Capital Punishment Means Unlimited Government

Electric Chair at Sing Sing Date: ca. 1900. Photo by William M. Vander Weyde. Public Domain.
Electric Chair at Sing Sing Date: ca. 1900. Photo by William M. Vander Weyde. Public Domain.

As January drew to a close, the perennial issue of capital punishment once again elbowed its way onto America’s front pages. We’ve already seen executions in Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas this year, but recent developments cast doubt on the future of the death penalty in the United States. That’s good news.

On January 28, the US Supreme Court stayed three executions pending legal challenges over the drug cocktail Oklahoma uses to kill its prisoners. Two days later, Ohio postponed all seven executions it had previously scheduled for 2015; its anonymous hired killers need time to find anonymous suppliers of the drugs used in the state’s  new, “improved” death protocol.

But delays and deliberations aren’t enough. It’s time for libertarians and “limited government” conservatives to join hands with more traditional capital punishment opponents and bring an end to the practice of slaughtering caged prisoners in cold blood.

And that’s exactly what the practice amounts to. State executions are not performed in defense of self or of others. They are calculated vengeance killings carried out on disarmed and defenseless victims, distinguishable from murder only by virtue of representing government policy.

Capital punishment is incompatible with “limited government” in any meaningful sense of the word. If the state may kill its subjects — not in the heat of the moment when life and death decisions must be made instantly, nor in actual defense of life, liberty or property, but merely in leisurely pursuit of revenge and “deterrence” — what may the state NOT do to those subjects?

How can we plausibly dispute lesser state impositions like gun control schemes or the “individual mandate” requiring us to buy health insurance, having already cheerfully ceded power over life and death to the same authorities?

Too often we let death penalty supporters use sleight of rhetoric to focus our attention resolutely on the prisoner’s proven guilt, on the evil of a prisoner’s crimes, or on the suffering of his or her victims. Yes, those things are important and deserving of our full consideration, but we shouldn’t allow them to distract us from, or absolve us of, our own responsibility for the things we allow the state to do in our names and on our behalves.

It’s too late to make 2015 an execution-free year. But we have 11 months left in which to bring down the final curtain on a shameful and barbaric American tradition.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.