As a young man I was a libertarian. In time the accumulated problems with the ideology led me to abandon it. But I remain a believer in its most fundamental moral insights (and argue libertarians haven’t any real understanding of them) and find some elements in the social thinking of people they admire to be very important. More negatively, I think their economistic style of thinking has done enormous damage to this country. Enormous. So I have not simply turned my back on it.
But as an ideology, it is bankrupt. Its smartest proponents are hamstrung by its theoretical blindnesses, blindnesses that make it a haven for hacks. No contemporary issue demonstrates this blindness more clearly than the growth pf private prisons. The following discussion grew from a facebook discussion because the issue is complex enough to outgrow that medium’s capacity to illuminate.
The curse of privatizing public responsibilities
For decades libertarians and classical liberals have argued that privatizing public agencies performing necessary tasks would make them more efficient. Privatize the national parks. Privatize the fire departments. Privatize the roads. Privatize the schools. Anarchists even argue for privatizing the prisons and the police. Let the “magic of the market” replace the inefficient and often corrupt hand of the bureaucracy.
Gradually this spread of kind of thinking far beyond libertarian circles has encouraged even supporters of public services to think about them in private terms in which citizens become consumers. But whereas the term :citizen” applies to everyone equally, the term “consumer” is the opposite. Everyone is a consumer, but not at all equal even as an ideal. The results are hideous when the logic of consumers and of privatization is applied outside its appropriate sphere.
Privatized prisons give us a catastrophic example of this logic at work in the US today. Their record exposes the radical incapacity of libertarian and classical liberal thinking to understand the nature of human society, or of the freedom about which they continually lecture the rest of us.
Privatization of prisons creates corporations with a vested interest in maintaining current crimes as illegal even when there is no just reason for doing so, because it guarantees keeping their cells filled and their profits high. They also have a vested interest in criminalizing additional behavior. They demonstrably use some of their profits to support friendly legislators and lobby for legislation they desire. And their political favors are returned.
At the same time since prison inmates are not their customers they have an incentive to spend the absolute minimum allowed on them, so as to keep the most for themselves. My old friend Scott B. observed he had “ learned why the Sheriff of Marion County, Indiana was the highest paid government official in the state. Sheriffs get to keep the difference between the fixed per prisoner allocation and the cost of running the jail.” He became opulent employing modern business management in government agencies.
The next step in this logic will be to force inmates to work at minimum wages to pay their way (so as to ‘help taxpayers’) and charge them for their incarceration. Thus market logic will re-establish slavery in the US. And libertarians will call it freedom and the magic of the market.
Of course they deny this.
A libertarian FB commentator replied “Principled libertarians have to oppose ‘private’ prisons which are really public-private corporations partially profiting off laws libertarians oppose. Non-state operated prisons generally are not the equivalent of corporate ones. You could have non-for profit entities do it. It’s also true that some libertarians oppose prisons entirely in favor of restitutive justice. I lean in that direction, but I have some questions about it.”
Setting aside the escape clause of “principled libertarians,” which plays the same role as “real Christians” does for aggressive evangelicals, we end up with an anarchist argument that somehow things will be different without a ‘state.’
What pray tell is a ‘non-state operated’ prison? The writer writes as if such things exist. The closest analogue I can imagine as currently existing are either the private prisons I am discussing or kidnappers incarcerating their prey until ransom is paid. Such people are simply free lance anarcho capitalist entrepreneurs if they claim their victim is being held until restitution for alleged crimes against others. Like seizing Dick Cheney. Much as I think he should spend the rest of his life in jail, that is a very bad precedent as any sane person should recognize.
The term “laws libertarians oppose” is revelatory. Libertarians do not oppose all laws, especially laws protecting property rights. And my argument applies to people incarcerated for breaking those laws as well as laws libertarians oppose. The issue is not laws, it is law breakers and how to treat them.
By definition a prison forcibly incarcerates a person against his or her will as punishment for a crime he or she allegedly committed. This means there had to be a system to apprehend a person against their will, take them to some process where their guilt or innocence could be determined, and if found guilty, incarcerated. Otherwise the existence of a ‘prison’ as a legitimate part of society makes no sense at all.
