Thursday, March 30, 2017

Trump voters, authoritarianism, and legalism: Don't jump to conclusions

Dead horse, ready to flog.
Update (4/17/17): Since writing this, I have read a few more relevant articles and studies, which I might incorporate into this post in the future. Each one is discussed in the National Review article 'Racism' (Still) Didn’t Elect Trump.

I was recently asked for my thoughts on an op-ed from January 2016 about Trump voters, written by Pastor Paul Prather in Kentucky.

The op-ed makes a few points:
  • The common denominator of Trump supporters is, according to research, an authoritarian tendency.
  • "Authoritarianism" maps neatly onto a theological preference for law over grace.
  • The author favors grace over law, but believes that it's best when the two are held in balance.
Reading this, my first reaction was skepticism. The title of the op-ed was, "The mystery of Christians' support for Donald Trump is solved." But does the cited study have as much explanatory power as the author believes? I had several questions:
  • What is an authoritarian personality anyway?
  • Is there really such a strong correlation between Trump support and authoritarianism that it explains the Trump phenomenon completely?
  • Can you really make the connection between authoritarianism and legalism (or whatever you want to call the Christian tendency he connects it to)?
  • The op-ed was written during the primaries. Even if it applied then, could it really be applied to the general election?
Spoiler alert: after researching these questions, I remain skeptical. Let's take these one at a time.

What is authoritarianism?

Different writers and scholars have defined it differently, but the various articles from the election season seem to all go back to the scholarship of Karen Stenner. She says that the term "conservatism" in contemporary political discourse unhelpfully lumps together three distinct tendencies, which are substantially different and not significantly correlated with each other. In her article "Three Kinds of 'Conservatism'," which summarizes her book The Authoritarian Dynamic (brought to my attention via Jonathan Haidt), she says that the three different tendencies are:
  • Laissez-faire conservatism
    • Defined as "a persistent preference for a free market and limited government intervention in the economy."
    • Measured by "respondents' positions on whether incomes should be made more equal (or allowed to vary as individual incentive), on private versus collective ownership and management of business and industry, and on whether government 'should take more responsibility to ensure that everyone is provided for.'"
  • Status quo conservatism
    • Defined as "an enduring inclination to favor stability and preservation of the status quo over social change."
    • Measured by "two items gauging (on 10-point scales, anchored each end) the extent to which respondents agreed that 'one should be cautious about making major changes' (vs. 'you will never achieve much in life unless you act boldly'), and that 'ideas that have stood the test of time are generally best' (vs. 'new ideas are generally better than old ones')."
  • Authoritarianism
    • Defined as "an enduring predisposition, in all matters political and social, to favor obedience and conformity (oneness and sameness) over freedom and difference."
    • Measured by "respondents choosing (from a proffered list of 11) those 'especially important' qualities 'that children can be encouraged to learn at home'; counting 'obedience' and 'good manners' as reflecting authoritarian tendencies; and 'tolerance and respect for other people,' 'independence,' and 'imagination' as indicative of libertarian inclinations (the second component reversed and equally weighted in the final measure)."
Again, Stenner goes to great lengths and pains to emphasize that the three are not significantly correlated with each other across time and space. She even puts "conservatives" in quotes to emphasize that she thinks authoritarianism is a totally different animal from the other two things commonly called "conservatism." Nor is there much correlation between being authoritarian and being a self-identified conservative. On a personal note, I unquestionably identify as a "status quo conservative."

Does authoritarianism explain the Trump phenomenon?

The op-ed relies on research by Matthew MacWilliams and Marc Hetherington. The best explanations and defenses of the cited research that I've found are an article in Vox and an article by MacWilliams himself, both from March 2016. They measured authoritarianism similarly to Stenner, and found that authoritarians are significantly more likely to favor Trump than to favor other Republican candidates.

