Blog RSS

The Pin Factory Blog

"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Can capital punishment ever be justified?

Written by Rachel Moran | Sunday 18 September 2011

Next Wednesday at four o'clock London time, a man will be executed in the state of Georgia. Capital punishment is an extremely divisive issue that separates even those who represent similar ideological positions on the political spectrum. One is allowed to be undecided, a common opinion being that you wouldn't know where you truly stand until the issue directly affects you in someway. Yet regardless of positioning the issue of capital punishment must rest on a crucial crux- overwhelming evidence that the accused is guilty.

The man in Georgia facing almost certain execution cannot be held in this category, or at least there exists convincing evidence that could potentially call for a revised sentence. Troy Davis has been on death row for nearly 20 years following his conviction in 1989. He was accused and found guilty of killing local police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. However, in the years following Mr Davis' conviction seven of the nine non-police witnesses have recanted their testimonies, many even alleging that they were subject to police coercion and intimidation techniques during the trial. In addition to this no physical evidence exists that links Davis to the crime.

Amnesty International have taken up the cause for Davis' clemency. Whilst they do not advocate a definite position concerning Davis' guilt they maintain an argument that is there "is room for doubt, there's no room for execution." This is surely something that both the pro- and anti- capital punishment camps can agree on (or at least concede to.)

Considering the enormous consequences of the margin for error in death row cases it seems, at least to me, that granting the state the power to kill individuals is a hugely questionable act, and it is perhaps this point that lies at the heart of my own personal questioning of the validity of capital punishment. Rothbard provides an answer to this concern proposing that capital punishment be initiated only at the victims request, therefore removing the state's overwhelming influence and putting justice in the hands of those that require it. But how do we ask the wishes of the dead? Rothbard proposes that we all, anticipating our potential murders, instruct others of our wishes in the style of a will. He suggests that,

The deceased can instruct heirs, courts, and any other interested parties on how he would wish a murderer of his to be treated. In that case, pacifists, liberal intellectuals, et al. can leave clauses in their wills instructing law enforcement authorities not to kill, or even not to press charges against a criminal in the event of their murder; and the authorities would be required to obey.

Whilst debating the death penalty requires endless time and a limitless word count, cases like Troy Davis' continually arise addressing our need to come up with a definitive answer to questions surrounding the death penalty. If we are to support it guilt needs to be clear, with no possible alternatives. In addition the death penalty should represent justice being enacted between people, not between the accused and the authorities, as a result, I'd argue that Rothbard might be on to something.

View comments

Who pays the piper?

Written by Rachel Moran | Saturday 10 September 2011

Late last month, without much fanfare, scientific titan CERN released new evidence that could dramatically alter the balance of the global warming debate. Potentially vindicating the Danish physicist Henrik Svensmark, new CERN research from their CLOUD project demonstrates that cosmic rays provide a seed for clouds. As a result tiny changes in the earth's cloud cover could account for the earth's variations in temperature. Such a revelation throws into question whether anthropogenic global warming is actually happening, or whether cosmic rays and the sun are the dominant controllers of the earth's climate.

Such an important discovery should surely be big news. However CERN's Director General has attempted to play down the study and it's potential conclusions in order to avoid "the highly political arena of the climate change debate." So, instead of what should be a debate concerning the causes of global warming we are struck by an entirely different debate, the autonomy of scientists who receive government funding. CERN receives millions of euros in funding from it's member states, the top three being Germany, France and UK, a list which is ever growing as more countries clamour to join the well-respected establishment. However such government funding undermines the very credibility that makes CERN the scientific goliath it claims to be. Nigel Calder makes a similar point, arguing that:

"CERN has joined a long line of lesser institutions obliged to remain politically correct about the man-made global warming hypothesis. It’s OK to enter “the highly political arena of the climate change debate” provided your results endorse man-made warming, but not if they support Svensmark’s heresy that the Sun alters the climate by influencing the cosmic ray influx and cloud formation. The once illustrious CERN laboratory ceases to be a truly scientific institute when its Director General forbids its physicists and visiting experimenters to draw the obvious scientific conclusions from their results."

The scientists behind the CLOUD experiment have been in a battle for over a decade to continue and publish the results of the project due to their state-funded position. Jasper Kirby, a CERN scientist, postulated back in 1998 that the cosmic ray theory would "probably be able to account for somewhere between a half and the whole of the increase in the Earth’s temperature that we have seen in the last century." This admittance of a hypothetical alternative to anthropogenic theories was apparently a step too far for global warming activists who pressured the Western governments that control CERN's funding to suspend the project. It is only after a decade of negotiation that the project was allowed to continue, and even now it's results are being stifled by a need to placate political influences. As a result last week's CLOUD paper perhaps reveals more about the distortion of science by government intervention than it highlights any real scientific breakthrough.

View comments

Organs for sale

Written by Rachel Moran | Wednesday 31 August 2011

organOnce in a while an idea comes along that's so crazy it just might work. A week ago I wrote a blog about the rise in tuition fees and the perceived necessity of a university education. But let's for a second consider that, having looked at all my options, I decide a university degree is the right path for me but I'm still concerned about the costs. Well one academic might just have the solution I'm looking for – I could pay off my debts by selling a kidney.

