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The Weekly Abolitionist: Prisons Without Punishment?

For libertarian prison abolitionists, Randy Barnett’s The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law is an indispensable book. Not only does Barnett offer a persuasive series of arguments for a stateless legal order, he further argues against the legitimacy of punishment altogether.

However, even as crucial as Barnett’s work is for libertarian prison abolitionists, it is not a prison abolitionist book. Despite opposing punishment, Barnett does still defend hypothetical prisons on two grounds: incapacitation and restitution. In this post, I’ll try to explain why even Barnett’s very limited defense of prisons still fails.

What is a prison?

Before doing so, it’s important to remember what exactly we mean by “prison” when we say that we are “prison abolitionists.” By prisons, I refer to large compounds where people are involuntarily confined (typically with many other criminals) in response to their having committed a crime, without the right to voluntarily transfer to another location if that other location would confine them just as well, and where the administration has almost total control over those confined. A given prison might not clearly and precisely fit all of these conditions exactly, but this at least gives us a general idea of what we’re talking about. As will be important in what follows, it also shows that one can hypothetically be forcibly confined without the location of their confinement being a prison.


Barnett holds[1] that one non-punitive purpose for prison and prison sentences can be incapacitation. In other words, he believes that a prison sentence can be legitimate as a means of extended self-defense. If it is legitimate to use force in direct self-defense, then it is clearly legitimate to prevent someone from (for example) leaving a room if you know they would immediately aggress against someone if they did. If this is this the case, and if we accept that certain kinds of actions can communicate intentions toward future actions, then forcibly confining someone based on crimes they’ve committed in the past can also be potentially legitimate.

So far, Barnett’s argument is sound as far as it goes. However, the next step that Barnett takes is where he goes too far. Namely, he contends that this leads to the re-emergence of the crime-tort distinction[2], and consequently, prisons.

While it may be legitimate to forcibly confine people who pose ongoing threats, this is only going to be a very small subset of criminals. Even for violent crimes like murder, the fact that someone has aggressed against another person is not good enough of a reason to believe they will do so again. The average crime is a product of things like passion or circumstance, not of the psychotic nature of someone who genuinely poses an ongoing threat. Furthermore, most people who are ongoing threats are typically ongoing threats to particular people, not the general public, and can often be handled with a restraining order. Those who are ongoing threats to the general public are also not necessarily especially serious ongoing threats, and could potentially be handled in some way other than simply confining them.

When dealing with those remaining serious ongoing threats to the general public, forced confinement can be legitimate. However, it is not legitimate to confine them to a particular location when another location might do just as well. Nor is it legitimate to place them there automatically as a result of the particular crime they committed – Barnett is right to suggest that actions can communicate future actions, but this must be as part of a larger, highly contextual interpretation of those actions.

It is also not legitimate to place them there in such a way that puts them under the near total control of the administration. In fairness to Barnett, he seems to agree there, saying that prisoners “would be entitled to take legal action to ensure that their rights are respected”. It seems difficult, though, to see how that entitlement could be actualized without also allowing even a limited right of exit to another location (provided that the alternative location would work just as well.)

Finally, why this issue gives us the re-emergence of the crime-tort distinction is left unexplained. Surely, tort law is able to handle self-defense just as well as criminal law, and it’s unclear what necessary thing that bringing back the crime-tort distinction actually does in this instance.

Working off Restitution Debts

Barnett’s second, much more far-reaching and problematic justification for prisons involves cases where an aggressor is not immediately able to pay restitution, or might be expected to try avoiding payment[3]. In such cases, Barnett proposes that criminals could be sentenced to prison, where those debts could be worked off. Importantly, Barnett believes[4] that “they would be released only when full restitution had been made or when it was adjudged that reparations could more quickly be made by unconfined employment.”

