The Expression of the Total State: Prison


Let’s talk about prison

I know this video is a bit long, but I think it’s definitely worth pondering. Jeffrey Tucker interviews Daniel D’Amico, who talks about his academic specialization of jails and prison. I find D’Amico to be a very interesting scholar, having personally taken a class from him on the American Prison State through Mises Academy.

Incarceration, though it is out of sight and out of mind, is something that needs to be discussed. Indeed, it seems amazing that it is so seldom talked about considering what it is. Though a defining characteristic of the state is that it claims the right to enforce its will by deadly force, the very next measure under that is lock up. What effects does this have on a person? Tucker talks about his short stint in jail after running a stop sign, saying what really struck him is that no one in that environment cares at all about you: the warden, the guards, and the inmates all look at you as if you’re a burden and they would rather not have you there. D’Amico speaks of the psychological costs of long term solitary confinement, causing people to lose the ability to speak and write, and essentially making them lose their sanity.

Somebody might respond that inmates deserve to be there anyway. But is that necessarily the case? As libertarians we hold that people who produce, sell, and consume drugs harm no one but themselves (and if they do harm someone else there are already laws against that), and therefore it is unjust to use force against them. It is these very people who make up the majority of the prison population.

But even considering the people who have committed very heinous acts, D’Amico questions the default idea that they should be put in prison. Is this really the best response to this type of human action? This presents an interesting question to anarchist theorists, who spend surprisingly little time on it. There are three general parts to the criminal justice system: the police, the courts, and the penal system. In their envisioning of the market anarchist system, theorists have spent a whole lot of ink dealing with questions of enforcement and adjudication, the first two parts. However, comparatively less has been said about what will happen to those who are found to have committed egregious acts.

Scholars such as Bruce Benson and John Hasnas have pointed to the fact that English Common Law most often had penal practices based on restitution. Robert P. Murphy’s ideas of punishment in market anarchy involve private prisons that compete to house and rehabilitate offenders, having them work to pay off their restitution and “rent,” as well as taking the risk of liability in vouching for them once they have been released. (This speaks of another large problem in the American penal system: recidivism. Almost 2/3 of released felons commit crimes and end up back in the big house.)

Prison is an issue that affects all Americans, either directly by being in one, or through being a major part of many states’ budgets. I believe that if not for the fact that people don’t know how much they are paying to warehouse people, the prison-industrial complex as we know it would not exist. Please join me in discussing this topic.


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