Whilst the topic of financially incentivising organ donation is a divisive one, with many people concerned with the huge potential for exploitation, selling parts of oneself is not as extreme as you might think. It is, of course, a rarity to hear of someone selling a kidney to buy an iPad. Yet selling plasma, hair and even semen has been the practice of many cash-strapped students in the US and other countries. It's easy to see why paid donation is a popular option; donors give away renewable resources or "spare parts" to a good cause whilst receiving a valuable source of income. Perhaps there is a realistic scope for opening up organ and general bodily donations to a private market.

According to donation statistics, as of January 2011, 6,741 people are waiting for a kidney on the transplant list, a scary figure considering only 2,520 kidney transplants took place in 2010 and over 1,000 will die waiting for an organ to become available. Many people argue that legalising a market in transplant organs will undermine the current altruistic donor programme. Professor John Harris of Manchester University makes a good point, arguing that "being paid doesn't nullify altruism – doctors aren't less caring because they are paid. With the current system, everyone gets paid except for the donor."

Aside from increasing the number of potential living organ donors a legal market would dissuade so called "transplant tourists" who resort to travelling abroad to purchase organs of questionable health on the black market. Potential savings for the NHS are also a considerable factor. In the case of kidney disease particularly, even a substantial pay-out of around £25,000 for a transplanted kidney would pay for itself in eighteen months, due to the expense of dialysis treatment for suffers.

Setting up a private market for organs does run the risk of exploiting those most in need of cash, meaning proposals for a paid system would need to be carefully considered. But, at a time where NHS costs are sky-rocketing and the need for organ and blood donation is increasing, incentivising donation is an absolute necessity. Whilst the altruist in me likes to think I would donate a kidney to someone in dire need of one, the chance to pay off my student loans whilst doing so might just be the deal-maker.

View comments

There's more to life than university

Written by Rachel Moran | Wednesday 24 August 2011


Newspapers at the end of last week were filled with pictures of teenagers jumping in the air. A-Level results day is the one day of the year where Britain's youth throws caution to the wind, remove the shackles of an emotionally repressed British childhood and allow photographers to convince them that such photos won't haunt them in future. This year's news reports seem dominated by images of students "scrambling" for clearing places, having narrowly missed out on the grades required for their firm and insurance offers.

Most, if not all stories heighten the drama by continually referring to the looming prospect of next years (up to) £9,000 tuition fees. Surely the last thing nervous students need is the continual insistence that this year is the last year that the "average" student can afford to go to university.

The effects of the media and student union's false representation of the Browne Review still remain, and may just be the reason why many students accept places that they are not entirely happy with or have little interest in pursuing. Rather than piling the pressure on those who narrowly missed out on places this year, we should be extolling the virtues of the large range of options available to them.

Students opting to take a year out to either re-think their options or to re-take exams are not burdening themselves with "mortage-style debts", but sensibly saving themselves from rushing into a university course that will take nearly £3,500 of their money each year whilst potentially offering them little personal value in return. It must also be remembered that university isn't the only route open to college-leavers: a range of apprenticeships, training schemes and alternative qualifications are available. And, of course, there's always the option of going straight to work.

The positive outcomes of the increase in tuition fees have been, thus far, hidden from those applying to university. Such increases give students greater powers and larger choice, forcing universities to provide courses that are better value for money. And the fact that students are now considering whether university is a good finical decision for them should be seen as positive. Fees are paid back after graduation according to the amount the student is earning. If a university degree will afford them greater earning potential then the increased tuition fees can certainly be justified. If this isn't the case then there are plenty of other options.

The media's advice to those who've missed out of university places should have been along different lines. Taking time to properly assess whether university is the best choice for your future should always be the advice given by teachers and the media. Hopefully, the increase in tuition fees will mean that next year's applicants are fully aware of their options and choose the route that best suits their goals, regardless of the perceived financial costs attached.

View comments

Is now the time for a Castle Law?

Written by Rachel Moran | Sunday 21 August 2011

Two months ago Anna Moore wrote a piece on the "castle doctrine", a legal practice which gives a person the right to defend themselves with potentially deadly force against an attacker on their property. Following last week's rioting, looting and general destruction of property, Castle laws seem a more and more attractive prospect. This might appear to be a reactionary measure to a rare occurrence but it is a measure worth considering.

At a time where home and small business owners face a real threat of violence towards themselves and their property, and when police resources are increasingly stretched beyond their limits, better defined rights of defending personal property would offer peace of mind as well as a definitive deterrent to would-be criminals. Rather than questioning what constitutes "reasonable force" we would be safe in the knowledge that if we were to ever be put in the terrifying situation of facing an intruder the law would offer us the absolute upper hand.

Particularly pertinent is the argument that castle laws provide stronger deterrents to potential perpetrators of crime. Many commentators attempting to explain the motivations of rioters have argued that those involved looted and destroyed property simply because they could and because they believed they would get away with it. As the rioting rumbled on stories emerged of vigilante groups taking to the streets to protect local homes and businesses and these groups seemed effective at ending misbehaviour in certain areas. Without advocating vigilantism it is clear to see that when the perceived costs of crime were raised the looters were deterred.

