Haley Barbour’s banal evil-doing

Is cutting off prenatal care so that poor infants die in greater numbers “murder”? Not really. But it is killing for money.

I agree with Mike (below): not every policy with a death toll, even a net death toll, is a murderous policy. Spending a little bit less on airline safety would be justified, because a reasonable airline passenger wouldn’t be willing to pay, from his own funds, the cost of the marginal (in the chances-per-million range) safety increment. There’s nothing wrong with taking a calculated risk with your own life, and therefore nothing wrong about implementing that sort of decision on behalf of other people. There are values in the world other than life expectancy.

But public officials are morally (though in most cases not criminally) responsible for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of their actions.

Haley Barbour could, with at least some plausibility, claim that his health-care policies wouldn’t actually kill significant numbers of infants. Now we know that he would have been wrong to make that claim: the infants are dying, when they could be saved for (not very much) money.

If he doesn’t change the policy, he will in effect have decided that their deaths are an acceptable price to pay for whatever cost savings the state is reaping. “Wilful murder?” Not exactly. Legally, it’s no crime at all. Morally, it’s more like reckless homicide, since Barbour isn’t intending to kill anyone in particular, but merely taking actions likely to kill someone. The fact that the victims are all poor and disproportionately black &#8212 and thus their parents are unlikely to be Republican campaign contributors, or even voters &#8212 makes it that much worse.

Yes, if the decision were being made in some really poor place like Tanzania, where the opportunity cost of the money you’d have to spend to save the children would be the clean water you couldn’t then provide to the village they live in, the decision to let them die might be justified, though heartbreaking. But Mississippi isn’t that kind of poor.

The money Barbour is saving is blood money. It’s technically wrong to call him a murderer, even on a moral level; I was quoting the Bantry coroner’s jury. But it’s not wrong to call him a hired killer.

C.S. Lewis was right:

The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens of evil that Dickens loved to paint but is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.

Think of it as the banality of evil, American-style.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com