, [as does] our tendency to see the workers as faceless masses, to imagine that we can know what they’re really thinking… Certainly, the factory conditions are really tough, and it’s nothing you or I would want to do, but from their perspective, where they’re coming from is much worse.”

Chang notes that since China’s economic liberalization, factory work has allowed hundreds of millions of Chinese workers to escape rural poverty to become middle class, and that most factory workers go on to start their own small businesses. They work in factories willingly because the alternative is grinding rural poverty.

Marx and his followers, sadly, did not realize that capitalism-driven industrialization ultimately creates widespread prosperity, and they ended up hurting the very workers they aimed to help. Thanks in part to the factories that Marx detested, the United Kingdom’s average income was three times higher when he died than when he was born.

After communists seized power in Russia a century ago, in the name of equality, anyone who was too well-off had to be identified and punished. Those with specialized knowledge, such as engineers, or those who had “non-labor income” were suspect.

In the Russian countryside, any farmer who produced enough food to sell as surplus, as opposed to any farmer who produced only enough for his family, was labeled a “kulak”—a class enemy, engaged in the alleged crime of enrichment through trade. Any farmer who hired help, who owned a creamery or other machine, or who rented out agricultural equipment, was also labeled a “kulak.” The kulaks’ poorer neighbors were encouraged to take away their homes and steel their possessions.

Comforting his wife, who was troubled that her acquaintance Marusia’s family had been imprisoned as kulaks, a devout communist said the following:

You see, they can’t make a revolution with white gloves. Annihilating the kulaks is a bloody and difficult process, but it has to be done. Marusia’s tragedy isn’t as simple as it seems to you. What was her husband sent to the camps for? It is hard to believe that he wasn’t guilty of anything at all. You don’t end up in the camps for nothing.

The man quoted above was eventually arrested and shot. No specific charges were ever given. His wife was sent to the labor camps shortly thereafter.

That anecdote is representative of the madness of that era. Millions of “class enemies,” political dissenters, and other unfortunate victims were sent to work in the Gulag, the forced-labor-camp system created under Lenin and greatly expanded under Stalin. Anyone who tried to escape was summarily executed. Those close to Stalin were not exempt, and more than a third of leading camp executioners ended up as prisoners in the camps themselves.

In some camps, prisoners mined radioactive material without adequate protection and died of radiation poisoning. In others, frostbitten prisoners chopped timber and dragged the logs back to camp barefoot in the winter. In others still, prisoners labored to produce food on collective farms while they themselves were allowed only meager rations. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “It is estimated that the combination of very long working hours, harsh climatic and other working conditions, inadequate food, and summary executions killed off at least 10 percent of the Gulag’s total prisoner population each year.”

The slave labor of the camps helped sustain the ruling class of the allegedly classless Soviet regime as the economy collapsed. Agricultural productivity plummeted following the removal of the kulaks and the collectivization of the farms. As millions starved to death, some resorting to cannibalism to survive, Stalin forbade use of the words famine, hunger, or starvation. Even doctors dared not diagnose a starving patient’s condition accurately. Stalin blamed the clear failures of his centrally planned system on deliberate sabotage and undermining of the economy by disloyal elements. He claimed that hidden enemies were everywhere and used that as an excuse to send more and more people to death and to the labor camps.

In sum, to bring about equality, the communist system imprisoned or killed those who had attained expertise and achieved success—whether in farming or in a technical occupation such as engineering. They initially redistributed wealth, but many of the peasants who at first benefited from robbing the kulaks ended up starving to death. By imprisoning or murdering many of the most productive people, while simultaneously eliminating market incentives for productivity by collectivizing industries and banning competition, communists brought about far deeper and more widespread poverty than under capitalism. (Capitalism, in fact, has helped bring world poverty to an all-time low.)

Research suggests that the number of unnatural deaths wrought by communism may be upward of eighty million—a number so high that the violence of Tsarist Russia, the Spanish Inquisition, and “Bloody” Mary’s English counterreformation pale in comparison. Today, seven out of ten Americans underestimate the number of lives that communism extinguished. Perhaps that explains part of communism’s continued appeal. But if your friends could travel back in time to the Stalin era, they would see that literal class warfare benefits no one except opportunistic tyrants like Stalin.

And they would see that he was no hero.

A version of this first appeared in the Intercollegiate Review.