However, this research was contradicted by another study by Eric Oliver and Wendy Rahn in March 2016, which found that Trump support was not very well predicted by authoritarianism, but extremely well predicted by populism. You'll notice that this is a new term, not found in my summary of Stenner's article. Rahn and Oliver defined and measured authoritarianism similarly to the others, but defined populism this way:
A type of political rhetoric that casts a virtuous "people" against nefarious elites and strident outsiders. Scholars measure populism in a variety of ways, but we focus on three central elements:
  • Belief that a few elites have absconded with the rightful sovereignty of the people;
  • Deep mistrust of any group that claims expertise;
  • Strong nationalist identity
So who was right, Hetherington and MacWilliams or Oliver and Rahn? I don't know enough about their methodology to say that either was right or wrong, but I'm including the latter argument because:
  • It seems more honest to include competent competing claims.
  • Both the authoritarian and the populist explanations make intuitive sense.
  • It provides context for an argument I'll make later.
However, if I have to pick one explanation over the other, I'll pick the authoritarian explanation. Matt Braynard, an internal pollster and strategist during Trump's primary campaign, revealed later that (while he objects to the term "authoritarian") some of the strongest indicators of Trump support were consistent with authoritarian tendencies.

So let's say authoritarianism correlated strongly with Trump support during the primaries. I'd give two words of caution: firstly, don't be too quick to conclude that because it explains a lot of his support, that therefore all Trump supporters in the primary could be explained this way. Secondly, don't be too quick to conclude that this explains his general election support. We'll return to both of these points later.

Are "Law Christians" authoritarian in the sociological sense?

I'll note a few problems with Prather's analysis:
  • While explaining why "Law people" are a Christianity-specific strain of authoritarians (or at least are correlated with being authoritarian), he actually gives a description that sounds more like status quo conservatives: "They insist on doing things, whatever those things might be, the way they’ve always been done, whether or not that happens to make sense anymore, just because that’s the way they’ve always done them."
  • He seems to commit the statistical fallacy of assuming that when X is correlated with Y and Y is correlated with Z, X must be correlated with Z. In this case, X, Y, and Z would be a Law focus, authoritarianism, and Trump support.
  • In general, his description of "Law people" sounds an awful lot like run-of-the-mill social conservatism (though caricatured a bit). However (I'm having trouble finding actual data on this, so if someone could help out I'd appreciate it) I seem to recall social conservatives being one of the last Republican constituencies to come around to Trump. Maybe here too it's problematic to consider "social conservatism" monolithically, but I don't know of a way around that problem offhand.
In addition to those problems with the original op-ed, I'll note that it's problematic to pass it around post-election as a way of explaining Trump's general election support, or his post-election support.

Does authoritarianism (or populism) explain Trump's general election support?

This may be surprising, but it doesn't look like authoritarianism or populism explain Trump's general election support in any meaningful way.

In May 2016, Adam Enders and Steven Smallpage studied ideological and temperamental indicators of general election support. From what I can tell, the data is unavailable to the public but there are some useful data visualizations in the article. Some conclusions from the article:
  • Partisan identification (Republican versus Democrat) was one of the strongest predictors of Trump or Clinton support, much like it had been in 2008 and 2012.
  • Ideological identification (conservative versus liberal) was another strong predictor, much like in 2012, though in 2008 "extremely conservative" types weren't much more likely than moderate conservatives to support McCain.
  • Racial resentment is another very strong predictor, so much so that the Washington Post made it their headline. I note that in 2008 and 2012, lack of racial resentment was a strong predictor of support for Obama, but its presence was not a very strong predictor of support for his opponents, unlike in 2016. I also note that a New York Times article that made the rounds during the primaries concluding that racial prejudice predicted Trump support in the primaries was bunk.
  • Authoritarianism was hardly an indicator of support whatsoever, much like in 2008 and 2012. Surprise! Turns out there are authoritarians in both parties, and they largely fell in line after the primaries.
  • Populism was hardly an indicator of support whatsoever, but it was a new measure in 2016.
Conventional wisdom said that Trump's strongman appeal, or populist appeal, was key to his November victory. Enders and Smallpage dismantled that. According to them, most Americans voted for their usual party, and once Trump sealed the nomination the prejudiced liked him more. Maybe populism and/or authoritarianism played a role in the primaries, but they didn't seem to in the general election. Similarly, it seems that racial resentment played a role in the general election, but it did not play a role prior to his nomination.

