Monday, March 02, 2015

The Cult of Punishment

A lot of people- even those self-identifying as "mostly libertarian"- are big fans of punishment.

They may prefer private punishment over State, "tax"-funded punishment, but just as rape isn't "better" because you aren't wearing a cop uniform when you commit it, punishment doesn't magically become alright just because you don't call yourself The State.

Many people seem to forget that government isn't what makes aggression wrong; aggression is what makes government wrong. Along with theft.

With most violations, punishment actually helps no one. Restitution can make things right- or as right as humanly possible- and the guilty may feel "punished", but with restitution, there is a quantifiable goal and when  the debt is paid, it is over. No so with prison, which costs the victim even more ("tax" money to house and feed the aggressor/thief), therefore victimizing the victim again, as well as everyone else who has better uses for their money than maintaining a human farm.

Punishment feeds a psychological desire to see a person who made someone else suffer, also suffer. As much or more than his victim. As with many psychological desires, this one is not healthy, while still being understandable. I think it is somewhat immature (and I have fallen into the same trap, so any fingers pointed at anyone else are also pointed back at myself). Basically, punishment only makes the fans of punishment feel better.

But, many believe punishment is especially "necessary" in order to either force an aggressor to pay back a debt which can't be paid back, or to ensure a reduction in aggression into the future. After all, there can be no restitution for some things, and "what if" the guilty person attacks again?

Does this sort of punishment actually accomplish what its proponents claim?

Does punishment pay the debt for a rape or murder? If something is truly paid for, then the violation ceases to be. If so, then there is no more reason to feel like a victim, or damaged, once punishment has been exacted and the violation is "paid". Things are either back to how they were before the violation took place, or the victim is satisfied with the outcome. I doubt any victim of rape or murder would make that claim, even if the aggressor were tortured to death, slowly, over the course of months. So punishment fails spectacularly in this instance.

Punishment can never "pay" for a rape or murder.

What about ensuring a reduction in the violations into the future?

Apparently, those who are prone to commit aggression don't worry much about consequences. Or, at least those who don't try to veil their acts with the false legitimacy of government don't worry much about consequences. For one thing, they all seem to believe they'll never be caught; that only happens to "the other guy" who isn't as clever.

The one thing which does seem to alter their behavior is the realization that the pool of potential targets has a high percentage of armed people in it. This is an immediate consequence they can actually visualize and adjust their behavior to deal with. Such as, seeking out places which criminalize self defense and the effective tools with which to carry it out.

So, I am very dubious about the claim that harsh punishment carried out on one aggressor will change the behavior of others in a way that will reduce aggression in the long run. Your best bet is to be prepared to defend yourself and those around you from bad guys.

How about the guy you've caught in the act? (And who somehow survived being caught.)

Sure, if you "execute" a murderer, he won't murder again. Most probably wouldn't have anyway, but let's pretend they would have. Unless they went on to commit 2 or more murders you haven't gained anything, since their death- at a time when they were not currently engaged in aggression (otherwise it isn't an "execution". it is self defense) and were under control (because unless they are under your total control how could you perform your death healing ritual on them?) is one more death than existed before you committed the act. Sure, you could say that his potential future victims were innocent, and he is a murderer, so his death doesn't count for as much. But, again, if he is not currently committing aggression or theft at the time you kill him, he is- at that moment- innocent of anything worthy of death.

Most murders are a "one-off" event. No, that doesn't help the victim, but it also makes it silly to kill the murderer to prevent more murders in the future. The exception is the person who goes on a murder spree- and they are much less likely to survive long enough for punishment to be an issue, unless the pool of targets has been "legally" primed (disarmed) for their convenience.

If you execute someone who wasn't caught in the act, your chance of murdering an innocent person is too great for me to support in any way. And if you use "tax" money to carry out any form of punishment, you are heaping evil on top of evil.

The ONLY legitimate death penalty is carried out at the scene of the attack, by the intended victim or a rescuer. Period. You can sort out any details beyond that later.

I don't "believe in" imprisonment, either, but at least this act is subject to restitution of sorts if it is discovered you are accusing the wrong person. A death penalty isn't.

If a person deserves (by your account) to be in a cage, he probably deserves to be killed by his next target. Or by a witness to his next act of theft or aggression. Yes, some will escape to violate again. Nothing will ever prevent that- not even if we are all kept in cages with round-the-clock surveillance. The dangers associated with "too much liberty" are preferable to those associated with too little. If you disagree, you can establish your own parallel "system"- just leave me out of it.

