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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/8050/prison-nation/

Prison Nation

April 25, 2008 by

Americans, perhaps like all people, have a remarkable capacity for tuning out unpleasantries that do not directly affect them. I’m thinking here of wars on foreign lands, but also the astonishing fact that the United States has become the world’s most jail-loving country, with well over 1 in 100 adults living as slaves in a prison. Building and managing prisons, and locking people up, has become a major facet of government power in our time, and it is long past time for those who love liberty to start to care.

Remember that every law on the books, every regulation, every line in the government codebook, is ultimately enforced by prison. The jail cell is the symbol and ultimate end of statism itself. It would be nice if we thought of the interests of those who are prisoners in society and those who will become so. But even if you are not likely to be among them, consider the loss of privacy, the loss of liberty, the loss of independence, the loss of all that used to be considered truly American, in the course of building prison nation.


Troy Lynch April 25, 2008 at 4:29 pm

Dear Llewellyn:

Great assessment of the situation.

I heard Adam Gelb on ABC National radio a few weeks back (in Melbourne, Australia) discussing a recent report into sentencing and corrections – ‘One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008′ by the Pew Trusts:
This may have been the source of data referred to in that article you mentioned.

He mentioned that it costs the states US$50BN to house and feed prisoners, and that 1 in 100 males in the US are in prison, and that recidivism rates are quite high, exacerbating the problem.

This, I presume, is the unfortunate outcome from penology as a “solution” to criminal activity. I suppose that if the focus was on restitution and compensation of the victim, by the perpetrator, one’s guilt has been addressed, and one is free to walk. Apart from restitution, corporal and capital punishment are also necessary. We have almost none of these as components of the Australian criminal system, with justice focused mainly to paying one’s crime to satisfy the state, and this, as in America, is mainly achieved through penology. This sorry state of affairs will end as surely as the Berlin wall went kathump!


Troy Lynch

Matt April 25, 2008 at 4:53 pm

“There were 30,000 people in jail for drugs in 1980, while today there are half a million.”

legalize drugs….problem solved !, but that is an issue
not addressed.

LanceH April 25, 2008 at 8:15 pm

An excellent article.

People should be locked up only if they have shown themselves to be inveterate violators of life, liberty, or property. And even then they should earn their way in prison, buying their food and accomodation out of the work that they do.

On top of that, there should be greater emphasis on corporal punishment, especially for acts of violence.

And victimless crimes should be repealed.

The prison system should therefore cost zilch. The difficulty is how to treat the criminally insane. Possibly they should become the responsibility of their parents, if the cause is genetic.

TLWP Sam April 25, 2008 at 10:58 pm

I was interested in how prisons would work in a Libertarian society and the fact of life would be they probably wouldn’t exist as the cost is a ‘dead loss’. Traditionally societies didn’t have prisons for the same reason. Traditional punishments have been – death, beatings, mutiliation, exile, fines and restitution.

Inquisitor April 26, 2008 at 7:16 am

It’s actually described in The Market for Liberty, which you can find online.

Chip April 26, 2008 at 12:42 pm

I am in 100% agreement with Mr. Rockwell’s assessment of the US prison system. It has grown to absurd proportions over the last few decades – mostly due to scores of new victimless laws. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” now only applies if you agree to only pursue happiness in a state-approved fashion.

I am a bit concerned with with some of the comments here, though. Two out of five recommending corporal punishment? Just because the US military doesn’t have a problem with beating and maiming prisoners in semi-secret doesn’t mean we should make it official policy. There are plenty of viable ways to deter criminals without resorting to barbarism.

Personally, I think the emphasis should be on restitution, not just punishment. If a person is accidentally harmed by another, a judge or jury determines an appropriate amount of compensatory damages and orders the responsible party to pay it. I see no reason why intentional injuries should not deserve similar compensation, possibly combined with house arrest until the debt is paid.

Deacon April 26, 2008 at 6:30 pm


One must consider race when addressing over-populated prisons (excerpt from a U.S. published article about Paul Sheehan’s report on race and crime):

“Paul Sheehan, an Australian reporter, dug out the following Information for an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 2, 1995.

“Sheehan based his statistics on crime data compiled by the FBI and partially reported each year in The FBI Uniform Crime Report . These reports can be researched At the FBI’s website, http://www.fbi.gov.

“Since the FBI doesn’t distinguish between Hispanics and whites, Sheehan’s statistics don’t adequately reflect the black-white crime situation.

“Only about 10-15% of Hispanics are white, with the rest being Indian or a mixture of white, American Indian, and blacks.

