The Affluenza Defense

Ethan Couch

Ethan Couch, a Houston 16-year-old, was given probation after having killed four people and grievously injured another in a drunken driving crash. (NYT account here.) At trial, a psychologist offered what’s subsequently been called the “affluenza defense,” suggesting that Couch should not be held fully accountable, since his upbringing in an extremely affluent family had made it difficult for him to develop the normal sense of responsibility for his actions.  The judge in the case rejected the prosecution’s call for a 20-year sentence in favor of probation and a stint at an expensive California rehab facility. Although teenagers responsible for vehicular deaths often escape prison terms, the decision provoked widespread outrage about how the legal system unjustly favors the wealthy.

The outrage provoked by the judges’s decision was totally justified, but the psychologist’s testimony about the effects of growing up in affluent circumstances was also essentially correct. That last fact should not have played any significant role in the sentencing process, but it’s highly relevant for broader questions of social and economic policy.

An emerging body of psychological research shows that people in relatively advantaged positions do indeed feel entitled to behave in many ways that would be considered off limits for ordinary people.  If you have a few minutes, watch this clip of Paul Solman’s interviews with some of the psychologists who’ve done this troubling work. There’s a reasonably solid foundation, then, for believing that someone who grew up in Ethan Couch’s circumstances would tend to have a diminished sense of responsibility for his actions.

But it would be a mistake, I believe, for the justice system to treat him differently for that reason. The longstanding debate on free-will offers hints about how we might think about this issue.  Children at birth differ enormously in ways that affect their adult behavior, often dramatically. Those who exhibit diminished capacity for self-control as small children, for example, are substantially more likely than others to commit crimes as adults. So in some meaningful sense, people born with such deficiencies are less responsible for their crimes.  The same reasoning would logically apply to psychological tendencies shaped by environmental factors.  People who were poorly brought up and misbehave as adults really are less culpable than people who were raised well yet misbehave in similar ways.

But except in extreme cases, society has wisely decided that our justice system should largely ignore such differences.  The logic is that without a reasonable prospect of being punished for crimes, many more people would commit them. Even though some people are clearly more tempted than others by criminal opportunities, diminished moral inhibition is accepted as a mitigating factor only in the case of extremely mentally ill or handicapped individuals.

It’s an imperfect solution, to be sure.  But the alternative would be social chaos.  Ethan Couch’s upbringing may well have made him less able to embrace the idea that bad conduct could produce bad consequences.  But few of us would want to live in a society in which that fact exempted him from responsibility for harming others, because a society like that would have so much more crime and disorder. Warren Buffett and countless other rich people have demonstrated that it is possible to raise morally responsible children even in families with almost limitless wealth.  Society has no interest in sending a message that wealthy parents no longer need take that obligation seriously.

But rejecting the notion that affluenza exempts people from their responsibility to obey the law does not require us to reject evidence that extreme income inequality often promotes socially harmful behavior. That’s not a reason for lenient sentences, but it’s yet another reason to favor policies that would slow the current rapid growth in income inequality.

Author: Robert Frank

Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management and the co-director of the Paduano Seminar in business ethics at NYU’s Stern School of Business. His “Economic View” column appears monthly in The New York Times. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos. He received his B.S. in mathematics from Georgia Tech, then taught math and science for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Nepal. He holds an M.A. in statistics and a Ph.D. in economics, both from the University of California at Berkeley. His papers have appeared in the American Economic Review, Econometrica, Journal of Political Economy, and other leading professional journals. His books, which include Choosing the Right Pond, Passions Within Reason, Microeconomics and Behavior, Principles of Economics (with Ben Bernanke), Luxury Fever, What Price the Moral High Ground?, Falling Behind, The Economic Naturalist, and The Darwin Economy, have been translated into 22 languages. The Winner-Take-All Society, co-authored with Philip Cook, received a Critic's Choice Award, was named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times, and was included in Business Week's list of the ten best books of 1995. He is a co-recipient of the 2004 Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. He was awarded the Johnson School’s Stephen Russell Distinguished teaching award in 2004, 2010, and 2012, and its Apple Distinguished Teaching Award in 2005.

28 thoughts on “The Affluenza Defense”

  1. So if we ran the world with econometrics (and decided to essentially handicap peoples’ free will) we would weight the sentence of crimes by the inverse propensity score. It would be much worse to commit crimes that are out of character for your demographic profile…interesting thought experiment.

    1. Sounds rather like something Mack Reynolds would have turned into a short story. Maybe he did…

  2. The point is that what people want is unaccountability. They pursue wealth, or particular group affiliations, not for their own sake, but because they are believed to confer unaccountability.