The main problem with this approach, and especially with Barnett’s use of it, is that it clashes with inalienability. Without a sturdier justification for bringing back the crime-tort justification than the one he gives, restitution debts become legally indistinct from any other debt. Thus, unless Barnett is willing to sanction debt slavery for a debt generated by hitting someone’s car, or even failure to repay a loan, he cannot justify debt slavery for a debt generated by actions we currently think of as crimes. Wages can be garnished, and all sorts of other, more normal methods of debt collection can be used, but you cannot imprison someone and force them to work.

Notice, by the way, that even if you accept Barnett’s limited re-emergence of the crime-tort distinction, this does not justify imprisoning someone simply to collect their restitution debt. This is because Barnett’s justification is only argued for on the basis of incapacitation, and at no time does he provide a reason for also allowing restitution debt as an independent justification for incarceration. If the only reason a particular criminal in Barnett’s hypothetical is still in prison is because they have not yet paid off their restitution debt, then they are there for a reason that Barnett has not argued for.

Inalienable & Nonforfeitable Rights

Barnett might also resist the claim that his defense of inalienability is inconsistent with his defense of restitution-based imprisonment is by drawing a distinction between alienating and forfeiting one’s rights. As he states earlier[5] in the book:

“A claim that a right is inalienable must be distinguished from a claim that it is nonforfeitable. ‘A person who has forfeited a right has lost the right because of some offence or wrongdroing.’ One who wishes to extinguish or convey an inalienable right may do so by committing the appropriate wrongful act and thereby forfeiting it. But notwithstanding the consensual nature of such an action, it is the wrongfulness or injustice of the right-holder’s act, and not the right-holder’s consent, that justifies the conclusion that an inalienable right has been forfeited.”

All this may be enough to justify a distinction between the way we define the concepts of inalienable and nonforfeitable rights, but it does not justify a difference in the way we judge them. Virtually every argument for inalienability will also be an argument for nonforfeitability. Barnett’s own argument[6], that you are indeed physically unable to give up control of yourself, whereas you can easily physically give up control of alienable goods, is one such example. Committing a crime no more makes you able to give up control of your body than saying “I hereby give up control of my body.”

A defender of the claim that criminals can forfeit their rights by committing crimes might say that we need forfeitability in order to account for the justice of self-defense. If I’m coming at you with a clenched fist, clearly with the intent to swing it at your face, I forfeit my right to run in your general direction, and to swing my fists. Without forfeitability, someone might say, we cannot make that judgment, and are reduced to total pacifism.

Where this defense goes wrong is that it mistakes what’s morally going on in this situation. Someone who physically prevents me from attacking you is not acting against a right that I’ve forfeited, but one that I never had in the first place. If I never raised my fist or even had the thought of hitting you, I would still not have the right to use my fists in that way. If I did hit you, I would still retain all the rights that I had previously had to my fists – for instance, you couldn’t retributively cut them off – that I had before doing so. At no point does the concept of forfeitability need to be appealed to in order to explain self-defense.

For these reasons, Barnett’s defense of prisons without punishment does not succeed. Even still, because these reasons do not have to appeal to the concept of punishment, I take them to be the strongest reasons given for prisons. Thus, it is important to take the time to specifically address them independently of more standard justifications.

[1] pp. 187-191.

[2] pp. 190-191

[3] 177-181.

[4] 178.

[5] 78.

[6] 78-79.

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Dejemos que el mercado contenga el Ébola

Los intentos de los políticos estadounidenses para crear pánico sobre un posible brote de Ébola en los Estados Unidos parecen haber fracasado. La familia y otros contactos del “paciente cero” estadounidense Thomas Eric Duncan completaron una cuarentena de 21 días sin que surgiesen nuevos casos en el grupo. Dos enfermeras que trataron a Duncan ahora tienen síntomas, pero esto parece ser una cuestión de falla temprana de protocolo (en cualquier nueva situación de atención médica se necesita un tiempo para descifrar cómo hacer bien las cosas). Estoy razonablemente seguro en la predicción de que no vamos a ver un brote de Ébola a gran escala en los EE.UU.

Por supuesto, esto no ha disuadido a los políticos de usar este episodio como una excusa para incrementar el control del gobierno: “revisiones” en los aeropuertos llevadas a cabo por personal de Aduanas y Protección de Fronteras, propuestas de prohibir viajes provenientes de países africanos con brotes de Ébola, la formación de un equipo militar de “respuesta rápida”, etc.