“Hispanic crime rates are almost as high as black crime rates. This means that the data Sheehan compiled on inter-racial crime is probably grossly understated since a considerable portion of the “white against black” crime actually is Hispanic-against-black crime. (Information about this aspect of inter-racial crime will be presented in a related article.)

“Here is the information Sheehan uncovered in his analysis of the FBI’s crime reports:

-”Blacks murder more than 1,600 whites each year.

-”Blacks murder whites at 18 times the rate whites murder blacks.

-”Blacks murdered, raped, robbed, or assaulted about one million whites In 1992.

-”In the last 30 years, blacks committed 170 million violent and non-violent crimes against whites.

-”Blacks under 18 are more than 12 times more likely to be arrested for murder than whites under 18.

-”About 90% of the victims of interracial crimes are white.

-”Blacks commit 7.5 times more violent interracial crimes than whites, although whites outnumber blacks by 7 to 1.

-”On a per capita basis, blacks commit 50 times more violent crime than whites.

-”Black neighborhoods are 35 times more violent than white neighborhoods.

-”Of the 27 million nonviolent robberies in 1992, 31% (8.4 million) were committed by blacks against whites. Less than 2% were committed by whites against blacks.

-”Of the 6.6 million violent crimes, 20% (1.3 million) were interracial.

-”Of the the 1.3 million interracial violent crimes, 90% (1.17 million) are black against white.

-”In the past 20 years, violent crime increased four times faster than the population.

-”In the last 30 years (1964-94), more than 45,000 people were killed in interracial murders compared to 38,000 killed in Korea and 58,000 in Vietnam.

-”Sheehan commented that the contents of his article could not possibly be published or discussed in the U.S. mainstream media.

-”In the last 50 years, the white part of the American population has declined from 90% to 72%. The U.S. now has about 33 million blacks and 25 million Hispanics (legal and illegal). By the year 2050, American whites will be a minority, just 49%. By 2100, whites will be 25% of the population.

-”What will life for whites be like in the future?”

-end of report


Owen April 27, 2008 at 12:26 am


Traditionally, there were no democracies either. Libertarianism would not have prisons you are right but you have to ask if this is the right outcome.

It is true that prisons cost money and that at the moment citizens pay for them through taxes. Prisons are one end of a chain which includes both the Justice System and Police which all act together to enforce the rules that the society sets for all people living within it’s jurisdiction.

People are therefore happy to pay the cost of prisons just as they are happy to pay for the police and Justice system.


Prisons have a number of different purported functions:

- rehabilitation
- protection for society from “dangerous people”
- deterrance of crimes being committed
- punishment of criminals
…and some more…

These functions are all valued by citizens as public goods because they act to make society safer for everyone – although there is still much debate over the weight and merit of each function.

Remember the government of the day is simply the largest voluntary libertarian “group” within each geographical area and as such enforces it’s own morals and laws onto all within the territory whether they like it or not. People who denounce the government are able to form their own militias and try to oppose these morals and laws but once outside the protection of a government they find themselves at the whim of “might is right” since there is no universal higher power governing their interaction between them and that majority voluntary group of citizens (also known as the self-proclaimed government).

The China-Tibet conflict has been a good eample of this in recent months. People can cry about what China does but the only way to possibly change their Tibet opression is through force, and no-one sees the benefits of that course of action outweighing the considerable costs of an international conflict.

As for the question of restitution I do believe that this should take place but in New Zealand at the moment it doesn’t yet. the “Crown” has the sole right of restitution but I hope this will change soon.

Andrew April 27, 2008 at 3:35 am

The recidivism rate for the USA is 60% only 10% higher than the UK. So it seems that for the most part, people are people, they behave how they will behave as a naturally intrinsic function of human nature, its simply how we deal with them that dictates how much damage is mitigated to law abiding members of society. How much money should be spent incarcerating as opposed to programs of prevention? The libertarian approach would be to expel members of society who violate the rights of others? In the absence of government would groups of private citizens exist to assist criminals, to rehabilitate ones who were interested and able? Who would pay?

A process of incremental change needs to start somewhere, preventative psychology and strong support for children is paramount.

In any case, here in Canada our prison system is far more liberal, victims take a lot more injustice, but our prison bill is much smaller. The revolving door system.

TLWP Sam April 27, 2008 at 9:32 am

Actually I’d guess in a Libertarian society the average person could defend themselves with whatever means necessary such that most criminals wouldn’t bother and find another country with soft laws.