Senior Police Officers have expressed concern over the government's endorsement of property-owners rights fearing that a change in law towards the Castle doctrine could promote vigilantism. However, in my opinion, the opposite is true. Castle laws recognise that individuals are sovereign over their own property and equip them with the resources to, in extreme circumstances, protect this sovereignty to the extent that they wish. If each man is the "king of his castle", and recognised so by the law, the need for vigilante groups or individuals to purposefully take the law into their own hands is removed. In extreme circumstances, such as last weeks riots, it's easy to see the line blur between individual protection of property and group vigilantism. This isn't a result of the Castle doctrine, but perhaps because of its absence. Individuals would not be pushed into extralegal activity if the law effectively equipped them to protect what's theirs.

View comments

Squaring the circle of sexual harassment

Written by Rachel Moran | Monday 15 August 2011

Actor Jeremy Irons has come under fire following comments he made to the Radio Times lamenting the rise of legal cases involving claims of sexual harassment. He argued that legislation, and the resulting claim culture, has "gone too far" and that most people are "robust" enough to deal with flirtatious forms of mere "communication." Without looking too much at Mr Irons' reputation, and risk being swayed either by his roguish personality or seemingly questionable attitudes towards women, it could, perhaps, be argued that Irons actually has a point.

Sexual harassment legislation has been accused of being both unnecessary and a potential violation of our right to free speech. Instances of sexual harassment, particularly verbal ones, often boil down to individual interpretations of offence, a matter which government cannot legitimately legislate on.

Walter Block in Defending the Undefendable (PDF) sets out the argument that entrepreneurial self interest effectively persuades employers to discourage offensive action of any kind. Employees need to attract both female customers as well as female employees to remain competitive. Providing a safe and comfortable working environment is just good business. Whilst this element of competition does not ensure the absence of sexual harassment, it is a seemingly superior preventative option than blunt governmental intervention.

Further to this, through harassment laws the government suppresses speech and behaviour it deems harmful and potentially offensive opening a Pandora's Box of what is offensive or not. The government cannot assume all women will shrug off the forms of "communication" Irons defends. It therefore assumes that all women could, and potentially should, be offended by any level of suggestive behaviour. By imposing liability upon employers, harassment law incentivises employers to restrict their employees' civil liberties in order to cover their own backs, an infringement that is unlikely to be challenged within hierarchical companies.

Irons' comment that "any woman worth her salt" can deal with a "man putting his hand on (her) bottom" may be a step too far, but his arguments concerning the rise of legal cases involving sexual harassment claims in the workplace can be justified. State involvement in the public interactions of individuals runs a huge risk of infringing upon civil liberties and, at best, can be seen as a poorer method of discouraging offensive behaviour in the workplace. Left to employers' devices, incidents of sexual harassment can be better avoided as they seek to provide the best working conditions to attract the best workers possible.

View comments

The tragedy of drug prohibition

Written by Rachel Moran | Saturday 13 August 2011

The sudden (yet not entirely unexpected) death of singer Amy Winehouse last month adds fuel to the fire of debate regarding the Government's treatment of drugs and drug-taking. The media focus on and wide public knowledge of celebrities indulging in drug use only serves to remind us that anti-drug laws have had little to no moderating effecting on people's behaviour. Away from the seemingly untouchable lives of the rich and famous the criminalisation of drugs appears only to worsen the social realities of drug users and has offered little in the way of practical help.

This failure isn't going unnoticed either. Liberal Democrat Party members are expected to back a motion to legalise cannabis and decriminalise drug use at their party conference in Birmingham next month. The motion, quite rightly, states that there is "increasing evidence that the UK's drug policy is not only ineffective and not cost effective but actually harmful, impacting particularly severely on the poor and marginalised."

Prohibition means that police, rather than medical professionals, are put in charge of dealing with drug users, be they recreational or habitual. As a result users are punished not treated, costing the government an estimated £2.6 billion a year (according to action group Addaction) in "criminal procedural costs" alone, and marking even occasional users with criminal records that damage their employability and consequentially tarnish the UK economy. Whilst drug offences may be seemingly part and parcel of the music industry the social and economical cost to us mere humans is enormous.

Since Amy's death her father, Mitch Winehouse, has met with the Commons Home Affairs Committee to highlight the gaps in addiction services offered by the NHS. While this is an issue that certainly needs addressing it seems the government are unwilling to look at the crux of the escalating problem. Decriminalisation would free the government from the massive economic burden of trying and imprisoning users as well as undermine the culture of crime that the drug trade perpetuates.

So, while some may see Winehouse's death as a wake up call for the Government to pursue a more aggressive tact with drug users and pushers, instead her demise should be seen as another nail in the coffin of the government's drug prohibition policies. Yes, rehabilitation methods need to be greater pursued, but this seems like an uphill battle whilst drug users are still condemned by the Government and society as morally-corrupted criminals.

View comments

Current search

About the Institute

The Adam Smith Institute is the UK’s leading libertarian think tank...

Read more