  3. June’s car crash wasn’t the first time underage drinking had got Couch in trouble. In February of this year, in the town Lakeside, northwest of Fort Worth, police found Couch with a 12-ounce can of beer and a 1.75-liter bottle of vodka in the early hours and gave him two citations – one for being a minor in possession of alcohol, the other for consuming alcohol as a minor
    In addition, Couch’s parents had long crime sheets, in which with the help of expensive attorneys, they had miracously never served time in prison. Evidently, if you have money in Texas, and a lot of it (hey, that that can be even your defense), you don’t have to go to prison for very serious crimes committed.

    1. Looking at your link, the parents’ offenses are mostly minor, nonviolent stuff. I’m not sure jail is the answer, though the pattern is troubling.

      More interesting in the context of the “affluenza” claim is the father repeatedly kiting bad checks, and then making the problem go away by paying 10x the price he attempted to cheat on.

      1. That sounds like sociopathy.

        Write the bad cheque. If you don’t get away with it, then buy off the victim. At no point are you accepting that you did a wrong thing.

  4. I have to say that I’m not quite getting where the court got the “affluenza” connection from. Mind you, I understand that the description of the incident in the NY Times may be incomplete, but from what they do say, I’d categorize it as “teenage stupidity with lethal consequences”. And not a particularly class-specific kind of stupidity: if I just went by how the article described the incident, I wouldn’t have the first clue whether his family is rich, middle class, or low income.

    1. Just spitballin’ here, but this connection might have been the judge’s only way to come up with an “acceptable” rationale not to throw the kid in the clink. Any other reason would have been even more obviously obsequious to upper-class privilege. Like I say, it’s just a guess — hate to judge the guy before all the facts are in.

      1. In Robert’s post he says “Although teenagers responsible for vehicular deaths often escape prison terms,…”

        Assuming that “often” is accurate, then it doesn’t look like the judge needed this “acceptable” rationale Actually, it seems to me that this “affluenza” defense might have been counterproductive, in that it tended to piss people off. Had the defense not proposed it, the judge could simply have decided that children have diminished responsibility because of undeveloped attributes of maturity and self-control, and have followed the lead of the many other judges who also imposed probation, community service, and mandatory education.

  5. We might should consider that this family has found good counsel and treatment for themselves and now for the young man. So, maybe we should consider that, since they are the only ones making so much money they can spend billions advertising to push their dope, booze producers and sellers should pay for the very same counsel and treatments for all drunks that get in trouble.

  6. If the argument is that (on account of his privileged, unaccountable upbringing) this young man has no concept of right and wrong, and exhibits a depraved indifference to human life, and he has as a result killed people when convenient, that would seem like a not-insane reason to treat him as a mental patient rather than a criminal, and to send him for treatment rather than to prison. Difficult to prove, of course.

    But, that’s not really what happened this time. The condition he’s claimed to suffer from sounds like it should pretty much define a person who should not be permitted to be free in our society, who should instead be involuntarily committed to the care of mental health professionals (the sort of person TV dramas call a “psychopath”, which I believe is not an appropriate use of the term). Once he has been cured of this serious mental condition, he should be permitted to go free (or, indeed, he might then have to face some diminished responsibility for his prior actions). But:
    (1) If he escapes criminal liability because involuntary commitment is the correct answer to his condition, he should face involuntary commitment until cured – not treatment for a fixed term of one year
    (2) He was convicted in a court in Texas, a notably large state containing many resources. It’s absurd that he should go to California for treatment.
    (3) It is offensive that his parents are paying for his mental treatment; this would be the case even if he were merely receiving standard care in Texas, rather than luxury spa treatment in California. It is the duty of society to care for him until he is safe among his fellow citizens, and we should not discriminate against impoverished people of diminished mental capacity nor in favor of wealthy ones.

    I make this comment because – while I agree with basically everyone that the “affluenza” claim is nuts and it sure looks like this kid got off scot-free for killing four people – I’m not completely sure the answer is necessarily prison; if the alleged mental condition is real, then (absurd claims about poor-little-rich-kids aside) genuine, stringent, public mental-health facilities might be a better option.

    1. What the kid is showing is signs of sociopathy.

      Now is this inherent, or just something he has learned from his parents?

      Unfortunately we can’t know. His youth grants him a ‘second chance’. But probably a couple of years in a significant penal institution. Where unfortunately he might be raped/ brutalized for life. But he might also find his own redemption.

