Below is a guest post by Cory Massimino, a blogger for Students for Liberty. Prison abolitionism is an intriguing idea, one that interests me but I have yet to explore in depth. Unafraid, Massimino goes there and argues that prisons — even for the violent individuals who may “deserve it” — have no place in the ideal libertarian society.
Let us know how you feel in the comments.
The prison system as we know it is commonly regarded as disgusting, brutal, unethical, and the antithesis to anything and everything libertarians stand for. America’s prisons are funded with money expropriated from tax payers, awarded to politically connected prison contractors, to cage human beings largely charged with only harming themselves. Every step of the way, the modern prison system is structured in such a way that benefits politicians, police unions, and prison contractors, at the expense of tax payers, minorities, harmless drug users, and others guilty of the state-created fairy tale known as “victimless crimes.”
What would an ideal prison system look like? Libertarians and others with a yearning for justice suspect it would be a much smaller institution, in place only to put away those in society that are truly guilty of wrong doing, such as murders, thieves, and rapists. They don’t want it to be abused by politicians, unions, and crony capitalists. They want it to be a truly blind system, that doesn’t disproportionately put away minorities and provides true justice. While I share these admirable goals, I believe the prison system should not only be shrunken, but abolished all together on both ethical and pragmatic grounds.
Libertarians are dedicated to the idea of non-aggression. We believe the initiation of force is wrong, and the only time aggression is justified is in self-defense. While this is the core of libertarian ethics, it is not the whole story.
Suppose I just don’t like your face and decide to step on your toe. I have aggressed against you and violated your rights. Since you are now justified in retaliating, would it be ethically allowed for you to shoot me? You are allowed to retaliate, but that doesn’t mean any and all actions you take are justified. While you would not exactly be initiating force against me, your act of retaliation (shooting me) is not proportional to my use of force (stepping on your toe), and is, therefore, not ethically allowed. While we must refrain from initiating force, we must also refrain from using a disproportionate amount of retaliatory force. If you shot me for stepping on your toe, you would be acting disproportionately, and that counts as aggression.
It follows then, that libertarians are dedicated to a strict use of the term “self-defense.” We can act aggressive insofar as that aggression is needed to defend ourselves or make ourselves whole. For example, if you stole my cell phone, I can capture you and force you to give my cell phone back. If you had lost or destroyed my cell phone before I captured you, you would be ethically required to make me whole to the best of your ability; to pay restitution. Depending on certain cultural and legal norms, you would have to buy me a new cell phone, or give me the monetary equivalent of my cell phone, or any other similar actions.
This has certain implications for the use of punishment in society. In fact, it means coercion for the sake of punishment is morally unjustified, since punishing someone for the sake of punishment goes beyond acting out of mere self-defense. While we may have inclinations to act out of revenge or payback, we can’t justify coercion in the name of solely inflicting suffering because that would be a disproportionate use of force. The only justification for the continuous restraining of people, like a prison does, would be in the case of people who just won’t stop committing crimes; repeat offenders. A society based on restitution and making the victim whole, rather than punishment is the realization of non-aggression and proportionality.
What do we make of the pragmatic objections to a restitution-based, prison-free justice system? The most common objection is what do we do with criminals? We must acknowledge that in a free society, the amount of “criminals” would be dramatically less than it is now. The prison system cages millions of non-violent drug offenders that would be free to do what they wish to their own body in a free society.
Okay, but what about the current prisoners who did commit a real crime, such as murder, rape or theft? What do we do with them? No doubt, people who commit these crimes, under most circumstances, are despicable, wretched individuals. But we must acknowledge that many crimes are done in the heat of the moment to people the perpetrator personally knows. Committing a single crime is not, in itself, a sign that you will commit another one or that you are an ongoing threat. Simple restitution seems appropriate in the cases where people are not expected to be repeat offenders.
Alright, what, then, do we do with true criminals — the murderers, the rapists, the thieves, that are repeat offenders? I strongly suspect that private companies, instead of spending money to build large buildings to house this small number of repeat offenders, would find it profitable to use a system similar to that of house arrest. It would be more efficient to use technology and guards on call to restrain people to their homes than to transport them all to a single, large location.
Furthermore, restitution would act as a deterrent for committing criminal acts and some kind of insurance scheme described by economist Robert Murphy in Chaos Theory, which would be used to determine and know people’s criminal history, could create incentives to remain peaceful through charging higher or lower premiums.
Libertarians ought not only object to the modern, crony infested prison system that commits heinous crimes on a daily basis, but also support the abolition of prisons all together. Taken to its logical conclusions, the non-aggression principle and the principle of proportionality require the end to all prisons and pragmatic considerations only reinforce our case against them. Prisons have no place in a free society.
Who will build the prisons in Libertopia? No one.
Cory Massimino studies economics at Seminole State University and blogs for Students For Liberty. He spends his time ranting about the government and educating people on basic economics. Follow him on Twitter