It is easy to whip up hate. Encourage some ultra-extreme group to do something stupid and destructive. Then fill the papers with diatribes against the guilty group, and convince everyone that these barbarians are poised to attack on every side; the barbarity of the crime proves that they will stop at nothing. So the conflagration begins again, and each new outrage adds fuel to the fire.

This same scenario, with regional variations, is played out all over the world. And it is all based on the perception on all sides that people who are different from us are out to get us. It works between social groups as well as ethnic. Women are constantly being told that men are out to control them. Farmers are set against city dwellers, commercial interests against residential, the middle classes fear the poor, the list is endless. Whatever groups we can identify ourselves as belonging to, it seems that there is some other group to be suspicious of.

And yet the whole thing breaks down at the only level which is in fact intrinsically reliable, which is the personal level. The only thing we can really judge is that which we have experienced personally. And our actual personal experience is that people are people no matter where they come from and no matter what color they are. Some of them are saints, and some of them manifest only evil, and the rest are somewhere between. Almost everyone has a capacity for cruelty, and almost everyone has a capacity for selfless courage. It all depends on which buttons are pressed and by whom.

So if people are just people, and if a bomb set in the midst of your enemy’s camp will kill an equal proportion of good and bad people as one set in your own camp, how do you get people to kill each other willingly? It is not an easy or inexpensive task. You need a class of people who are unthinking enough to accept uncritically whatever attitudes you feed them. It also helps if they do not actually have to see or hear their victims. Ever since the advent of the crossbow we have been moving further and further in the direction of impersonal warfare. You need to inculcate in them an attitude of fierce group pride. They must believe that their way of life or religion is the only true one, and that everyone who is different is automatically inferior. You also need to dehumanize the enemy in their eyes. They are less than people and need to be eliminated.

So who benefits from all this? Not the regular citizens of either the winning or the losing side. Another effect of modern warfare is its effect on non-combatants. Even as late as the Napoleonic Wars (the early 1800’s) it was possible for an Englishman to travel freely in France even though the countries were at war. If you were unfortunate enough to actually live at the spot where two opposing armies decided to duke it out, you would of course be highly inconvenienced. Also if you were a peasant you would probably find yourself involuntarily donating your grain and flour to any army that was passing through, but by and large the only people who got killed were in uniform. Today, of course, this is far from being the case. As a matter of government policy civilian populations are subjected to military attack, and houses and public building of no military significance destroyed. Economically, too, the population must inevitably suffer. Certainly weapons-building can give some temporary and local prosperity as a result of war, but this never lasts beyond the end of the fighting. The net result is that money passes from the population in general to a small group of people who own the businesses who make the armaments. Even the politicians, often perceived as the warmongers, do not really gain from the situation except perhaps for a momentary rise in popularity.

What can we do? First we can educate ourselves. We can travel, see for ourselves what people of other lands are like. We can recognize that no matter what, warfare does not benefit us or anyone we know and like. We can understand that the ordinary population of every other country in the world is far too busy scrabbling about to make a living to want to fight anyone. We can see who in fact keeps it all going. Wars take huge amounts of money. No government today can afford to pay for a war of the taxes they can raise; they have to borrow money. This is done by selling government bonds, which are bought largely by people in high tax brackets, who benefit most from their tax-free status. The profits from these bonds further enrich the already rich, at the expense of the national debt. Thus an ever-greater proportion of our current taxes (which are born disproportionately by the middle classes) goes to pay interest payments to the wealthy, effecting a constant upward transfer of wealth. The whole thing is a scam. The same people who are making and selling us the weapons are also lending us the money to do so, and, to add insult to injury, the profits on the money lending are tax free. It shouldn’t be hard to think of creative ways of fixing the situation if you could ever achieve a political climate that was conducive to actually doing so. Until then, at the very least we need to be aware of what is happening.

Public Health Care

We hear a lot about the cost of health care, when what is actually being described is the price of health care, an altogether different thing. The idea that a fair price is what a willing buyer is prepared to pay to a willing seller assumes that if the seller asks an outrageous price, the buyer is free to walk away. If the seller has the only drug or procedure that will keep the buyer alive, he is not free to walk away. He has to pay whatever price is asked. There is no meaningful competition in the health care industry.