Owen April 27, 2008 at 4:21 pm

“Actually I’d guess in a Libertarian society the average person could defend themselves with whatever means necessary such that most criminals wouldn’t bother and find another country with soft laws.”

No, they would just band together to create larger gangs.

“Whatever means necessary” in current society means the National Police and Justice System. It is my “hired security force” and they do a good job. If we need more then we will get more but for now the balance between police force and powers and peoples freedom in New Zealand is good.

Andrew April 28, 2008 at 12:25 am

As it pertains to law and justice I will pose this question here, I am new to the libertarian school of thought, it terms of social order and law, I have always supported free market policies. I wonder, in a society with privatized legal systems and police systems, in the context of stateless nation, how would decisions be enforced, by what authority? How could a decision made by a free market court not be superseded by another market court? Would a constitution of some sort need to be followed to lay the groundwork defining how free market law courts could function, at this point how is that different from state monopoly law?

Owen April 28, 2008 at 2:41 am


The traditional Libertarian argument is that decisions will be made is a court commissioned solely by the prosecuting person(s) and that their decision would be allowed to be enforced by the opposing defence agancy because it is “not in the interest” of them to squabble.

I don’t quite myself understand the market forces that would stop the dominant security company from being able to enforce any and every of it’s decisions at whim and from eventually being able to either merge with and/or destroy any security agencies that opposed it.

Another point is that there is nothing forcing any one security agency to abide by any specific set of rules because as long as they are powerful enough they could enforce whatever their customers wanted. For example if we are talking about white South Africans and they wished to reimpose Apartheid then they could do so as long as their security company is the strongest.

Can you see where we are getting at? Once you step out from the sanctity of government protection you go into “no-mans-land” where might is right to reuse the phrase. Does this situation remind you of anywhere in particular? Yes, it is the realm of intergovernmental relations.

Each private security agency would act like a private “government” trying to assert the will of it’s customers on the other. Yes it would need to make deals with other like-size agencies, just as New Zealand has to do with other like-size countries.

…but who does the USA give way to? No-one. It has vetoed hundreds of UN Resolutions over the past 50 years because it will “not relinquish it’s soverignty to another body or nations”. And good on it.

The inevitable result of a libertarian society would be before long another government because the process of consolidation and domination by larger security agencies would lead to one being in control of the country. It has no rational reason to do anything else.

Inquisitor April 28, 2008 at 4:12 am

Andrew, The Market for Liberty is the best brief exposition of these matters on a libertarian society. As I said before, it’s available online.

Andrew April 28, 2008 at 11:20 am

Thanks Inquisitor, I will check that out.

It is hard to see how a cartel collusion among security providers could not take place. I view anarchist society as a distant future utopia, it would be dependent on changing underlying conditions that are presently rendering government ineffective. That is the desire in human nature to use physical force, political power, legal control and confiscate wealth. Society will always report to a hierarchy, without an established order, one will emerge, as was pointed out and how will that order compare with a constitution government?

Adam Smith states that under conditions of perfect liberty, markets would lead to perfect equality. I think its more accurate to say, equality opportunity for all players. This will not result in the Marxist dream of factories to all the workers, an indiscriminant social equality. Markets are based on merit, who is most capable is who will gather the most wealth and therefore the most power. It is true that often those who accumulate the most wealth, are malevolent, rapacious and become increasingly dominant. So ask yourself, are people in society as equally endowed with ability or merit to the degree required to create a viable balance of power?

I like to think of an anarchist society as peace loving covens of free market entrepreneurs, however, the intent of many in society is not congruent with this aim. A the rick of sounding cliche, wouldn’t we be at the mercy of whichever maniacal plutocracy of ‘robber barons’ managed to buy the most guns that month? I’ll remain a minarchist until otherwise convinced.

nicholas gray April 29, 2008 at 1:17 am

We know society is going down the gurgler when prisoners are NOT trying to escape from prisons because life is too good on the inside! A recent report from Britain made just such a claim! Prisoners can get whatever drugs they want, and have a soft life inside. And the non-criminals are paying for it all! That’s you and me!!
Taking the contrary view, what would you do with all those thuggish prison guards, if victimless crimes became decriminalised? What would they do?

Owen April 29, 2008 at 5:19 am

I’d much rather have them in there than out here. Thuggish guards…mmm…wouldn’t they just become private “security” guards or bouncers?

nicholas gray April 29, 2008 at 8:05 pm

Owen- you are wrong on one point. I am a libertarian, but I am not a full-scale AnarchoCapitalist. They are not automatically the same thing.
I call my philosophy Co-Monarchism. I believe that we should each be the sole monarch of the land we own and the possessions we buy, but that we should convert public entities into utilities- if you buy a share, then you get the right of access to the utilities, and voting rights, etc. We should not do away with the good parts about monarchies, like their tax-free status, but should extend it to all sovereign individuals. (Before you ask, poor people could ‘buy’ their public service by doing some community service work until they can get a better job, etc.)