It seems reasonable to conclude also that laissez-faire conservatives and status quo conservatives supported Trump in similar proportions to how they usually support the Republican candidate.

What other sources can help explain general election support? How about exit polls? If you compare the 2016 exit polls with those of 2012 and 2008, you may notice some minor shifts, but to me the big story is just how similar the demographic data is between the three elections. Across racial, religious, and socioeconomic categories, the best way to predict the level of support for the Democratic or Republican candidate in one category in one election, is to view the level of support in the other two elections and estimate it as being very close.

So what does this mean? I think it means that partisan identification, disappointingly, is by far the most significant predictor. If you've voted Republican or Democrat in the past, you will in the future no matter how problematic the candidate. That's not true 100% across the board, but my point is that the data supports this conclusion in most cases. Or at least that a voter will sooner abstain from voting than cross party lines. (Arguably, this is basically what I did, since I'm a historically Republican voter who voted independent in 2016; sometimes, regretting Trump's win, I wish that I had voted Clinton, but I'm usually satisfied with my decision. Either way, it's bygones.)

What explains Trump's general election support from evangelicals, if not authoritarianism?

You mean besides partisanship, coupled with polarization? I don't know. Conventional wisdom says that it had a lot to do with abortion and the Supreme Court, but the data doesn't seem to back that up.

(Lack of) conclusions

Why was I so skeptical? Because one of the most important conclusions of 2016, I think, is that even the experts (or, if you're a populist, especially the experts) don't know the electorate all that well. So caution is warranted. (Incidentally, caution is one of the cardinal virtues of my "status quo conservative" tribe! My team scores!)

But I think my skepticism proved warranted in this case. What does this mean going forward? I can think of a few lessons:
  • If you know someone who says they're conservative, don't assume you know what kind of "conservative" they are, or whether they support/supported Trump. If you want to know, ask.
  • If you someone who support or supported Trump, don't assume you know what their reasons were. If you want to know, ask.
  • Especially don't assume that, just because there is a strong correlation between one variable and support for Trump, that any individual Trump supporter has a strong presence of that variable. I'm thinking especially of racial prejudice; assuming that all (or even most) of your political opponents are overtly racist is poisonous to public discourse, and assuming that all or most are implicitly racist is unproductive to discourse. I confess that I'm not sure of the way forward on this point, since asking directly is unlikely to have good results.
  • Don't assume that data explaining what drives a candidate's primary support will also explain what drives the candidate's general election support. In fact, if you don't have time to investigate it, assume that it doesn't.
  • Don't be quick to latch onto one silver bullet narrative for why an election or other event happened the way it did. Or instead of saying "don't be quick to do so," I should just say don't. If you do, you'll undoubtedly be thinking too simplistically.
And here's the chief lesson. If we want to understand the other side (whichever side of whichever debate that happens to be), we can't be content with sweeping generalizations or with armchair psychology. We must be willing to listen to the other side.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Word study of "sent" in John

A few years ago I was in a Bible study going through the Gospel of John. One week we were looking at John 20:21, where the resurrected Jesus tells the disciples, "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." The leader asked us what that might mean, and told us that for the purposes of this exercise, we should only rely on what we know from John. I asked him if Jesus describes his own mission using the word "sent" in John, and the leader answered in the affirmative, listing off the top of his head several reasons Jesus gives for coming into the world. I resolved then to do my own study one day of Jesus' "sentness" and our own. The following is the fruit of that study. Parenthetical references are verses in John, except those in italics, which are from 1 John.