Me sorprende que en este caso no se haya machacado a los libertarios con más propaganda del tipo “¿ven lo mucho que necesitamos al gobierno?” de lo habitual. Pero pensándolo bien, puedo ver por qué. No es que la respuesta gubernamental inspire mucha confianza, y hay maneras obvias en las que incluso el actual no tan libre mercado podría responder con mucha más eficacia. Dos puntos potenciales de pánico revelados en el último par de semanas proporcionan muy buenos ejemplos:

Amber Vinson, una enfermera que contrajo el virus del Ébola de Duncan, voló ida y vuelta de Dallas a Cleveland antes de su diagnóstico con la aprobación de los Centros de Control de Enfermedades a pesar de que tenía una fiebre baja todo el tiempo.

Otro trabajador sanitario no identificado (un supervisor de laboratorio que había manipulado las muestras de sangre de Duncan) y su marido se sometieron voluntariamente a una cuarentena a bordo de un barco de crucero, pero resultaron estar libres de la infección.

Si se les dejase hacer las cosas por sí mismas, es posible que las líneas aéreas y de cruceros manejarían el potencial problema con facilidad. Pero desafortunadamente hay un recurso con el que no contarían si tuviesen que encargarse del asunto por sus propios medios: Una prueba de punción en el dedo para el Ébola que está “en fase de desarrollo”.

Lo que en realidad significa “fase de desarrollo” es “ya en uso por los militares, pero atascado en el proceso de aprobación de la Agencia de Alimentos y Medicamentos de los Estados Unidos para todos los demás”.

Enviar sangre a un laboratorio para el análisis de Ébola toma varios días. La prueba de la punción del dedo lleva unos minutos, y si bien aun no está perfeccionada es probablemente mucho más fiable que el procedimiento actual de “revisión” del gobierno consistente en tomar la temperatura de los pasajeros.

Supongamos que usted maneja una empresa 35 millardos de dólares como Carnival Cruise Lines, o incluso una empresa 150 millones de dólares como Frontier Airlines. ¿Cree que estaría dispuesto a pagar durante un brote por una prueba rápida y fácil para proteger a sus pasajeros del Ébola (y a usted mismo de las demandas por negligencia si un pasajero infectase a otros)? Mi conjetura es que usted estaría muy dispuesto a hacerlo. De hecho, estoy seguro que las líneas de cruceros estarían encantadas de que hubiera una prueba de pre-embarque igualmente rápida, barata y fiable para el norovirus, también conocido como “gripe estomacal”, ya que en este momento la única opción que tienen para hacer frente a los brotes (han habido unos cuantos) es poner en cuarentena a los pasajeros sintomáticos y ofrecer reembolsos y descuentos a aquellos cuyos viajes se vean afectados.

Un mercado verdaderamente liberado, en el que estén completamente ausentes los juegos de poder del estado, probablemente luciría muy distinto del sistema actual. No tenemos ninguna manera de saber cómo y a donde viajaría la gente en una sociedad libre (¡o en un mundo libre!), pero es sensato predecir que si incluso el mercado distorsionado actual ofrece mejores soluciones para los brotes que el gobierno, un mercado liberado lo haría mejor todavía.

Artículo original publicado por Thomas L. Knapp el 20 de octubre de 2014.

Traducido del inglés por Alan Furth.

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Paul Krugman Stops Worrying About Income Inequality

Paul Krugman’s titling of his case against (“Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not OK,” New York Times, October 19) immediately rings alarm bells.

The Nobel laureate economist surely understands that monopsony entails a sole buyer, not merely “a dominant buyer with the power to push prices down” in a particular market. Whatever its other faults, Amazon is no sole buyer, nor even part of an ogliopsony (a small cartel of buyers.)