Owen April 29, 2008 at 9:14 pm

nicholas gray:

What you suggest is not far from what I believe in also. Sort of a minimal government to impose order and let the free-market thrive.

nick gray April 29, 2008 at 10:48 pm

Here’s another idea, Owen- time-share government.
One of the dangers of any society is the divide between the rulers and the ruled. This happens in democracies as well as other states. But do we need professional politicians? Do we need a separate ranking of civil servants? Perhaps any person who wanted to be a citizen, and directly vote on any referendum, would first have to join a county volunteer team (like volunteer firefighters, etc.) and have some time spent in community service, before being allowed to vote. A bit like civil defence, but with a broader range of actions. No professional public servants, nor politicians. Good ideas can be presented at forums, and discussed locally. If we think we need some government, we’ll only keep it tame if we are all directly part of it.

Gaurav Ahuja April 30, 2008 at 12:17 am

I agree with the gentleman who mentioned in disparities among racial groups about how they respond differently to incentives. This is significant and should not go unnoticed by racial egalitarians. As for the people who are not anarcho-capitalists, I suggest starting out with these links for private/free(d) market security


There are books within the Mises Institute catalog that are available online and as well as in print. I would highly suggest people use them. Some of the books are Market For Liberty, The Enterprise, and The Myth of National Defense.

Inquisitor April 30, 2008 at 7:44 am

Nick Gray… that is incompatible with anarcho-capitalism, how? There are various ways to privatize public entities, one being the one you mentioned. I’ve not yet seen an anarcho-capitalist rule out that form of privatization, so I’m unsure how it differs exactly, as opposed to being a specific instance of it.

nick gray April 30, 2008 at 7:20 pm

Inquisitor, most Anarcho-capitalists seem to be fervent anti-statists, so fervent that even a local county becomes an outpost, or a seed, of statism! Indeed, from the writings of Von Mises, all and any government is automatically parasitical! Are you sure you are not just a Libertarian in Anarcho-Capitalistic clothing?

Inquisitor April 30, 2008 at 7:36 pm

Mises was a minarchist – either way, I’m a radical libertarian/classical liberal, and a market anarchist. What you described in your first post re utilities sounds like a firm jointly owned by a community, which is by no means incompatible with anarchism. Unless you meant something else.

nick gray April 30, 2008 at 8:22 pm

You got it right, Inquey! I gained my impressions about an AnarchoCapitopia from ‘The Probability Broach’, where no level of government seems to exist. I assumed this was the standard model for such people.

Owen May 1, 2008 at 2:09 am

Nick gray:

What you propose (people needing to be a “civil servant” before they can vote) would be 99.99% similar to democracy as it stands today.

The only difference would be that voters in order to be eligible must do some ‘civil work’. Given the number of people in the USA, if you have all prospective voters carrying out this service then you would have an even larger waste of money than in the present administration, all carrying out non-market jobs.

nick gray May 1, 2008 at 2:40 am

Owen, actually I was proposing that people could buy a share outright, or choose to ignore the whole thing. I also put forward the possibility that we might want a time-share arrangement, though this was with the idea of doing away with professional politicians, and taming all governments by giving us all an equal share of all powers and tasks. Perhaps government is too powerful to be left to ‘representatives’?

owen May 1, 2008 at 3:13 am

Nick Gray:

People buy a share in Democracy at the moment by voting. Except this way, the ‘share’ doesn’t cost any community service.

Those who don’t vote choose to act as an individual within the libertarian state they reside in. However their interations with others are not free because although they would prefer their libertarian rights to be observed, they are forced to act a certain way according to the conception of rights held by the majority power.

What you are referring to is called Participatory democracy or Direct Democracy. Most people do not want this because they can’t be bothered to get up each day and worry about how to run the country, much less their own lives. Representative democracy is the solution to this because it is like an elected board of directors. Remember it is not perfect but it is the best we got.

How many shareholders try to run every company they hold shares in?

Inquisitor May 1, 2008 at 9:00 am

Nick, then the system is merely a particular species of market anarchism. What you mentioned is joint-ownership, really.

George Gaskell May 1, 2008 at 10:14 am

People buy a share in Democracy at the moment by voting.