God sent John the Baptist (1:6) ahead of Jesus (3:28), for the following purposes:
  • To baptize with water (1:33).
  • To speak the words of God in the Spirit (3:34).
Jesus was sent for a greater purpose than John (1:33; 5:33-36):
  • John baptized with water, Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit (1:33) and sent the Holy Spirit (14:26; 15:26; 16:7; 20:22).
  • Both spoke the words of God (7:16-18,28-33; 8:26,42-43; 12:49-50; 14:24), but John spoke of Jesus (1:15).
Jesus was sent for these reasons:
  • Not to judge the world, but to save the world (3:17; 4:14), that we might eternally live (3:16; 12:49-50; 4:9), which means knowing God and Jesus Christ (17:3), because the work of God is to believe in the one he has sent (6:29).
  • To judge those who would not believe in him (5:22-24,30; 8:16).
  • To be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world (1:29; 2:24:10).
  • To be the light of the world, in order to make the blind see (9:4-7) and to rescue the world from darkness (12:44-46).
  • To accomplish the work of God (4:34; 10:36-37).
  • To fulfill the Father's will, that he would lose none that were given him, but that they would be raised on the last day (6:38-40,44).
Jesus sent his disciples as the Father had sent him (17:18; 20:21):
  • Jesus sent his disciples into the world so that the world would believe in him, see his glory, and be united in belief, and that those who believe would be forgiven (17:6-26; 20:21-23).
  • To aid in this, he sent the Holy Spirit to the disciples to teach them everything he knows (16:1-15).
  • Jesus sent his disciples into the field to finish someone else's work and reap the harvest (4:37-38).
  • Whoever receives Jesus or those he sends receives the Father (13:20).

Sunday, October 23, 2016

C-3PO and theology

This post is merely intended to serve as a compendium of (good quality) satirical videos, images, articles, etc., which make some connection between C-3PO and Christian (or pseudo-Christian) theology. If you know of examples that are not listed here, or if you notice any broken links here, please point them out in the comments.



Sunday, October 9, 2016

Complete list of things Donald Trump has ever apologized for


  1. Getting caught joking about sexually assaulting women and getting away with it because he's rich and famous.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Don't elect Donald Trump evangelical panderer-in-chief