The so-called health care industry is in the business of trafficking in human life. If you do not have the money to pay them to keep you alive, they will let you die. If you are in severe intractable pain and do not have the money to buy their drugs, they will let you suffer in agony. They are permitted to charge whatever the market will bear. What will you pay to stay alive? Everything you have, if necessary.

Even the Medicare system is forbidden by law from negotiating prices with the drug companies. The one organization which is in the position of being able to deal with the drug companies on a relatively level playing field is forbidden to do so. They must accept the “market” price derived from the process of extortion described above.

I am constantly amazed that so many people seem to prefer the notion of privatized health care to a public system. The executives of a publicly traded corporation are obliged by law to act in the way that will best benefit their shareholders at all times. Nothing takes precedence over this. A publicly traded health care corporation is not in business to provide health care; that is a side effect. They are in business to provide as much profit as possible to their shareholders. This means that the person deciding what treatment a patient is going to get is going to make the decision that best benefits the corporation, not the patient. It also means that the extortion is not just a morally reprehensible policy, it is dictated by law.

A publicly operated health care provider, on the other hand, such as is found all over the rest of the industrialized world, exists to provide health care to the patient. Its employees will make the decision that best benefits the patient. 

Which would you prefer? To have your medical decisions made by someone who is paid to deny you care if they can find any reason to do so, or by someone whose job it is to make and keep you healthy? 

Money as a Dynamic System

Economic analysis is almost always presented in the form of words and static pictures (graphs). Like all verbal descriptions it is limited to the extent that it presents a metaphor that does not fully describe the phenomenon. We attempt to derive some kind of meaning from countless graphs representing various aspects of the economic condition at various times. We track the gross national product, the unemployment rate, housing starts, pork belly prices, the interest rate and thousands of other metrics, many of which we have only the haziest idea of even what they represent. If the prices of stocks rise on the stock exchange or if the GNP increases we think these are good things, if they fall we become concerned. We tend to evaluate each set of numbers as a separate phenomenon only loosely related to the others. 

We tend to see money spent as being “lost”, so that it is no longer available as a resource. So public expenditures, for instance, are seen as a dead loss to the public in general. This stems from the false notion that money is itself a commodity. A commodity that has been used is no longer available for any other use, and we see money that has been spent as no longer being available for other use. This is a misleading view. Money that is spent is paid to someone, and the social benefit in the transaction depends greatly on where the money goes. Say the city council spends some money to fix potholes. Some of that money goes to pay workers, and will immediately be spent on their needs. Much of this money will be spent locally, and some of it will remain in the local economy through several subsequent transactions. The worker buys vegetables at the Famer’s Market, the farmer pays to have his boots repaired, the cobbler eats at a local restaurant, and so on. The same initial transaction turns into countless other instances of economic activity, each benefitting a new recipient. Money in this system is not a finite resource that is exhausted once used, but rather a catalyst that enables multiple transactions without itself undergoing any depletion in value. As long as it does not leave this system, it an continue to work its magic indefinitely.

The important part, the part that makes it all work for the local economy, is that each recipient spends the money quickly. Money that is simply held in an account and not used, ceases to enable fresh transactions. 

Some portion of the money will inevitably leave the local economy. Anything bought from a chain store, for instance, will contribute to the profits of the owning corporation. In this and countless other ways money passes up the chain to people who already have more than they need. This money will no longer pass from hand to hand and permit multiple transactions like the money spent locally. Instead it will join a vast pile of money that is used in a quite different way. When money passes to someone who already has more than is needed to fill his personal needs and desires, it is not used to buy something from someone, or pay someone to do something. Instead it is invested.

If this investment is in a new business that fills a hitherto unmet need or replaces something already in use with a better version, then this can be beneficial to society. Whether it is beneficial or not depends on how it is run. 

If the money is invested in government bonds of some kind, this can also beneficial to society. Whether or not it is beneficial depends on what the bonds finance. (These evaluations refer to the effects of the transactions themselves, not the resulting enrichment (or sometimes impoverishment) of the investor, which has its own effect on the health of society that will be examined elsewhere). 

