Monday, July 27, 2009

Dismal Science, Private Prisons


While I was in DC Saturday, Helen and I stopped in the Cop Shop, the giftshop portion of a crime and police museum, and we were pleased to see they had copies of a book by libertarian Alex Tabarrok on private prisons. Coincidentally, earlier this month I’d seen Donald Boudreaux’s announcement that Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen have co-written new textbooks on the basics of economics, which society sorely needs, lest it keep voting for Obama or having socialist revolutions in Latin America. The microeconomics portion can be found here.

I’m sure they’ll do a fine, free-market job even on the macro volume, but I almost wish our society had never devised macroeconomics, with its vast, oversimplified, statistics-derived abstractions warring against and inflating and deflating each other and leading to all manner of false causal inferences — such as, say, the belief that if prosperity tends to be associated with spending, we can create prosperity via government-induced spending. Likewise, to use an example I’m certain I’m stealing from someone else, if straight A students get cars as gifts when they graduate, all we have to do to make everyone as smart as straight A students is give them cars when they graduate. QED (and the D is for Democrat). You can believe things like that and still get a Nobel in econ these days.

I don’t know whether the Tabarrok book on private prisons goes into the slightly tangential issue — which to me seems even more fascinating and important — of experiments in prison reform that encourage market-based thinking among inmates (as opposed to theft-based or welfare-based thinking, to be redundant). There was a prison experiment in Maine, I believe, where prisoners earned more privileges as they became more economically productive while imprisoned, so that, in theory, by the time they got out, they were already accustomed to a fair amount of freedom, accustomed to earning a living, and able to make restitution to their victims, which the current criminal (as opposed to civil) justice system doesn’t do.

I tend to think of the small leftist movement that favors abolishing prisons completely as loons, but this gradualist and market-based approach to phasing each individual prisoner out of prison life and back into society (as opposed to suddenly thrusting him from a world of violence and inactivity into the rough and tumble of the market) might be the next best thing (in fact, better, obviously). The usual prison reform advocates would probably decide the whole thing smacks of exploitation and chain gangs and shut such efforts down, which is a shame, not just for us but for prisoners who might’ve been reintegrated successfully.

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