Berlin United against Trump (29692237590)
Someone recently sent me the article "If You're On the Fence About Your Vote, This Pastor Clarifies How the Very Future of America Is At Stake" by Dr. Jim Garlow in Charisma, in which the author makes an impassioned case for Trump as the lesser of two evils, and asked for my comments. Here they are:
  1. The author makes no distinction between moral and economic issues when it comes to a Christian's orientation to politics. I find that problematic. I consider myself conservative in both realms, but not because liberal fiscal policy is evil, but rather because I view it (in many cases) as irresponsible.
  2. The author says: "As a pastor, I would rather deal with a church attendee who is blatant and brash in his sinning than one who is devious, lying, cunning and deceptive. Both are problematic, but one is easier to deal with than the other." That may be true, but we shouldn't base our votes for president on who is easier to "correct"; we should base our votes on how they are now.
  3. The author further says: "Hillary's 'known' is considerably worse—many times over—than Trump's 'unknown.'" I disagree. Both have knowns and unknowns, but I prefer my favorite political writer Allahpundit's conclusions, namely, that "Trump has a bigger upside and downside than Clinton," or more elaborately: "Hillary's door might be marked 'man-eating tiger' but Trump's door is marked 'beautiful woman or nuclear war.' Which door do you want in those circumstances, where he has an upside that she doesn't but his downside isn't the same but potentially worse?"
  4. The author claims that Trump's "misstatements" pale in comparison to Clinton's "scandals." That glosses over the fact that Trump has some serious scandals himself (the Trump University scam, refusing to pay hundreds of contractors and employees, promising millions to various charities and paying them peanuts, etc.) and that many of his so-called "misstatements" are blatant lies, more blatant even than the lies of Hillary "Congenital Liar" Clinton.
  5. The author claims that "Trump is right on approximately 75 percent of the issues" whereas "Hillary is wrong on 100 percent of the issues." According to the iSideWith political quiz, my views match with Trump's 61% of the time and Clinton's 49% of the time, but with Evan McMullin's views 81% of the time. Like Garlow, "I wish it was 100 percent." But hey, I'll take what I can get.
  6. The author endorses nationalism over globalism and considers it a serious issue. I suppose if you share this view, it makes sense to endorse Trump. I don't share it, though I'm sympathetic to some anti-globalist impulses. I happen to believe that when, in a rare show of solidarity, virtually all economists agree that free trade is good, we should pay attention. While I believe borders should be protected and immigration regulated, I don't believe that immigration (illegal or otherwise) is the nation's scourge. I believe that we have a responsibility to our neighbors (at home and abroad) and that various NGOs are doing great work (often assisted by governments, including our own) to fight hunger, poverty, and diseases. I think Trumpism's obsession with globalism is an extreme overreaction to the real problems we face.
  7. The author says that "Trump has moved pro-life." "Moved" is one way to put it: he was "very pro-choice" before and during his 2000 Reform Party presidential run, even being in favor of access to partial-birth abortions, only pronounced himself "pro-life" when he first ran for president as a Republican in 2011, and has such flimsy understanding of pro-life issues that he took five different stances on the issue in three days this year. If you don't think he's merely pandering, then I have fetal tissue a bridge to sell you.
  8. The author says, "Hillary claims 'everything is fine' in America. This defies every single fact, but facts have never been an interest of Hillary's." Compare this to many conservatives' reactions to Michelle Obama saying in 2008, "For the first time in my adult life, I'm proud of my country," or the NFL national anthem protests. To many Americans, it would seem that the only determinant of whether America is "great" is whether or not figureheads of the opposite party currently claim that it is.
  9. "Trump will address the massive government spending" and "stop the massive overreach of government." Trump is a big-government authoritarian. Maybe he'll make government leaner in some areas by ruling by fiat instead of by bureaucracy, but I won't hold my breath for any balanced budgets or entitlement reform or anything else approaching fiscal conservatism.
  10. "Trump will expose—and I pray, bring down—'the systemic evil' (crony, deceitful, misuse of capitalism) that reigns among many high-dollar lobbyists." If you say so, Dr. Garlow, it must be so!
  11. "Trump fully grasps the loss of religious liberty. I have heard him speak on it in person on several occasions." I have a feeling the author was reading a lot more into Trump's statements than he was actually saying, but even if that's not the case, I doubt Trump actually backed up his teleprompter words with real conviction. His comments on his own personal faith are so nakedly about "checking the box" and nothing more (consider that he said he doesn't ask God for forgiveness because he just tries to be better, he called Communion "my little wine and my little cracker," and his favorite verse is "an eye for an eye"), that I'd be shocked if he had anything substantial or (even arguably) sincere to say about religious liberty. Moreover, on the issues that are front-and-center "culture war" issues to most evangelicals this year, Trump has been either solidly leftist or tepidly rightist (depending on the day). On transgender bathrooms, he first supported Obama's position, then decided he didn't care, then flip-flopped; on gay marriage, he's usually silent, but sometimes breaks the silence to signal his acceptance of homosexuality. Two spot-on satirical articles from the Babylon Bee sum it all up perfectly.
  12. The Supreme Court, another issue Garlow hypes up, is the one area that has tempted me to turn to Trumpism at times. He released a specific list of justices he might nominate earlier this year, and they were all solid. However, 1) he released another list more recently, and while there were no obvious problems with any of them (that I'm aware of), the list was very obviously not crafted for anything other than getting Ted Cruz's endorsement, and he will almost certainly not follow through on it, and 2) more generally, Trump's not exactly known for keeping his promises. 3) I was more comfortable exhorting conservative fence-sitters to vote McCain or Romney because of the justices issue, but there's a fundamental difference between those two and this one: they're actually sane. 4) Instead of using the Supreme Court as a wedge issue, we should try to reduce its effect as such by pushing for things like Supreme Court term limits (18 years), as Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, and others have.
  13. "I make no excuse for wrongdoing or wrongful, hurtful words from either candidate. Candidly, I want King Jesus. He rules in my heart. And yours too, I suspect. And I want Him to rule here—now. But that day is not fully manifested—yet. In the meantime, we prayerfully, carefully navigate this challenging election season, with great concern that above all, we honor our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in every arena of our lives, including the voting booth. That is my hope. I believe it is yours as well." Amen to all that!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The early American welfare state

