If you got $1,000 for every apple you ate, would it affect the number of apples you ate in a year? Conversely, if the first bite of an apple might kill you, would you jump at the chance to chomp into a Fuji or Honeycrisp? Normal people will choose more of that which provides a good reward, and avoid that which provides punishment. That’s just basic human nature.

The government knows about this quality of human nature. Tax breaks attract businesses, while heavy tax burdens will drive them away. Some people join the Reserves because the government offers them school benefits for doing so, and the fear of harsh punishment is sufficient to make some people think twice before breaking the law.

I say fear of harsh punishment is sufficient, because wimpy punishments are useless when it comes to deterring crime. The Constitution protects us from “cruel and unusual punishment,” but that phrase meant something different in the 18th century than it does today. In the late 1700s, ‘”cruel and unusual” punishments included being broken on the wheel, or being drawn and quartered. Today, prisoners sue claiming “cruel and unusual punishment” if they don’t get cable TV with premium channels, or if they don’t like the three square meals provided by the prison kitchens.

Legal semantics aside, I believe that a punishment must be both cruel and unusual to be effective. Since I’m not using “cruel and unusual” in the Constitutional sense, let me explain. I’m not suggesting you brand your misbehaving kid with a red-hot poker. When I say a punishment needs to be cruel, I mean it needs to be effective — it must be something that the person would rather not go through. A punishment that doesn’t cause at least minor grief to the person being punished is no punishment at all. Once when my wife was a little hellion [yeah right. --TPK], she was sent to her room as a punishment. Hours later, her mother remembered that she’d sent her child to her room. She was afraid she’d find her little girl sobbing uncontrollably in solitary confinement, but my wife had completely forgotten she was being punished. You see, there were plenty of books in her room to keep her happy and occupied. That wasn’t an effective punishment for her. Likewise, forbidding pickled beets when your kid hates pickled beets anyway is not an effective punishment. They are not effective because they do not make the punished person suffer.

If you have ever heard a teenager whinge, “But that’s not fair!” when his parents lay down the law, you know he is probably receiving a punishment that is at least effective enough to get his attention. Being grounded or losing access to the computer, TV, or video games is a cruel punishment–just ask the teenager who can’t play his Xbox games, or the teenager who has to miss the school dance because she’s grounded. They will give you an earful about how unreasonable their parents are and how cruel the punishment is.

Likewise, a good punishment needs to be unusual. An extra spoonful of pickled beets added to a nightly serving is far from unusual, and being perpetually grounded for every infraction just becomes the status quo after a while. But if a kid is used to playing his Xbox for hours after school, removing it as a punishment is effective precisely because the punishment is a shock.

An effective punishment is meant both to remind the punished person that he or she has done something wrong, and to provide a strong incentive not to do it again. But not all punishments handed down in the U.S. are this effective. Judge Edward Cashman of Vermont sentenced Mark Hulett to a 60-day sentence for the crime of raping a 7-year-old girl over a four-year period. His punishment is far from cruel and does not serve as a deterrent to him or others. Sadly, this type of lenient sentence is far from atypical. Too often, minor offenders are given a slap on the wrist, a finger shaken in their face, and are released back into society to repeat their crimes until they hit the age of 18 and get the book thrown at them.

Author Robert Heinlein compared our justice system to raising puppies. The following quote comes from chapter 8 of Starship Troopers, as the protagonist is asked a question by his History and Moral Philosophy teacher, Mr. Dubois, in high school. Punctuation and emphasis are the author’s.

“Suppose you merely scolded your puppy, never punished him, let him go on making messes in the house . . . and occasionally locked him up in an outbuilding but soon let him back into the house with a warning not to do it again. Then one day you notice that he is now a grown dog and still not housebroken — whereupon you whip out your gun and shoot him dead. Comment, please?”

“Why . . . that’s the craziest way to raise a dog I ever heard of!”

“I agree. Or a child. Whose fault would it be?”

“Uh . . . why, mine, I guess.”

“Again I agree. But I’m not guessing.”

So for a punishment to be effective, it needs to be both uncomfortable and unusual. And an effective punishment should provide a strong deterrent against the unwanted action. If you don’t want to encourage people to change their ways, why even bother to punish them? OK, so 800+ words later, let me get back to the original premise — you get more of that which you reward, and less of that which you punish.

With that firmly in mind, let’s visit the current debate about illegal aliens in the U.S. In the past 20 years, there have been seven amnesties allowing for about 5.7 million illegal aliens to stay in the States. So that solved all our illegal immigrant issues, right? Hah! So what did the amnesties do? They rewarded the people who had broken laws to get here. And as we all know, when you reward a behavior, you get more of it. It’s no wonder that there are some 11+ million illegal aliens in the U.S., when they have seen persistence in lawbreaking rewarded by amnesty.

So how can we stop the flow of illegals into the U.S.? Well, we could shoot every illegal we find crossing our border. With such a draconian assault, the flow of illegal border crossings would dry up quickly. But such a tactic is morally reprehensible, regardless of its effectiveness, and Americans would not stand for it. Then how can we provide a disincentive which is both morally acceptable and effective in keeping people from entering the country illegally? I have several ideas, none of which involve maintaining the status quo, providing blanket amnesty, or becoming a police state demanding, “Your papers, please” to everyone in a fake German accent.

I’ll type up these ideas shortly, and update this post when they are done. Stay tuned.

UPDATE (4/3/2006 10:55:42 PM): It took longer than I thought as things interrupted me, but I have typed up the promised steps here.

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