If you believe in punishment, and actually act on that belief, I may judge you to be the bad guy. If you still believe you are right, then my opinion shouldn't matter. Do what you are going to do with a clear conscience. If you find your conscience nagging you, though, perhaps you should examine your premises a little more deeply.

I truly believe a desire to see punishment carried out hurts you as much- or worse- than those you believe you are using it against. I have seen it over and over again. Choose to believe me or not.



  1. I've also been demanded to answer how a non-state court will deal with serial rapists and the like.

    My question, how did people deal with it before state courts?

    The social standard. In all seriousness, someone who gets convicted as a serial rapist is going to quickly starve or be shot as soon as he dared to even speak to someone.

    1. One of my responses to this sort of thing is "Would you keep associating and doing business with someone you knew to be a rapist/murderer/burglar/etc.? Because I wouldn't."

  2. Kent, I've been grappling with these and related issues. My perspective combines ACLU-driven concern on criminal justice issues and anti-war libertarian sentiment toward arming citizens and disarming the State. I don't have answers to the several questions you've raised, but perhaps some clarifications . . . . and some musings that take me to dark places.

    How shall society deal with tort (i.e. "real") crimes? Yes, replacing punishment (pointless) with restitution (effective & just) is agreed, even mainstream, but clearly insufficient. You are grappling with just a few of the uncomfortable issues that remain. To me, these issues are at the heart of the minarchist /anarchist divide. A minarchist government would provide tort laws, courts, and (possibly) professional enforcers (police) without necessarily limiting private options such as contractual enforcement, robust self-defense, outlawing, and tech-enabled shunning. The issue for me is whether these and other private options ALONE would be sufficient or even function without a (strictly limited) government.

    Agreed that simply caging people based on known past acts and a system of penalties is deeply flawed, even if harmfulness of acts and proportionality could be justly determined. But limiting redress to victims (or designates) alone, and at point of offense (i.e. self-defense), seems arbitrary, ineffective, and prone to costly error.

    Yes, many murders (etc.) are for unique, even valid, reasons, but statistically someone who commits one murder is more likely than a zero-offender to offend again, and so on. How do we deal with someone who is comfortable with murder for gain or sexual gratification? The same for someone who lives partly by petty theft and grifting, but works when necessary? This is the range of the scale below zero, the proper spectrum of attention for government, if we believe in it, and for each of us as we interact with unknown others.

    I see two good arguments for imprisonment, if not in the classical mode: 1) facilitates restitution, 2) protects the public. Envision a system of citizen juries to determine fact, and professionals in areas of employment aptitude and methods of restraint to either decide, or advise juries on, balancing these two issues: degree & nature of restraint needed to protect victim or possible future victims, and most remunerative employment possible for that individual. The best outcome is someone with a subtle ankle bracelet continuing at their new or existing job and paying the cost of monitoring and restitution over time.

    But what about the worst cases: those who can clearly never reenter society, limiting employment to the least remunerative in-prison jobs and maximizing costs of keeping them there. Even if punishment (or reward) is employed to motivate performance, many will fail to cover the costs of daily maintenance plus incarceration, or either alone.

    For prison reform, you favor self defense as a partial solution, but appear to rule out both government execution and capital punishment (related but distinct concepts). If an anarchist or minarchist accepts that human life has intrinsic value, who can justly be made to pay the monetary difference in the case above? If not, ruthless pragmatism reigns, a criminal's last asset is his body, so red ink leads to red scalpels, mere execution being wasteful. Is there a solution that we can all live with, or will libertarians be limited to prison reform solutions that paint us as either cowboys, bean counters, or ghouls?

    1. Nothing will be perfect. The person who is "comfortable" with murder probably needs to be killed. But, I don't think any government anywhere on the planet, at any time in history, has been trustworthy enough to be trusted with that sort of ultimate power. It has always been misused and I suspect it always will be. If people wish to hunt down and kill known murderers and rapists- and can convince others in a free society to support them (including financially)- I probably wouldn't stand in their way. But I wouldn't support them, either. This is why the governmental approach is always wrong. I am forced to pay for punishment whether I consent or not.

      I never support government action. Never. Yes, sometimes they may "do the right thing", but it is always, by definition, done the wrong way (theft and coercion). If a "government" manages to avoid employing theft and coercion, it will cease to be a government and become a private endeavor- which, even if I don't approve, I am not forced under threat of death to support it. And yes, all laws are always enforced with death.

      The solution we can all live with is to allow me to opt out of any "system" I would rather not be a part of- without saying that if I don't go along, I must move to some imaginary free area. In other words, I won't stand in your way as long as you don't hold me at gunpoint and force me to pay up and pretend the "system" is legitimate.