Publishers can sell books through any number of retailers: Barnes & Noble. Apple. Google. Powell’s. Kobo. Countless independent eBook and print-on-demand shops. Authors can even publish on their own websites, selling directly to readers. Amazon is an immensely popular and lucrative option for authors and publishers, but by no means the ONLY option.

Krugman’s pretext contra Amazon is its current feud with major publisher Hachette, which denied Amazon an increased cut of the action on its titles. He senses an ominous power play in Amazon’s retaliation by “delaying their delivery, raising their prices, and/or steering customers to other publishers”.

It ain’t pretty, but brick and mortar businesses do the equivalent every day: Shelving the most profitable items at eye level while less lucrative items get bottom-shelf space if they get any at all.

“It’s not just about the money,” writes Krugman, always a sign that it is just about the money. Although Hachette is not Krugman’s publisher, if it surrenders in the price war, other big boys like Krugman’s publisher, W.W. Norton, won’t bother to fight. So yes, Krugman’s own bottom line is at stake.

But Krugman’s ultimate reason for picking Hachette’s dog in the fight between two sectors of big business — and his real beef with Amazon — seems to be, of all things, that Amazon reduces the very income inequality Krugman famously specializes in condemning.

Amazon’s existence lowers book prices for readers in multifarious ways, from selection competition to electronic editions to its online marketplace for used copies. Yet Amazon has simultaneously diminished the cost for anyone to publish and sell books and earn money. By offering an alternative to the genuine near-monopoly of capital-intensive big publishers, Amazon distributes those lower prices and that new revenue more evenly among readers and authors.

Hachette and Krugman know they can’t turn back the clock that produced Amazon’s burgeoning marketplaces, preferring to benefit from them, but are convinced Amazon owes them a walled garden, sparing them price competition with the rabble. They want Amazon to preserve their income inequality at the expense of its customers.

Contra Krugman’s beloved historical myth that “the robber baron era ended when we as a nation decided that some business tactics were out of line,” any potential robber-baron power Amazon wields depends on the very same uniform, artificially large-scale federal transportation and postal shipping infrastructure that locked in the profits of the Gilded Age business cartels. Dismantling those subsidies, not propping up publishing’s Hachettes, would be the real way to keep Amazon honest.

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Who Said This?

[cross-posted at BHL]

Many Americans who voted for Barry Goldwater in the last election are justifiably concerned that our traditional liberties have been much eroded by the unwarranted growth of the federal government, and especially of the executive branch at the expense of the other branches. As a democrat I cannot help feeling the same deep concern. These libertarian conservatives see all too clearly an evil which those on the left very often fail to take adequate note of.

Who said it?

ISIS and Ukraine: They’ll Say Anything on Feed 44

C4SS Feed 44 presents Thomas L. Knapp‘s “ISIS and Ukraine: They’ll Say Anything” read by Christopher King and edited by Nick Ford.

We all remember how Vietnam ended. After two lost ground wars in Asia in the last 12 years, after recourse to the history book accounts of the post-WWII era, you might expect Obama to have learned a lesson by now. And you’d be right.

Unfortunately the lesson he’s learned isn’t the obvious one (mind your own business, America!). Rather it’s that modern American wars aren’t meant to be “won.” The measure of success since 1945 is not military victory over a defined enemy, but dollars fed into the maw of “defense” contractors – the more and the longer the better.

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El partidismo servil de los socialistas brasileños

Con el comienzo de la segunda ronda de la campaña de las elecciones presidenciales de Brasil entre la actual presidenta y candidata del Partido de los Trabajadores (PT), Dilma Rousseff, y el candidato del Partido de la Socialdemocracia Brasileña (PSDB), Aécio Neves, una gran parte del electorado y los políticos vinculados a los partidos de izquierda han decidido tomar postura.

Por ejemplo, el Partido Libertad y Socialismo (PSOL) redactó una nota que indica una neutralidad no neutral: no apoyan a ninguno de los candidatos, pero recomiendan que nadie vote por Aécio Neves. Los políticos del partido, incluyendo los muy conocidos diputados Marcelo Freixo y Jean Wyllys, han declarado su apoyo a Dilma, aunque afirman que están tomando una posición “crítica” y no respaldan todas sus políticas.

