Pulling Leviathan's Teeth – The Political Economy of Death Penalty Abolition

30 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2016

See all articles by Jerg Gutmann

Jerg Gutmann

University of Hamburg - Institute of Law and Economics

Date Written: January 18, 2016


It is not immediately apparent why a state would willingly abolish the death penalty and thereby lose a powerful political instrument. The fact that some states abolish capital punishment while others retain it has thus far been explained by systematic differences in the values of politicians or citizens. An explanation of different behavior based on different preferences for such behavior is, however, largely tautological and not of much use to social science. This article proposes and empirically tests a political economy model in which rational politicians are more likely to abolish the death penalty when it is of no political use to them and if the process of abolition serves as a self-commitment in periods of transition. The results of estimating stratified Cox regression models show that the death penalty tends to be abolished particularly during periods of democratization and transitions to peace, but also that independence of the judiciary can encourage abolition. In contrast, military dictatorships are significantly more likely to retain capital punishment, as are countries with a common law legal system and those that are strongly politically influenced by Islam. These findings support the view that the abolition of capital punishment is at least partly motivated by rational political considerations.

Keywords: capital punishment, death penalty abolition, political economy, positive constitutional economics, spatial policy diffusion, survival analysis

JEL Classification: K14, K42, P16, P26, P48, Z18

Suggested Citation

Gutmann, Jerg, Pulling Leviathan's Teeth – The Political Economy of Death Penalty Abolition (January 18, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2718323 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2718323

Jerg Gutmann (Contact Author)

University of Hamburg - Institute of Law and Economics ( email )

Johnsallee 35
Hamburg, 20148

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