Investments in stocks that yield dividends, and are held for their income value rather than their potential increase in capital value, are fairly neutral in their effect on society. Investment in the stock market for the purposes of speculation is gambling pure and simple, and adds no value to the economy, while sucking value out. It is entirely harmful to the health of society. Furthermore it seems like a form of pathology. A person has more money than he needs, so he gambles with it to gather to himself even more money. What will he do with the even more money? Why he will gamble with that to gather yet more money. This is like eating for the purpose of becoming as fat as possible.

The economy is a continuously functioning organism all of whose parts affect all the others. By observing the behaviors of those parts, and seeing clearly how those behaviors support or hinder the health of society as a whole, we can see which activities should be encouraged and which should be discouraged.

Darwin’s Error

If the Golden Rule could be said to be the encapsulation of the fundamental meaning of both Judaism and Christianity, then perhaps we could say that the fundamental meaning of evolution is summed up in Darwin’s phrase “the survival of the fittest.” Over the years it has been trotted out by the perpetrators to explain/excuse such things as colonialism, slavery, the Holocaust, and the modern tendency of large businesses to cannibalize smaller ones, among countless other evils. Parenthetically it has always seemed curious to me that we are apparently helpless in the face of a law of nature when we wish to excuse behavior that would otherwise be morally repugnant, while we will bend every effort to successfully overcome equally intractable laws such as the law of gravity when it is more profitable to do so.

The problem is that survival of the fittest is a misstatement (or rather an overstatement) which when corrected does not in fact support any of the evils mentioned. It is ironic in our test-obsessed world that it is the removal of a “test” that reveals the true meaning. All of the requirements of the theory of evolution are fulfilled in the expression “the survival of the fit.” What a difference this simple modification makes. Now it is no longer necessary for you to die in order to ensure my survival. As long as we are both “fit” then we can both survive. We must also consider the proper meaning of the word “fit.” We tend to think of the modern dominant meaning, which is roughly equivalent to strong or robust. This gives even greater force to the misunderstanding, as it would seem to rationalize the tyranny of the strong over the weak. In Darwin’s time, however, the dominant meaning of the word fit was “appropriate”, as in “a meal fit for a king.”

So now we have a natural law that promises survival of the appropriate, which in no way conflicts with the theory of evolution. How does this change our outlook? For one thing it puts a very big hole in the idea that unfettered competition is the most desirable business model, on the grounds that it gives natural selection the opportunity to determine which businesses survive. If we remove the requirement that the survivors be the fittest, and only require that they be appropriate, then a strong case can be made for cooperation rather than competition as being the most appropriate behavior. 

Minimum Basic Income

A commonly heard argument against the idea of a basic minimum income is that if everyone were given their living without having to work for it, nobody would work and civilization would collapse. Those advancing this argument tend to be members of the ownership class, and no doubt to them it seems reasonable. Why would anyone work if they did not have to for the sake of survival? Fortunately we do not have to speculate. We have a convenient study population who have in fact been given their living (and, in fact, considerably in excess of a basic living, which if the concept were harmful might be presumed to increase the harm.) Moreover we have data going back centuries and across a wide variety of cultures. I am referring to the children of the wealthy classes. 

Do we find that these people tend to sit around and do nothing useful, or pursue lives of dissipation? Some of them, even many, do indeed. Yet virtually all of the discoveries and philosophical theories that led to the Enlightenment, the age of science and the Industrial Revolution were made by people from this class. They were the ones with time and leisure to pursue studies without having to give consideration to earning a living from them. Very few indeed of those who gave their names to systems of measurement (Volt, Ampere, Pascal) or scientific theories (Darwin, Freud) came from the poorer classes. 

The situation is similar with respect to music and the arts. It is much easier to pursue success in these fields when you do not have to work a job after school, and when your parents can afford private lessons and top of the line equipment. My point, though, is not (here at least) to bemoan the unfair advantage the affluent have over everyone else, but rather to illustrate that people in the fortunate position of not having to earn a living do not have a general tendency to sit around and do nothing, and, to the contrary, such people are responsible for most of the advances that have given us, for better or for worse, the world we live in. 

A defender of aristocracies might say that all of this simply indicates the inherent superiority of the upper classes. They made all the great discoveries because they are smarter then the rest of the population. However there is no correlation between wealth and intelligence, and geniuses of all kinds seem to be distributed evenly across the whole population. The plain fact is that enhanced opportunity yields better outcomes.