Esto deja a los electores en una posición curiosa: En las redes sociales los simpatizantes y militantes del PSOL dicen que están votando por el “mal menor”, que en su opinión se supone que es Dilma. La situación es tan ridícula que incluso afirman que “su derrota sería nuestra derrota, una derrota de los movimientos sociales y la izquierda”. Es una situación de disonancia cognitiva en la que supuestamente se ve la victoria de Dilma con disgusto, pero que favorece efectivamente al proyecto del PT para mantenerse en el poder.

Una derrota aun más grande para los movimientos sociales es que Dilma Rousseff no sufrirá las consecuencias de sus acciones, y que seguirá siendo considerada como la representante de los intereses de la izquierda, en contraste con el elitismo del PSDB, que es idéntico al del PT. No importa que Rousseff y el PT sean aliados estratégicos de los grandes conglomerados empresariales subvencionados por el Banco de desarrollo de Brasil (BNDES). No importa que el PT haya hecho campaña por la expropiación violenta de cientos de miles de familias y haya creado zonas de monopolio para la Copa del Mundo que excluyeron a los trabajadores brasileños. No importa que se violen continuamente los derechos de las poblaciones indígenas y ribereñas de la Amazonia. Ni siquiera importa que las políticas del PT contribuyan a ampliar el déficit habitacional en Brasil y a expulsar a los pobres de los centros urbanos. Lo que importa es que los izquierdistas señalen su oposición a una élite: una élite a la que pertenecen los principales líderes del PT.

Durante la Copa del Mundo, Luciana Genro, la candidata presidencial del PSOL, declaró que no era un momento adecuado para las protestas. La conveniencia política de Genro y la izquierda universitaria brasileña no tiene en cuenta las consideraciones de las personas comunes. Es por eso que en C4SS apoyamos la desobediencia civil durante la Copa del Mundo, y la sustitución del comercio autorizado por la FIFA con vendedores callejeros libres, bazares y empresas no alineadas.

Todos estos factores muestran el peor rasgo de la izquierda brasileña: Su fe servil en el estado. Hay, en la izquierda, una noción muy mesiánica y leninista de lo que es un partido político: el Partido de los Trabajadores, a pesar de toda la injusticia y el sufrimiento que promueve con sus políticas, simboliza el cambio social y se debe mantener en el poder a toda costa.

Por eso es que el libertario socialista brasileño Mario Ferreira dos Santos solía decir que “la política, como método político de los socialistas, no es más que un medio para un fin”, pero esos medios “acaban convirtiéndose en más importantes que los fines y los reemplazan”. Mario se dio cuenta de que los partidos políticos son un “falso proceso de emancipación social” que sustituye a fines con medios y a través del cual “nunca somos capaces de alcanzar los fines deseados; cuando logramos algo, siempre es a pesar de la política”.

La izquierda partidista pro-Rousseff, en la actualidad, pone sus medios políticos en un pedestal y desprecia sus supuestos fines, deificando el papel del PT en la historia de Brasil como una vanguardia revolucionaria. Al hacerlo, relativiza las absurdas injusticias cometidas por su gobierno.

Tal vez estos militantes crean que están cumpliendo algún tipo de misión histórica y eso alivie su conciencia, pero sin duda esto no devuelve la dignidad y los hogares a los desalojados y los afectados por la Copa del Mundo, ni devuelve al pueblo brasileño los miles de millones que los capitalistas se embolsaron en cooperación con el gobierno.

El gobierno es el enemigo de los pobres y las minorías. Ninguna supuesta vanguardia progresista puede negar este hecho.

Artículo original publicado por Valdenor Júnior el 14 de octubre de 2014.

Traducido al español por Alan Furth a partir de la traducción al inglés de Erick Vasconcelos.

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Pro-war pundits: always wrong, always claiming to be right

Over at a website called Medium that I guess looks prettier than this website, I explain that neoconservative pundits Max Boot and Deroy Murdoch are heartless monsters who live in nicer homes than you or me. Read it.

