Libertarianism and Private Prisons: Response to Gus DiZerega Part One

Gus DiZerega recently published a blog post about libertarian ideology and private prisons. He quoted a Facebook comment I left on a status update about the topic. This blog post constitutes a response to Gus. A comment will also be posted on his blog. The reader is encouraged to check it out.

In said piece; Gus says:

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.

We agree on this point. This would be less of a problem in a left-libertarian market anarchist society, because there would be no monopoly state or government to influence. The corporations would have to successfully bribe and get favors from a variety of defense associations. It would require more resources and effort. There would also be countervailing pressure from non-bought defense associations. If in fact said corporations would still exist without state or government favoritism. I doubt they would, because there would be no subsides, regulatory protectionism, tariff walls, and monopolistic state power backing them up.

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.

In a left-libertarian market anarchist society, prisoners would be able to choose what prison they want to go to. Prisons would compete by offering humane conditions. The clients of defense associations would be paying for prison upkeep, so there would be no forced labor by prisoners to pay their expenses. I can’t speak for other libertarians, but I wouldn’t refer to the slavery mentioned above as freedom.

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.

Principled libertarianism is designed to make sure that people actually representative of genuine libertarian ideology have their arguments addressed. A Nazi could otherwise claim to be libertarian and have libertarian ideas. As for non-state operated prisons, Gus is partially correct to note that “private” prison corporations represent them. I only say partially, because they receive taxpayer dollars and benefit from government or state legislation defining what a crime is. It does show that such things can partially exist, but it’s not the ideal model. The kidnappers example is faulty, because no anarcho-capitalist I know of would advocate that you could forcibly imprison someone without any trial and objective establishment of guilt. What is the difference between a defense association doing this and a government agent doing it? I’d also add that just because something hasn’t existed yet; that doesn’t mean it can’t exist. Democracy was once only an idea and yet is widespread today.

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.

I agree with Gus on this one. I support competing defense associations with prison, judicial, and police services. They would constitute the enforcement arm of a left-libertarian market anarchist legal system.

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist