Voters Need More Than Fiscal Arguments on Social Justice Issues

As analysts continue to pore over the election's results, there are valuable lessons for those who seek to reform government. Perhaps the most important case study is California's referendum to abolish the death penalty, where strong fiscal arguments did not sway voters.

California is in its worst fiscal crisis. On Election Day, voters approved a measure raising sales and income taxes to spare $6 billion in cuts to public schools. Against this backdrop, supporters of abolishing the death penalty cleverly publicized its enormous fiscal costs. Executing 13 prisoners since 1978 cost a whopping $4 billion, and eliminating capital punishment would save the state $130 million yearly. California has 726 prisoners on death row, and needs a new one with a $600 million price tag. In addition, the measure would have converted existing death sentences into life in prison without parole, therefore continuing to protect public safety.

Wise social justice advocates have learned that the most effective way to convince decisionmakers often rests with practical appeals to economic self-interest, instead of just in moral arguments. Over the last few years, they have used fiscal arguments (i.e. effects on government spending or revenue) to successfully persuade lawmakers to enact reforms, including same-sex marriage and prison population reductions.

It is accurate that the calculus of costs and benefits drives decision-making at all levels - personal, governmental, and financial. However, many social justice advocates have developed a cramped view of economics, adopting the incomplete definition peddled by conservatives that fixates on fiscal costs.

A true economic argument objectively examines all costs and benefits of a policy proposal. It weighs both sides of this "societal balance sheet" - including effects on government, the economy, society, and individuals. Values are also a part of this equation, like the values of human life or freedom. Taking all these factors into consideration, if all a policy's positive effects outweigh its negative effects, it should be enacted. Arguments based exclusively on fiscal costs are dangerous because they overemphasize one part of this complex equation.

The U.S. defense budget is a perfect example of how this plays out in government. This country spends more on the military than the 14 next largest spenders combined. It could slash its defense spending in half and would still spend more than twice as much as China, which ranks second. Yet no lawmaker would advocate for such action because he would be laughed out of Congress. Americans are committed to the value of maintaining "the best-trained, best-led, best equipped military in history" as a source of its power and security. They believe this massive fiscal spending - and lives lost - is worth the perceived benefits.

When individuals make decisions they too generally weigh the costs of a decision against its benefits. But their analysis is usually implicit, and focuses more on emotions, morals, and the effects on them and those they care about.

In California, death penalty opponents may have over emphasized fiscal costs, inadvertently under-emphasizing other values important to voters. This left them vulnerable to counterarguments that the state should simply streamline the mechanics of death to alleviate costs. The death penalty debate is not just about government spending. It is about how much society is willing to pay to "get justice." As one death penalty supporter wrote in The Los Angeles Times, "Retribution is not only a need of society; it is a right of those victimized." California voters showed that they are prepared to pay the price for what they see as justice.

To change this outcome, reformers need to alter voters' analysis by deflating the perceived moral benefits and emphasizing high personalized costs. This is very difficult in the context of the death penalty. Future campaigns could try running stronger commercials focusing on personalizing costs and benefits. One campaign radio commercial stated that eliminating the death penalty "can save $130 million per year - we can use that money to fund schools and fight crime."A stronger commercial could pose this question: "Is it worth $130 million to you to execute a murderer? Did you know that if he instead spent the rest of his life behind bars, the state could hire 4,000 additional teachers and your child could learn in a class with 20 students instead of 40?"

Social justice reformers are wise to cast arguments in economic terms. But when advocating to the public, they must remember that lurking alongside dollars and cents are values and misconceptions. For instance, those seeking to end mass incarceration must demonstrate that reducing the prison population will save tax dollars and reinvigorate Americans' wallets. But we must first explain that the public is safer than it has ever been, and that these reforms will not let loose criminals into neighborhoods to commit more crimes but will actually increase public safety. We should also explain that the criminal justice system has grown so large that all Americans are vulnerable to being caught in its tentacles.

The good news is that social justice advocates have learned to use the right language. The bad news is that they are speaking that language with a limited vocabulary.

Inimai M. Chettiar is the Director of the Brennan Center's Justice Program. She focuses on using economics and cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate that helping struggling communities can help the country as a whole achieve economic and social prosperity.