Political Governance and Natural Boundaries on Feed 44

C4SS Feed 44 presents Grant Mincy‘s “Political Governance and Natural Boundaries” read by Christopher King and edited by Nick Ford.

What is imperiling the desert is human domination of the landscape.

Planning, zoning and development ultimately seek economic growth. There are of course guidelines and restrictions, town hall meetings and financial statements, but at the end of the day centralized economic regimes will develop a landscape if there’s a profit to be made.

Landscapes have been divided, not based on the sciences of resource management, geology or ecology, but rather to serve political and economic ambitions. States draw fictional lines in the sand for the sole purpose of claiming landscapes as property to enclose, develop and regulate. The political boundary is a marker of centralized economic planning — an institution that sprouts cities, municipalities, lush green golf courses and dam construction in arid lands.

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Let the Market Contain Ebola

American politicians’ attempts to create panic over a potential Ebola outbreak in the United States seem to have failed. Family and other contacts of US “patient zero” Thomas Eric Duncan completed a 21-day quarantine with no new cases appearing in that pool. Two nurses who treated Duncan are now symptomatic, but this seems to be a matter of early protocol failure (in any new health care situation it takes awhile to get things right). I’m reasonably confident in predicting that we won’t see any large-scale Ebola outbreak in the US.

That’s not stopping the politicians from using all this as an excuse for more government control, of course — airport “screenings” by Customs and Border Protection personnel, proposed travel bans from African countries with Ebola outbreaks, formation of a “rapid response” military team, etc.

I’m surprised that libertarians haven’t been smeared with more “see how much we need government?” propaganda than usual over this. But thinking about it, I can see why. It’s not like the governmental response inspires much confidence, and there are obvious ways in which even the current not-very-free market could respond far more effectively. Two potential panic points revealed over the last couple of weeks provide great examples:

Amber Vinson, a nurse who contracted the Ebola virus from Duncan, flew from Dallas to Cleveland and back before her diagnosis, with the approval of the Centers for Disease Control even though she was running a low-grade fever the whole time.

Another unidentified healthcare worker (a lab supervisor who had handled Duncan’s blood samples) and her husband voluntarily quarantined themselves on board a cruise ship, but turned out to be free of the infection.

Left to their own devices, airlines and cruise ship lines would likely handle the potential problem with ease. Unfortunately, they’re literally NOT left to one specific device: A stick test for Ebola that’s “under development.”

The fine print on “under development” is “already in use by the military but hung up in the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval process for everyone else.”

Shipping blood to a lab for Ebola analysis takes several days. The stick test takes minutes and while not yet perfected is probably much more reliable than the current government “screening” procedure of taking passengers’ temperatures.

Suppose you ran a $35 billion company like Carnival Cruise Lines or even a $150 million company like Frontier Airlines. Do you think you’d be willing to fork over during an outbreak for a quick and easy test to protect your passengers from Ebola (and yourself from negligence lawsuits should one passenger infect others)? My guess is that you’d be very willing to do that. In fact, I’m sure the cruise lines wish there was a similarly quick, inexpensive and reliable pre-boarding test for norovirus, aka “stomach flu,” as right now the only way they can respond to outbreaks (there have been a couple) is to quarantine symptomatic passengers and offer those whose trips are affected refunds and discounts.

A truly freed market, completely absent state power plays, would likely look a lot different than the current system. We don’t have any way of knowing how people would travel and to where in a free society (or free world!) but it’s safe to predict that if even the current hobbled market offers better solutions for outbreaks than political government does, a freed market would be better yet.

Translations for this article:

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The Weekly Libertarian Leftist and Chess Review 52

Patrick Cockburn discusses the march of ISIS. Howard Lisnoff discusses what the truth about the Vietnam War is. George H. Smith’s 10th part of his series on social laws. Gene Healy discusses Obama’s war powers. Andrew Syrios discusses the left and the warfare state. Bryan Caplan discusses conservative relativism. Abigail Hall discusses radioactive fallout in…

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