Do we want cops and politicians to go to prison? Is that a demand that individualist anarchists, radical libertarians, and other enemies of the state should get behind?
Intuitively, it seems like we should. We’re instinctively outraged that cops can outright murder people and almost never get locked up for it. We’re understandably incensed that politicians from Richard Nixon to Ted Kennedy can commit heinous crimes and stay free, just because of their high social standing.
More fundamentally, even when cops and politicians are operating strictly within the limits of the law, they commit acts that would otherwise be seen as high crimes. As long as they follow all the right rituals of law, cops can threaten and kidnap completely peaceful people, and batter them if they resist. By waging war, politicians commit mass murder, and by expanding the prison state for campaign contributions, they literally sell people into slavery.
Ordinary people would certainly at least go to prison if caught doing any of those things. Anarchism is in part defined by a rejection of political authority, which means that we do not morally distinguish between the actions of a cop or politician and the actions of any other individual. So, one might think that the straightforward conclusion here is to one day set up libertarian tribunals to dish out punishments against agents of the state.
This view is understandable, but gravely mistaken.
Before law enters into the situation, we tend to hold to a pretty strict standard of self-defense. Which is to say: in any interpersonal conflict, we reject the initiation of force and only accept violence to the extent that it’s both proportional and genuinely necessary to protect the person being harmed or threatened. When someone goes beyond that minimally necessary amount of force, then they also become an aggressor, and their actions must also be condemned. After the fact, we demand that aggressors make restitution to their victims, but never counsel revenge.
There are very, very rare instances in which forced confinement may be justified, but this is only the case when someone is proven to actually be an ongoing threat to everyone in the community. Even then, this justification doesn’t apply for even the vast majority of violent criminals, and a justification for forced confinement does not justify forced confinement in any particular place. Nor does it justify the near total control that prisons have over prisoners. Hence why prisons are still inherently unjust.
A response might be offered that cops and politicians are indeed ongoing threats to the community at large. That much is true.
Yet the reason cops and politicians are ongoing threats to the community is not because of some psychological condition shared by all cops and politicians. Nor is it about any other quality shared by the particular individuals who occupy those positions of power. Rather, the individuals in those positions of power are ongoing threats to the community precisely because of their positions of power.
In other words, the minimal amount of force necessary to subdue them is just to get them fired or out of office, with the long-run goal of eliminating their jobs entirely. As for getting justice, what should be demanded is restitution – either in the form of hefty monetary compensation, or making amends through some other restorative process. Unlike punishment, that restitution can actually work toward giving back some of what’s been taken from their victims.
Which brings us to what may be the most important point: putting cops and politicians in prison does absolutely nothing to actually solve anything. When some on the left called for the trial and incarceration of George W. Bush (and others in his administration), prison abolitionist Dean Spade dissented, writing:
[T]he call to imprison Bush Administration officials is unsatisfying to me. Imprisoning them would do nothing for those who have been killed in the wars, and making the call, to me, suggests that we believe the criminal punishment system is an apparatus for dealing with dangerous people and seeking justice, which is not true. I would rather we put our energies into fighting for things we actually think can ameliorate the harm that has been done and prevent it from continuing.
Even if Bush had gone to prison, the United States government would still be bombing Iraq again in 2014. Even if Darren Wilson goes to prison, the police will continue to arrest black youth at wildly disproportionate rates. To the extent that their sentences would count as victories, they would only be symbolic victories. Those symbolic victories would lead many of us to believe everything was finally under control, numbing our passions for justice, and distracting us from the root causes of their aggression. Just like any other case of punishment.
The desire to fill prisons with those who are most truly dangerous in our society – namely, agents of the state – is a hard one to shake. Even still, it must be seen as a lingering form of retributivism felt by radicals brought up in a culture of criminal law, and like all forms of retributivism, it must be rejected. Especially given that its rationale is the same that empowers the very people it’s trying to fight against.