      Before Steve Jackson made ‘Lord of the Rings’ he made ‘Heavenly Creatures’ (set in Christchurch NZ). A true story about 2 teenage girls lost in a fantasy world (really a big Dungeons and Dragons game, had they had that or Harry Potter in the 1950s), who murder the mother of one when she tries to separate them. They were both eventually released from prison– one became a writer, as I recall. It’s a pretty gut wrenching film. But they were very young, and in love, and probably it was worth society forgiving them– nothing will bring their mother back.

      If he is a genuine sociopath then the best solution is indefinite hospitalization. Unfortunately until he commits a really major crime, that won’t happen. And if it is a financial crime rather than one of violence, it won’t happen at all. Our next Bernie Madoff.

  7. And we’re taught to sneer and shake our heads at the society that allowed poor people of 17th-century Paris to be run down by the coaches of French aristocrats.

    I think Frank Wilhoit is right on the sociology of this– a lot of celebrities as well as rich people seem to want that kind of exemption. From a legal perspective, what would be particularly interesting to me is whether the defense argued this line and the judge bought it, or whether he came up with it himself.

  8. Interesting that you mention Warren Buffett. Apparently, he was not very law abiding either as a teenager. (Hopefully more law abiding later in life?)
    From the biography “Snowball”
    “We’d steal stuff for which we had no use. We’d steal golf bags and golf clubs. I walked out of the lower level where the sporting goods were, up the stairway to the street, carrying a golf bag and golf clubs, and the club was stolen and so were the bags. I stole hundreds of golf balls.”

  9. “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”
    – F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Rich Boy”

    I know someone very well who went to an elite prep school somewhere in NH, maybe near a PEA patch or something.
    This person thought they were well-off because their parents were professionals. Sadly, this person realized that
    their highly paid parents were just considered the “help”, in the stark reality of the wealth differentials.

  10. Royalty are a good population to test the hypothesis. Anecdotally, there are plenty of examples of spoilt sons who exhibited this sort of behaviour, like Henry VIII and Charles I. Also a good number who did not, like Henry’s daughter Elizabeth.

    1. Charles I?? By all the historical accounts I have read, Charles I was, if anything, a model monarch with a well-developed sense of “social” responsibility (not that it helped him in the end, though)- OK, maybe a tad on the autocratic side, but a far cry from the “spoilt son” quasi-sociopath European royalty provides us with so many negative historical examples of.

      But George IV? Now there’s your example!: thank goodness HE didn’t live in the era of motor vehicles: not “spoiled”, but turned out to be a useless egomaniac wastrel anyway…

      1. Really? You sure you’re not confusing him with the far more popular Charles II? I’ll admit that it’s been a long time since I read about Charles I, and the sources I read were likely quite biased (the curtailing of Chuck The One being rather an important event in the path towards modern representative democracy, it makes sense to tell the story such that it was also a good idea in its own right), but I can’t really remember a good word said about him. In fact, just about the only thing I do remember about him is that he was basically without honor – he consistently brokehis sworn word in pursuit of short-term advantage, to his long-term cost.

        1. Charles I was a very diligent monarch. But he had no sense of any limit on his powers– in that sense, he lacked the political ‘third eye’ that James I (James VI of Scotland) had, Elizabeth I had in spades (spending your youth locked up in a prison at constant risk of execution might have helped her have that). He really did believe his position and his prerogatives were ordained by God, and anyone who tried to circumscribe them was in fact violating the will of God.

          He had his favourites, and did abandon them, but later regretted it. I am trying to say Buckingham, but I think it was Strafford?

          a decent summary of his career.

          The Stuarts seemed to alternate good politician with bad. James I/ VI good. Charles I bad. Charles II brilliant and nearly reimposed absolute monarchy (had he lived). James II awful. Anne fairly shrewd (didn’t get in the way of Parliament or the Protestant fervour).

  11. In 1987, John Lott (yes, that John Lott) wrote a paper entitled “Should the Wealthy Be Able to ‘Buy Justice’?” His conclusion, unsurprisingly, was “yes.” Pure class apologetics disguised as microeconomic analysis; a fun read for those with the stomach for it. 95 J. Political Economy 1307.

    Oh, given the date and my moniker: Merry-Happy to you all! (Bah, humbug!)

  12. There’s no better way to teach a young man suffering from “affluenza” that actions have consequences than to let him get off scot-free after committing vehicular homicide.

  13. This is of course not new, consider Tom and Daisy in ‘The Great Gatsby’.

    But if you observe hedge fund managers or private equity barons you will see the same patterns. Down in the extreme cases to sociopathy. The movie Wall Street (the original) caught that quite well, I thought– laws are for little people.

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