The opinions of the Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson and Franklin, about welfare are described in an article by Professor Thomas West of Hillsdale College. West examines Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (particular Query 8 and Query 14) and a few of his letters, Franklin's On the Price of Corn and Management of the Poor, and early laws. He also points out that Locke's Second Treatise states that a man "ought" "to preserve the rest of mankind" "when his own preservation comes not in competition." Franklin and Jefferson were critical of Britain's poor laws, advocated a form of social insurance, and, to put it somewhat anachronistically, advocated a liberal welfare state in contradistinction to a Social Democratic or Christian Democratic welfare state.

West states the following characteristics of the early American welfare state:
  • The government of the community, not just private charity, assumes responsibility for its poor. This is far from the "throw them in the snow" attitude that is so often attributed to pre-1900 America.
  • Welfare is kept local so that the administrators of the program will know the actual situations of the persons who ask for help. This will prevent abuses and freeloading. The normal human ties of friendship and neighborliness will partly animate the relationship of givers and recipients.
  • A distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor is carefully observed. Able-bodied vagabonds get help, but they are required to work in institutions where they will be disciplined. Children and the disabled, on the other hand, are provided for, not lavishly but without public shame. The homeless and beggars will not be abandoned, but neither will they populate the streets. They will be treated with toughness or mercy according to their circumstances.
  • Jefferson's idea of self-reliance was in fact family reliance, based on the traditional division of labor between husband and wife. Husbands were legally required to be their families' providers; wives were not. Nonsupporting husbands were shamed and punished by being sent to the poorhouse.
  • Poor laws to support individual cases of urgent need were not intended to go beyond a minimal safety net. Benefit levels were low. The main remedy for poverty in a land of opportunity was marriage and work.
West goes on to state that the early system was much more effective at relieving poverty than the current system, but whether his analysis is sound or not is a question I'll leave to the economists.