Non-profits often pad the salaries of their top people, especially big ones. Padded salaries come from shifting resources away from other purposes, like that sheriff in Marion County. Just because something is a nonprofit does not mean those in charge are not greedy. Consider the Komen Foundation and others like it. There is nothing sacred about nonprofits. Some are great and some are corrupt.
In addition, where will the non-profits get the money they need? Someone has to pay for them. We are more likely to contribute to causes that support positive goods than ones that incarcerate bad guys.
In a libertarian society we get the likelihood of an even faster creation of de facto slavery. It is in keeping with libertarian ideologies that prisoners will be told they will get no ‘free rides’ while in the slammer. They must work. So long as their pay is low enough to not pay their expenses in full they are permanently in debt. Like the old company stores- only this time they are incarcerated as well. This already happens in the ‘free market’ of immigration and finding jobs abroad for people from poor countries. It is stupid to think this will not happen when a big organization’s financing depends on keeping people incarcerated.
In public prisons in democratic countries if people are incarcerated they retain the rights of citizenship including being able to see an attorney. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of why that matters. In that case the accused ended up with court appointed attorneys. This is something that beggars the imagination happening in a libertarian anarchy. Ron Paul did not even help his most important fund raiser pay his medical bills, and libertarians as a whole raised only 10% of the total needed. His survivors were left with a huge debt. If libertarians cannot help their own people who have rendered them great services, why expect them to help the accused who often are guilty?
Some libertarians such as the one I quote above then shift the ground to ‘restitutive justice.’ I agree that when possible restitutive justice is a good thing and vastly superior to incarceration. We need much more of it. Nevertheless it needs to be enforced with the threat of less desirable punishment if the person does not provide restitution. Further some crimes have little chance for restitution, such as murder. If you claim, as some libertarians do, that they should pay “weregeld” or some other medieval notion, we need to remember that back then the fine for killing the equivalent of a Koch brother was vastly more than for killing a peasant. It would be the same in a libertarian society where ‘the market’ is the final evaluator of worth. Indeed, this happened in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire during a time in our history that libertarians generally praise as superior to our own for ‘freedom’.
Given that choice I’ll take government with all its flaws, thank you.
My libertarian critic writes “Imprisoning people is not one of my public values and whether people have public values or at least believe they do depends on their subjectivity.” This is exhibit A of my claim that libertarian style reasoning has rendered public values invisible. Almost no one has a public value of imprisoning people. The value is protecting people without regard to their status in society. It is a value nearly every American gives lip service to, most truly believe, and many disagree on how to implement. That is what democratic decision making is about.
In a democracy a public value is what a citizen claims society as a whole would benefit from if government acted to make it more fully realized than would be the case if left to purely private initiatives. Public education is an almost universal public value. National parks are almost unanimously favored as public values. Defense is another. Public health another. For the vast majority of us Social Security is. For many of us universal health care is a public value.
For libertarians one public value is determining what constitutes property rights. Until they are determined the vaunted libertarian market cannot exist much past the point of barter. Libertarianism is parasitical on government in this respect. It depends on it for the market to work but then claims that government is what keeps the market from working even better.
Public values are not necessarily always good. Many of us think making contraceptives available is a public value and others think banning them is a public value. There are many such disagreements. People will always disagree (look at the disagreements among libertarians!) – and in a free society what is decided to be a public value is determined by processes where every citizen has equal weight at some point in the process. We call it democracy, and it is NOT simply majority rule. Going into that in any depth is complex and I wrote a book about the issue, but a good overview of the reasons why majority rule is NOT a definitiopn of democracy though it is a useful rule in some decision making contexts is my blog discussion.
The crucial difference between being a citizen and being a consumer is that at some point that matters all citizens are equal. Reform is in the direction of making that point more important when it gets subverted, usually by money. No one thinks that it is vital that all consumers have the same money. Citizenship applies to our relation to public values and being a consumer applies to some of our relationships to private ones.
Democracy is complicated and never perfect, but it is a vastly more rational way to address problems of public concern than libertarian boilerplate about ‘stateless’ societies existing beyond the level of a village.
(Some additions and elaborations added 4/17/14)