INTERMITTENT IRON FIST….As the New York Times reported today:

China executed its former top food and drug regulator today for taking bribes to approve untested medicine as Beijing scrambled to show that it is serious about improving the safety of Chinese products.

This might sound like extreme law and order. But severity of punishment should not be confused with an effective system to prevent future lapses. China today has a sort of 18th century legal system, in which a handful of people are punished very severely while most get off scot-free. Draconian punishments are heavily publicized. The official doctrine is that such examples will send a chill through the countryside, scaring people into reform. But corruption continues unabated. As storied legal reformer Cesare Beccaria noted, a system to ensure certainty of punishment is a much more reliable stick than serendipitously harsh sentences.

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Christina Larson is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and an award-winning science and environment journalist who has reported from five continents.