Are Europeans Against the Death Penalty?

| Fri Jan. 27, 2006 6:10 PM EST

Also in yesterday's New York Times op-ed page, Felix Rohatyn says that the Supreme Court should abolish the death penalty in order to improve our standing in the world. Sort of. I certainly oppose the death penalty, but I want to nitpick something here:

During my four years as the American ambassador to France, I discovered that no single issue was viewed with as much hostility as our support for the death penalty... Contempt for the laws of our allies is a major factor in our increasing isolation in the world...

Taking the views of 450 million Europeans into account is not a sign of weakness on our part, nor is it a commitment to change our views. It is simply recognition that the laws of our most important allies, our biggest foreign investors, foreign employers, foreign customers and trading partners are worthy of our attention. But in all likelihood, we already are taking the views of "450 million Europeans" into account... by keeping the death penalty. International popular opinion, for the most part, is very much in favor of killing criminals. Canadians seem to love executions almost as much as Americans do—around 70 percent were in favor of capital punishment in 1995, although this support may be shallow. See similar results in Britain. And Italy. Even in Sweden and France the death penalty has close to majority support. It's just that their leaders disagree.

Admittedly, I don't think American political institutions are very democratic. Still, our politicians seem to have mirrored popular opinion on this issue, at least, better than parliaments in other countries. My guess is that this is because we vote for candidates rather than parties: a candidate can always use the death penalty debate to say something about him/herself as a person, so he or she is more likely to demagogue on the subject. In other words, candidate-centered systems may be more responsive to popular opinion on "moral" or "cultural" issues. (The downside is that the candidate-centric system also explains, in part, why we don't have universal health care—it's much easier for a centralized party to design, pass, and implement this sort of thing than it is a loose coalition of elected officials).

At any rate, it seems questionable that abolishing the death penalty would actually endear us to all Europeans. Of course, what Rohatyn really meant is that it will increase America's standing and respect—its "soft power," if you will—among European leaders. The sort of people that someone like Rohatyn would actually be talking to in his four years in France. Now that's an important goal, since it makes it somewhat more likely that those leaders will adopt American norms, or trust American intentions, or whatever. But respect among leaders and intellectuals isn't everything. Ideally we also want to increase our standing and respect among populations in other countries, since popular opinion constrains what those world leaders can do. And it's not obvious that abolishing the death penalty for minors will win us that many fans among the masses abroad.

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