Monday, July 25, 2016

My most politically incorrect opinion

No, it's not that people should eat the poor (or the rich). My most politically incorrect opinion is that society should reintroduce corporal punishment as an option for dealing with criminals. Hey, I warned you it was politically incorrect.
Why would I be so barbaric? Instead of me telling you, I'll enlist the help of the late theologian John Wenham's woefully obscure book The Goodness of God. Disclaimer: he doesn't directly defend the idea of corporal punishment here, but it's still the passage that convinced me it's a good thing. If you enjoy or are edified or challenged by this passage, I encourage you to buy or rent the book and experience its goodness for yourself.
Whether in fact the Old Testament laws were cruel in comparison with those of our supposedly humane society is not as self-evident as many think. The Old Testament relied mainly on payment of damages, strictly limited corporal punishment and capital punishment, whereas modern society relies mainly on fines and imprisonment. The nearest thing to imprisonment in Old Testament law was confinement to a city of refuge for unintentional homicide. The question of punishment is such an emotive subject that one almost despairs of its rational discussion. Anyone who defends corporal or capital punishment even in the most tentative way runs the risk of being branded as a sadistic ogre. Yet my horror of long-term imprisonment is horror at the sheer suffering that it entails. Far from being insensitive, I hate undergoing pain and seeing pain inflicted. Even though reason leads one to believe that the suffering is not nearly as bad as it looks, I hate to see a fly wriggling on a fly-paper or a fish struggling on a hook, and get little pleasure from watching amateur boxers knocking one another about, despite the knowledge that they do it because they enjoy it!
One would hate, therefore, really to hurt someone physically by way of punishment, and would deplore any system of corporal punishment which was either sadistic in intent or excessive in degree, or which was used without due consideration of the offender’s psychological needs. Even more would one shrink from joining the firing-squad and taking part in an execution. But would this mean having relatively little qualm about committing a man to prison for a decade? If one had no imagination and no compassion, it would of course by easy – no unpleasantness, no soiling of the hands, soon out of sight and out of mind. But in fact my slight experience of prisons and criminal asylums fills me with dismay. To substitute long imprisonment for execution may at first sight seem like mercy. But judged by the suffering to be endured it is, surely, the reverse of mercy.
Long imprisonment is a living death. A man is separated from his wife and family (often causing them prolonged, unmerited hardship), he is put in a single-sex institution where a normal sex-life is impossible, his companions are criminals, he is shut up to his own bad conscience, but in conditions ill-designed to effect repentance and reformation and with slender hopes of satisfactory rehabilitation after release. With unlimited money and with angels for warders (which, realists please note, will never be), some of these evils might be considerably mitigated, but nothing can do away with the fact that a human being is deprived of his liberty. This aspect of the matter is highlighted in our top security gaols, which may be clinically hygienic and immaculate in décor, but in which men of drive and brains and initiative rot out their days. It is true, of course, that the human spirit has a remarkable resilience even in appalling circumstances, and that life, however bad, is seldom one of unrelieved misery; some sort of mode of living is worked out in prison life, in which its lights and shades continue to be felt with pleasure and displeasure. It is often true too that the life out of prison of one who has fallen foul of society may already have lost many of the elements which make up a fully human life, so that in some respects life in prison may be less unpleasant than life outside. (Such men are often at least as much victims of a cruel society as its creators.) But it is a poor defence of long-term imprisonment to say that it is merely substituting one dehumanizing process for another.
If (per impossibile) some sort of calculus could be devised to assess the amount of suffering cased to offenders and their families by our long-drawn-out, physically painless punishments, and compare them with the short, sharp pains of the older punishments, I find it hard to believe that the new would prove the lighter. Furthermore, even in the most enlightened and affluent society, it is an enormous struggle to get adequate funds and suitable staff to run our penal institutions (and in a fallen society it seems unrealistic to believe that it will ever be otherwise). But in the poor, largely rural society of the Old Testament, the provision of humane, secure, long-term prisons would have laid an intolerable burden on the community – apart altogether from the suffering and corrosion of character caused by the loss of liberty.
It is all very well to talk in theory about the enlightenment and humanity of modern penal codes, but in practice the prisons of the twentieth century have probably witnessed torments as vile as those inflicted in any age and inflicted on a wider scale than ever before in history. We think naturally of Hitler’s concentration camps, of Japanese prisoner of war amps and of the prisons described by Solzhenitsyn. One’s mind is numbed as one tries to compute what it all adds up to in human terms. These examples (which come from three of the most ‘civilized’ nations of the world) are, it is true, very bad cases, but they are, alas, not isolated examples. Like the mushroom cloud of the atom bomb they are symbolic of our age. The inescapable fact appears to be that sin will take its toll of misery somehow. The primitive barbarity and the cheapness of life in the ancient Near East is dreadful to contemplate, but is our sophisticated barbarity really less dreadful? No society can hold together without punishment of transgressors, and punishment is by definition unpleasant. Are we really in a position to say that we could have devised for the Israelite people unpleasantness more just, humane and practical than those prescribed in the Old Testament law? I for one doubt it.
It is a principle [in the Old Testament law] that punishment allows the offender to make atonement and be reconciled with society. After he has paid the penalty the offender suffers no loss of his civil rights. Degradation of the offender as a motive for punishment is specifically excluded by Deuteronomy 25:3, where the number of strokes is limited to forty, ‘lest, if one should go on to heat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight’. The degrading brutality of many punishments under Assyrian law is in marked contrast to the Hebrew outlook.
 If you're still with me, check out C. S. Lewis' essay "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment" (included in the essay collection God in the Dock) for a defense of capital punishment and retributive justice.