Bryan Caplan  

The Origin of Singaporean Crime Policy

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When I was filling out my customs form for Singapore, I was chilled to see the all-capital letters, "DEATH FOR DRUGS IN SINGAPORE."  Philosophically, I have nothing against the death penalty, but of course I have everything against drug prohibition.*  Still, I was intrigued to discover the origin of Singapore's draconian approach.  From Mauzy and Milne, Singapore Politics Under the People's Action Party:
The death penalty is mandatory for murder, drug trafficking, treason, and certain firearms offenses.  Lee Kuan Yew was impressed that there was no crime in Singapore during the Japanese occupation because punishment was severe.  "As a result, I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime."

Not only does Singapore execute a lot of people; by being strident in the face of international criticism (and using all-capital letters!), it also takes advantage of availability bias to amplify the death penalty's deterrent effect.

Question: Suppose you were Milton Friedman trying to convince Lee Kuan Yew to legalize drugs.  What would you tell him?

Update: I think the best answer in the comments comes from Renato  Drumond:
I would say that he could, at the same time, legalize drugs and penalize people who commit crimes under the influence of drugs with death penalty. If he really believes in the deterrent effect of death penalty, I don't see any reason that he could give to oppose this new scheme. 

* Indeed, I think that execution is a morally appropriate punishment for those who murder drug dealers.


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Scott Wentland writes:

The classic economic argument against such harsh punishment is: the death penalty removes any further marginal disincentives.

For example, we don't have a dealth penalty for robbing banks in the US because if we did we'd remove the disincentive for shooting bankers and witnesses. If not having witnesses around reduces your probability of being caught, and you don't get extra punishment for doing it, why not shoot them (morals aside...)?

The same applies to the drug trade. In Singapore, people who carry drugs may be more likely to carry guns, because if they were caught they might try to shoot their way out of it.

I don't know quite the extent to which this actally plays out in the real world. Not all bank robbers or drug dealers want to kill people (for moral reasons), extra punishment or not. But, I suspect there is more resistences of arrest between drug dealers and the police in Singapore than in the US, but I don't know for sure. Anyone?

Blackadder writes:

It's actually not so easy what to say here. Arguments about how people should be free to put whatever substances they want in their bodies aren't likely to cut much ice with Lee Kuan Yew, nor are arguments that deny the deterrent effect of criminalization. And while the argument Scott presents might show why it's a bad idea to impose the death penalty for drug dealing, it isn't an argument for legalization.

Your best bet would be to argue that drug prohibition empowers gangs and organized crime, by giving them a revenue stream that would otherwise be unavailable. A comparison to alcohol prohibition in the U.S. might be apt here.

Steve Sailer writes:

It looks to me like Lee's policy has worked out very well for Singapore.

It would seem like the more interesting question is why Singapore's empirical success hasn't undermined libertarian dogma?

Scott Wentland writes:

Blackladder is right. I was arguing against the death penalty for drug trafficking, not for legalization.

I forgot to mention that the answer to the legalization depends on Lee Kuan Yew's (and moreover Singapore's) preferences and ideology. Milton Friedman's appeal to individual freedom and liberty may not go far with Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore's people. Though, as Prof. Caplan has pointed out in a prior post, people there seem very receptive to economic arguments for legalization. A sensible economic argument for reducing the punishment may be the first step toward that end.

David R. Henderson writes:

Bryan,
You asked, "Suppose you were Milton Friedman trying to convince Lee Kuan Yew to legalize drugs. What would you tell him?"
I don't think one can reasonably answer this question. We would have to know what he cares about. Does he, for example, care about people's rights? Without knowing that, I wouldn't know what to say. You don't convince people in a vacuum.
David

Kuliani writes:

What about Steve Sailer's claim that Singapore is a success?

It seems to me that only a small portion of people would be deterred from bringing labor or capital to Singapore due to the draconian punishment. Drug users might be deterred if they are desirable immigrants and the cost of their habit is high.

Many pot smokers who work smart and hard would be desirable. Is the price of pot higher in Singapore than neighboring countries? If not, then the best argument for legalization is that the policy doesn't reduce drug use or trade.

Blackadder writes:

What about Steve Sailer's claim that Singapore is a success?

Does the fact that Singapore was successful in stopping people from chewing gum undermine the libertarian dogma that it should be legal to chew gum?

Jacob Oost writes:

I don't know the actual drug crime situation in Singapore. If it's nil or next-to-nil, then I honestly wouldn't have a very strong case to make. My case would boil down to "personal choice," though I frankly don't give a rat's patootie about letting people shoot bug spray into their veins.

