Modern societies are humane, Scott Alexander notes — all too humane:
Modern countries pride themselves on their humane treatment of prisoners. And by “humane”, I mean “lock them up in a horrible and psychologically traumatizing concrete jail for ten years of being beaten and raped and degraded, sometimes barely even seeing the sun or a green plant for that entire time, then put it on their permanent record so they can never get a good job or interact with normal people ever again when they come out.”
Compare this to what “inhumane” countries that were still into “cruel and unusual punishment” would do for the same crime. A couple of lashes with the whip, then you’re on your way.
Reader. You have just been convicted of grand theft auto (the crime, not the game). You’re innocent, but the prosecutor was very good at her job and you’ve used up all your appeals and you’re just going to have to accept the punishment. The judge gives you two options:
1) Five years in prison
2) Fifty strokes of the lash
Like everyone else except a few very interesting people who help provide erotic fantasies for the rest of us, I don’t like being whipped. But I would choose (2) in a fraction of a heartbeat.
And aside from being better for me, it would be better for society as well. We know that people who spend time in prison are both more likely to stay criminals in the future and better at being criminals. And each year in jail costs the State $50,000; more than it would cost to give a kid a year’s free tuition at Harvard. Cutting the prison system in half would free up approximately enough money to give free college tuition to all students at the best school they can get into.
But of course we don’t do that. We stick with the prisons and the rape and the kids who go work at McDonalds because they can’t afford college. Why? Progressives!
If we were to try to replace prison with some kind of corporal punishment, progressives would freak out and say we were cruel and inhumane. Since the prison population is disproportionately minority, they would probably get to use their favorite word-beginning-with-”R”, and allusions would be made to plantation owners who used to whip slaves. In fact, progressives would come up with some reason to oppose even giving criminals the option of corporal punishment (an option most would certainly take) and any politician insufficiently progressive to even recommend it would no doubt be in for some public flagellation himself, albeit of a less literal kind.
So once again, we have an uncanny valley. Being very nice to prisoners is humane and effective (Norway seems to be trying ths with some success), but we’re not going to do it because we’re dumb and it’s probably too expensive anyway. Being very strict to prisoners is humane and effective — the corporal punishment option. But being somewhere in the fuzzy middle is cruel to the prisoners and incredibly destructive to society — and it’s the only route the progressives will allow us to take.
Some Reactionaries have tried to apply the same argument to warfare. Suppose that during the Vietnam War, we had nuked Hanoi. What would have happened?
Okay, fine. The Russians would have nuked us and everyone in the world would have died. Bad example. But suppose the Russians were out of the way. Wouldn’t nuking Hanoi be a massive atrocity?
Yes. But compare it to the alternative. Nuking Hiroshima killed about 150,000 people. The Vietnam War killed about 3 million. The latter also had a much greater range of non-death effects, from people being raped and tortured and starved to tens of thousands ending up with post-traumatic stress disorder and countless lives being disrupted. If nuking Hanoi would have been an alternative to the Vietnam War, it would have been a really really good alternative.
Most of the countries America invades know they can’t defeat the US military long-term. Their victory condtion is helping US progressives bill the war as an atrocity and get the troops sent home. So the enemy’s incentive is to make the war drag on as long as possible and contain as many atrocities as possible. It’s not too hard to make the war drag on, because they can always just hide among civilians and be relatively confident the US is too humane to risk smoking them out. And it’s never too hard to commit atrocities. So they happily follow their incentives, and the progressives in the US happily hold up their side of the deal by agitating for the troops to be sent home, which they eventually are.
Compare this to the style of warfare in colonial days. “This is our country now, we’re not leaving, we don’t really care about atrocities, and we don’t really care how many civilians we end up killing.” It sounds incredibly ugly, but of colonial Britain or very-insistently-non-colonial USA, guess which one ended up pacifying Iraq after three months with only about 6,000 casualties, and guess which one took five years to re-establish a semblance of order and killed about 100,000 people in the process?
Once again we see an uncanny valley effect. Leaving Iraq alone completely would have been a reasonable humanitarian choice. Using utterly overwhelming force to pacify Iraq by any means necessary would have briefly been very ugly, but our enemies would have folded quickly and with a few assumptions this could also have been a reasonable humanitarian choice. But a wishy-washy half-hearted attempt to pacify Iraq that left the country in a state of low-grade poorly-defined war for nearly a decade was neither reasonable nor humanitarian.