If some mad experimenter were to secretly take 100 random newborn infants from African refugee camps, and exchange them for 100 random upper middle class American infants, other than perhaps standing out by their skin color each would grow up a more or less typical product of the environment on which they were raised. If even race is not determinative of talent or the ability to lead a useful life, social class or a wealthy background certainly is not.

Neither are natural talent or hard work and application sure roads to success. They certainly help, but the world is full of starving geniuses. The single talent that does enormously enhance the probability of success is the talent for handling money, or what we call business sense. Someone with this particular skill can succeed even without any other skills, but someone lacking it will seldom succeed even if they are otherwise highly skilled.   

The most important factor in determining success in life is opportunity. That opportunity might be the result of having a wealthy family, or it may be some stroke of good fortune, a chance meeting with someone in a position to give a hand up or any of a thousand possible scenarios that might make the difference between success and failure. Someone who does not get such a boost has a much harder time rising up the social scale.

There is every reason to suppose that among the poor and dispossessed of the world are countless Mozarts, Einsteins, Aristotles that will never have the chance even to know their talents, much less use them in the world, and there is every reason to suppose that if everyone in the world had a chance to shine we could usher in a new golden age.

Answers to Frequently Encountered Objections

I have often proposed radical social changes, and I have met with several kinds of objection that do not address the actual proposal and its benefits and shortcomings, but rather give general reasons why such reforms are impractical or undesirable.  These kinds of arguments are not confined to the socio-political sphere. Any new and unfamiliar idea, including revolutionary inventions, are liable to be met with the same kinds of argument. I will use as an example the notion that we should abandon the practice of personal inheritance. Please be clear that in this particular essay I am not arguing the case for this point of view, but rather attempting to show how certain kinds of objection are invalid as a response to the proposal.

It does not solve all the problems. Theodore Roosevelt in 1886 denounced men who mistakenly believed that “at this stage of the world’s progress it is possible to make everyone happy by an immense social revolution.” This is what is known as a straw man argument. He is mischaracterizing the views of his opponents. Of course those interested in social reforms realize that even if they were successful it would not make everyone in the world happy, but that is not a reason to oppose improving the situation. All that the proponents of reform need to show is that sufficient good will come of it to more than counterbalance whatever harm may do, and to make it worth the cost.

Another common objection we often hear is “well, you can devise all the social systems you want but you cannot overcome human nature.” What is usually meant by this is that greed and laziness will always ruin whatever system we come up with, and the implication is that for this reason it is not even worth putting much time into the issue unless we can come up with a way of changing human nature. 

First, the idea that greed is an uncontrollable force is wrong. It is no more uncontrollable that lust and violence, and we have done quite a good job that of corralling those immutable forces by our laws and social structures. That is really the whole point of those institutions in fact. As we settled down into societies we found that certain kinds of behavior cannot be condoned in a civilized society, so we made rules to control those kinds of behaviors. To claim the preeminence of personal freedom to oppose the making of laws, to say “I should be free to make my own choices with being told what to do” is to miss the point. All behaviors forbidden by laws are things people would like to be free to do; if people did not have any desire to do something, there would be no need to forbid it. Greed is socially harmful, just as is violence, and we need to take step to make it socially unacceptable. 

Laziness is another matter. We are told that if you gave people their basic living needs the would not bother to work at all. It is implied that people (especially poor people) are fundamentally lazy. I do not believe this to be true. I believe that people are fundamentally curious, and have a strong desire to better themselves, and make a contribution. In fact one of the most basic human needs is to feel useful. This, in my opinion, is at the root of much that is wrong with our society: young people growing up in poor neighborhoods see no prospect of improvement. They see, correctly, that the game is overwhelmingly stacked against them. The only people like them who seem to have any kind of success are those who make it in show business, sports or crime.  Since most do not have the talent for the first two, many fall into the third path. The remainder live lives of low level hopelessness.

