A Government Just Big Enough to Kill Somebody

Conservatives believe government is incompetent, until it comes to the death penalty.

Editorial cartoon on botched Oklahoma execution
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If you hate government, and think it can’t do anything right, then Clayton Lockett should be your new poster child. Lockett is the convicted rapist and murderer that Oklahoma tried to execute the other day. But something went wrong. He remained conscious long after receiving his supposedly lethal injection. Then, after more than 40 minutes of writhing in pain, he died. Of a heart attack.

Here are two primary threads of current far right thinking, all wrapped up in one horrible story. On the one hand, you have government acting at arguably its most malevolent (killing a citizen). And on the other, you have government screwing it up.

[Vote: Is Oklahoma's botched execution a reason to rethink the death penalty?]

But unlike the cacophony that rose in defense of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy last week, in this case there were crickets from the right. Why? The reason, of course, is that while Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Sean Hannity et al. don’t think government is competent to do very much of anything, they all support the death penalty. And when you think of the kind of rhetoric we’ve been hearing from the hard right of late, that’s quite something.

You know what I’m talking about: The Obama administration is looking for any excuse to let loose the drones of war against its citizens; Americans need ever increasing firepower in their homes to protect against creeping government tyranny; FEMA is setting up secret camps to round up conservatives, and hold them at bay while the federal government sets about its nefarious ends.

If this is what you think about your government, it’s difficult to understand how you could feel sanguine about entrusting it with the power to exercise the death penalty. I mean, isn’t that like inviting the fox into the chicken coop? Here is government, which you already believe is up to terrible things, now given permission to effect the most significant denial of liberty of all — out in the open, and with the sanction of law. You’d think that would send Ben Shapiro deep into his underground bunker, never to appear again. But no … conservatives see the threat in cattle grazing fees, not phenobarbital.

I mean, if the government can’t get anything right, then giving it the discretion to kill people seems like something of a high stakes gamble. And yet, conservatives support the death penalty, right down the line. The reason, of course, is that conservative hostility towards government isn’t always as principled as it sounds.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

First, despite the fact that state governments have arguably been responsible for more significant and unjust denials of liberty than the federal government (think of: Jim Crow laws, etc.), conservatives have a lot more faith in the former than the latter, and most executions happen on the state level.

But more significantly, while the conservative attack on government can often feel like a blanket indictment, it's usually deployed with much more discrete policy goals in mind. In other words, when conservatives say that government is the problem, what they actually mean is that they’d like to do away with a specific subset of government programs, not government as a whole.

Does that feel like nuance? It’s not. For while we may all share conservative frustration with government from time to time, for most of us that’s balanced by an investment in those programs that help us, something that can be easier to recall when you realize its often those same programs that conservatives are actually taking aim at. So the next time a conservative subjects you to an anti-government rant, call him on it. Demand specifics. Highlighting the hypocrisy helps clarify the full picture.

[Read Teresa Welsh's round-up on Clayton Lockett's execution.]

Look, I don’t know anything about the Lockett case. And if you’ve lost a loved one to a crime, it seems to me you are entirely within your right to demand any penalty you see fit. Society has a different role, of course, and that’s to set penalties that reflect the kind of country we want to be, not just the one we conceive of in our inconsolable rage or grief, no matter how justified and understandable that rage or grief may be.

But wherever you come down on the issue, one thing seems perfectly clear: You can’t offer a blanket indictment of government on the one hand, and then say you support the death penalty on the other. Those are irreconcilable positions. And when you understand that, there’s a lot more about conservative anti-government rhetoric that just doesn’t make sense.