Please stop. This is a ridiculous, strained analogy. You cannot equate the State (which is forceful, involuntary, violent) and commerce (which is cooperative, voluntary and peaceful).

Owning shares in a company is nothing like being forced to submit to a mafia organization that pretends to have some kind of legitimacy and the legal power to define rights.

LanceH May 1, 2008 at 7:00 pm

Owen says:
Representative democracy is .. like an elected board of directors.

Yes, somewhat. But shareholders have very little influence on large public companies. If this was all that companies had to answer to, then they would become little tyrannies. What keeps them in check is not shareholders but consumers.

In Mises’ words:
The direction of all economic affairs is in the market society a task of the entrepreneurs. Theirs is the control of production. They are at the helm and steer the ship. A superficial observer would believe that they are supreme. But they are not. They are bound to obey unconditionally the captain’s orders. The captain is the consumer. Neither the entrepreneurs nor the farmers nor the capitalists determine what has to be produced. The consumers do that. If a businessman does not strictly obey the orders of the public as they are conveyed to him by the structure of market prices, he suffers losses, he goes bankrupt, and is thus removed from his eminent position at the helm. Other men who did better in satisfying the demand of the consumers replace him.

But when it comes to the rule of politicians, we are not simply talking of a single firm that goes bankrupt. We are talking of the whole country. Their misrule takes us all downhill together.

A business is not free to choose the government which it does business under. In order to do business in a particular geographic area, it is bound to pay protection money to whichever mafia controls it.

It is true that a democracy confers the right to vote. But just how much is that worth? Does the casting of a single vote every few years give you control over your destiny?

The only advantage of a democracy is that power changes hands at the ballot box instead of at the point of a gun. But democratic goverments can be just as tyrannical as dictatorships. And, in the long run, it makes no difference. If any government, democratic or otherwise, fails to protect life, liberty, and property, then it embarks on a slippery slope that leads the country to ruin.

nick gray May 1, 2008 at 9:28 pm

I belong to an organisation called Toastmasters International. Our members vote directly for new by-laws. guests are welcomed, and can use the facilities, but they can’t vote on by-laws, or be considered for any political position. We have an Executive Committee at our club, but the function of the Executive committee is to carry out the by-laws and wishes of the club. Only members can be on the Executive Committee, once they have paid the fees.
Why can’t civil society be like that, with independent local cantons run by those inhabitants who choose to pay? And with canton laws limited to public lands and possessions?

Owen May 1, 2008 at 10:49 pm


Again you describe democracy as it currently is. Dividing the country up into smaller units is sort of what the USA does.

A country needs to be able to defend itself against external agression, so that is why countries are the size they are today. MExico used to be much larger and included half of the USA but it could not defend that land so gradually shrunk to the size it is today.

TLWP Sam May 2, 2008 at 12:53 am

I agree Owen! X) Nick Gray’s description fits what Representative Democracy is supposed to look like (more or less) except for the part about people having to pay a fee to become a politician. But why should a country be forced to break up because it’s deemed ‘too big’ by some? Elsewhere Libertarians decry the notion of ‘anti-trust’ laws.

TJinOK July 10, 2008 at 12:46 am

I have a high regard for Mises. Nevertheless this article seems to me at least to be written by someone who is unfamiliar with the reality of crime in America.

Take the imprisonment numbers, which I suspect to be drawn from the Pew study and others. Most of these studies piggyback one another and repeat the same serious errors. The Pew study is simpy lazy research and it would take an article itself to delineate the problems with the counting. However anyone who shows true interest should peer carefully at the methodology section. In addition the comparison with other countries, even those in the West and Canada, is based on extremely disparate count systems that result in an apple/oranges comparison.
I couldn’t help but shake my head when I read that one of the authors solutions involved work and restitution in place of imprisonment. As if this is not attempted every time someone is placed on a deferred sentence or a suspended sentence or some other sanction short of imprisonment. As if the idea has simply never occurred to anyone. If you notice further than the headline of a lazy study you will find that the VAST majority of people sentenced to prison have had one probation after another and have only been sent once they made manifest several things mainly that they were not going to stop offending and would not honor the conditions of their prior probation.
I would never dispute that imprisonment is expensive although I think the cost could be addressed easily enough, it would still exist. I find it interesting though that even a blog devoted to economic theory never sees fit to analyze the alternative cost of freedom for recidivist criminals, though there seems to be no end to the studies analyzing only one cost in a two cost decision tree. The cost that criminals exact from peaceful, vulnerable and weak citizens is absolutely enormous and if the true number were known it might be readily determined that Pew wasted their time. Why is this never considered?

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