Imagine a world in which everyone had a chance at starting a business. Suppose at a certain age, and having fulfilled certain conditions, we were given a workspace and tools and materials and whatever resources were needed to carry out whatever occupation we decided to pursue. When we started to become profitable, a portion of the profit would go to repay what we had been given. If we were unsuccessful, the tools and materials remaining would go back into the common stock of resources, and the space given to someone else. Under such a system the young would take a very different attitude towards their education. They would see that there was a very real and valid reason to acquire knowledge and skills. 

Human beings are curiosity machines. Observe an infant at play: you will see a study in experimentation and learning. If older students are lackadaisical in school, it can only be because we have somehow managed to eradicate their drive to learn. The only force that can achieve this is a sense of hopelessness. Give children hope and the confidence that their work will be rewarded, and see them blossom. 

And finally, even if the theory of laziness were in some cases true, so what? Suppose a percentage of people are in fact lazy and would prefer to just stay home and play video games. At least they would not need to cheat and steal in order to do so. Right now these same people cost us a fortune in police and the justice system and mass incarceration and emergency health care. It would be far cheaper and less socially destructive to just pay them to stay home.  

Refuting Libertarianism

Rather than a left-right scale the political spectrum should be seen as an up-down scale. The Republican Party represent the interests of those at the top of the scale, and the Democrats those at the bottom. It is often said that both parties are equally corrupt and beholden to money interests, but I do not believe this to be true. As I see it, each party has an agenda it wishes to promote, and also things it does reluctantly in order to continue to get elected. For the Republican Party what it wishes to do is serve the interests of their wealthy sponsors. What it does reluctantly in order to gain votes is the bare minimum of social programs it can get away with. For the Democrats it is the opposite. What they want to do is the social programs, and what they have to do reluctantly in order to find their campaigns is some of the bidding of the wealthy. So even in the present deplorable system there is a difference that matters between the parties. 

Libertarians, often seen as being on the far right (or on my scale the top) actually do not really fit there. The reason they find common cause with Republicans is because both favor smaller government, but for quite different reasons. Libertarians believe in small government as a central principle, seeing the natural state of people as being rugged individualist as unfettered as possible by the law. Republicans just want to get the law off the backs of their sponsors, so they defund those parts of the government that have oversight over the big money interests. 

The fundamental fallacy of libertarianism is easily demonstrated. One of the universal behaviors common to all of our species is the forming of groups. We are a highly social species, and the idea of a single individual living completely independently without any dependence upon others is almost unheard of. Even in the “wild west” days, the heyday of rugged individualism, they could not have survived, let alone thrived, without the railroads and the Sears Roebuck catalog. We are each a member of countless groups simultaneously: family, congregation, team, work environment, town, county, state, country each claim us as members. Some groups we choose to join, others we are members of willy nilly. Among the latter groups are the various levels of society that we inhabit.

So what does it mean to be a member of a group? What is the nature of our relationship to the group, and to other members of the group? The first and most important thing to understand about all groups is that by their very nature they limit the freedom of action of their members. This is a universal rule of groups of all kinds. In order to gain the benefits of belonging to the group, its members agree to accept limitations on their personal freedom of action.  One might even say that the expression ” a free society” is an oxymoron, as the whole point of society is to limit the freedom of its members. 

In the case of society, the limits on the freedom of action of its members are codified as systems of laws. The more organized and complex a society becomes, and the larger the populations being governed, the more restrictions are needed for society to continue to function. It makes no sense to say, as the Libertarians do, that personal freedom is the ultimate good, and the closer you can get to that the better. Instead we should accept the fact that society is not just useful but necessary, and that we need to seek the optimal balance between the desires of the individual members and the quite legitimate needs of the society.

Why Government?

Government is the process by which we decide how we are going to operate as a community. It is very instructive to watch the TV series Deadwood, which is the story of an outlaw town, outside the limits of what was then the US, that was a haven for people who wanted to live outside the legal system. For any number of reasons they felt too constricted by laws and rules and regulations (frequently the particular laws against such entrepreneurial enterprise as robbing banks and killing people,) and wanted to live somewhere they could be free of such restrictions. Of course a couple of out of control fires soon convinces the more reflective members of the population that if the town is to survive at all, there have to be some rules. A Fire Marshall is appointed, and so it begins. Before you know it, there are rules and regulations and laws, and they are discussing which State they should seek to become part of. As soon as you have people living in proximity to each other, you need some kind of organization to define and enforce the duties we each have towards everyone else.