Rather, I think the main rationale for legalizing drugs in America is because addiction is widespread enough, and demand is so inelastic, that it virtually guarantees the criminal situation we have. In America, it seems to me that drugs are most destructive because of the crime that's sprung up around it, not from the actual drug abuse. And the crime only exists because:

A) prices are high, attracting lots of "entrepreneurs" and encouraging users to commit robbery to pay for their drugs
B) being a black market, dealers willing to use, violence, coercion, blackmail, extortion, thuggery, etc. to make money will thrive where honest dealers will be driven out

Make it legal, the price comes down, users don't have to resort to crime, it's a normal "white" market so thuggish producers will be driven *away* rather than the opposite, and crime levels go down. Those who would otherwise be drug trafficking criminals won't simply "go into other modes of crime" as has often been proposed (as if there were a fixed amount of crime to be committed), but will have to get real jobs or become *minor* criminals. The economic logic behind drug legalization in America, where crime rates are high because of it, is impeccable. But I don't know about an area where drug use and thus crime hasn't really taken hold. I think the argument isn't so strong there.

Anonymous writes:

One thing you could say is that they execute people for drugs every single year, and the trade doesn't seam to disappear. If even hanging people won't stop the trade, mabye its time to give up.

Utilitarian writes:

Scott Wentland's argument about drug dealers killing witnesses is off base. Drug dealing is a consensual crime, so the witnesses are customers, partners and suppliers. If they rat on you, they're already protected by the police by the time you can retaliate. When the police catch you in a sting they can shoot you easily enough before you resist.

Kuliani beat me to the immigration effect: if valuable potential immigrants want drugs badly enough, then that is a competitive disadvantage. On the other hand, many people like the security of knowing their kids won't become addicted to drugs or waste time smoking pot, and I would expect that the net effect would be in favor of prohibition. The only plausible exception would be marijuana, but you could restrict access to government-inspected or operated shops for high-value immigrants who specify their maximum requirements when they immigrate.

I think my best LKY-pragmatic argument against the mandatory death penalty for drugs would be the possibility of suspending sentences in exchange for participation in dangerous medical experiments.

Utilitarian writes:

Of course, even if the penalty were no longer mandatory, the "DEATH FOR DRUGS IN SINGAPORE" signs should remain unchanged.

Snark writes:

Question: Suppose you were Milton Friedman trying to convince Lee Kuan Yew to legalize drugs. What would you tell him?

Oh, I'd probably say something to the effect that every friend of freedom must be revolted by the prospect of turning Singapore into an armed camp, by the vision of jails filled with casual drug users and of an army of enforcers empowered to invade the liberty of citizens on slight evidence.

MattYoung writes:

Stumped

Bill D writes:

Singapore is such a weird (in a mostly good way) place.

Item: social deviancy is just different. For at least 20 years one of the ways people have taken out their frustrations is to pee on elevators.

http://beconfused.com/2004/07/13/singaporeurine/

They used to put pictures in the Straits Times.

RL writes:

The goal, as I understand Bryan's question, is to find an argument that would convince a political leader--with all that implies about desire for power, willingness to deceive, etc.--that, in a country with a high level of economic freedom but relatively little political freedom, he should legalize drugs:

In that context, I think the best argument is:

"Don't sweat it. There will still be plenty of things to execute people for..."

johnleemk writes:

One interesting thing: Malaysia imposes exactly the same penalty (death for possessing anything besides the minutest quantities of drugs). It's definitely not because of Lee Kuan Yew. I'm not sure which Prime Minister had the death penalty for drugs enacted, but Mahathir Mohamad was similarly affected by the Japanese occupation growing up, so that could be another interesting data point.

One of the most important reasons to oppose drug prohibition is that it encourages drug users to vote. Voters using suggestibility drugs (such as pot) can be extremely dangerous and might explain some of the more peculiar elections we've had.

Renato Drumond writes:

"Suppose you were Milton Friedman trying to convince Lee Kuan Yew to legalize drugs. What would you tell him?"

I would say that he could, at the same time, legalize drugs and penalize people who commit crimes under the influence of drugs with death penalty. If he really believes in the deterrent effect of death penalty, I don't see any reason that he could give to oppose this new scheme.

Jacob Oost writes:

While we're on the subject, Bryan, could you describe some of the ways in which Singaporeans don't have as much political freedom?

Mick writes:

You could tell them that even though they execute people every year they still have a drug trade. For heavens sakes, if hanging people doesn't stop the sale of drugs, what will?

lukas writes:

Well, if LKY were to legalize drugs, he could tax the hell out of them...

8 writes:

Judging from the harshness of the anti-drug laws, which can penalize property owners and bystanders, Singapore has made a clear social choice to reject drug use. If I were Milton Friedman, I would respect their choice and find ways to create thousands of small city-states in America.

Zac writes:

I think Singapore is an interesting country, but it baffles me that anyone would consider drug trafficking in the same sentence as murder. Morally its no different from wood trafficking or steel trafficking. Its actually pretty appalling.

Dan Weber writes:

Question: Suppose you were Milton Friedman trying to convince Lee Kuan Yew to legalize drugs. What would you tell him?

I'd probably start with "Help, help, get me out of this coffin!"

Rich writes:

"Philosophically, I have nothing against the death penalty"

What?!

Coming from someone who has been diligent in his study of murder by the state, this cries out for explanation.

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