The astonishing claim has been made by people at the extreme right of the political scale, that there is no such thing as society; only freely acting individuals. Would they claim that there is no such thing as a team, only individual players? No congregation, no association, no assembly or crowd? Of course these things exist separate and distinct from the individuals who make up each of them. One might as well say there is no such thing as a liver; only an aggregation of freely acting liver cells. Each of these aggregations has a nature and behavior in and of itself, regardless of the individuals that comprise it. Of course the particulars of the individuals will affect the nature and behavior of the group, but each individual has two distinct roles: one role is as an independent individual with individual needs and desires, the other is as a member of the group, desiring the welfare and continued existence of the group, which may well dictate behavior that is different from what one would do acting purely as an individual In other words a member of a group may well sacrifice some portion of his own best interest for the sake of the group.

So to say, as Ronald Reagan said, that Government is not the solution but rather the problem, is clearly nonsense. We have to have government. The question is what kind of government? This is the subject of an ongoing sociopolitical discourse that has been written about since the invention of writing, and was undoubtedly hotly debated before that. The majority of this debate has been purely theoretical. The true deciding factor that determined the kinds of government we had was the power to make it so. What that has meant through the ages is the rule of the strongest. The particular ways that this system has been arranged, and the rationales offered for it hardly matter. Sometimes a single figure such as a king or emperor is the titular head, but always the power has been wielded by a small number of people, and that power has been enforced ultimately at the point of a gun. Even in today’s democracies we are scarcely better off. We are still subject to rule by the strongest; only the nature of that strength has changed. Before the Industrial Revolution power derived from the control of land. In today’s world money is the instrument of power. 


Before the Industrial Revolution most of the property in the world was owned by absolute monarchs, and parceled out to others at their whim, to be taken back equally whimsically. Over a period of 250 years or so, this entire system disappeared, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, to be replaced by the one we know.  Clearly there is nothing about the rights of property that are bound by nature. They can be redefined at will.

The capitalist economic system operates as a positive feedback loop. The more resources you have the easier it is to get more. This describes a runaway effect: nuclear fission is an example of a positive feedback loop. A thermostat, on the other hand, operates as a negative feedback loop, and has the effect of putting a natural limit on the phenomenon in question. Those born to wealth will in their time tend acquire even more wealth, while those at the bottom will tend to have less and less. The odds are astronomically high that any particular person born in the world at any given moment will find themselves at or near the very bottom. This fact in itself makes me very skeptical of the “we chose our position in life in order to learn certain lessons” school of thought. Why would so many agree to such a miserable existence? 

It is not as if we could simply opt out. All of the livable space in the world is controlled, and access to it requires paying rent. We do not have the basic right of every wild animal, the right to exist unmolested on the planet, making our own way. There is nowhere in the world that you can do that, even if you could afford to go to such a place. We are born in a specific country, a completely artificial construct, yet one which, second only to our parentage, will largely determine our fate. We cannot simply choose to belong to a different country, except by dint of monumental effort we are tied to one place, one political entity. That political entity has life and death power over you. It can order you to fight to the death on its behalf. It can take away your freedom of movement and action for the rest of your life, or even take away your life itself if it so chooses. 

Perhaps the most important feature of our societal system is that we believe that it is the best way of life ever invented, and everyone in the world should live that way.  The idea of opting out is thought of as aberrant. The only way forward is more and better civilization. All other choices are unthinkable.

Yet all of it is a human construct. Nothing about the way society operates is dictated by any natural law. Gravity and friction are examples of natural law. We are bound by their effects no matter how much we may deny their existence. Countries and civilizations and economies are artificial constructs made up by people, and their rules were made up by people, and could just as well be completely different. Countless varieties of society have existed throughout history. All of these things that absolutely govern our lives are constructs that we collectively agree to. They are constructs that can change, will change, indeed are changing right now. 


We say “serving prison time,” which I believe is a phrase that enables us to avoid confronting the truth of what we are doing to our prisoners. I have come to believe that the idea of imprisonment as a routine punishment for all manner of transgressions against the community is a moral outrage. Next to our life itself, our freedom of action and movement is the most precious thing we have, and indeed some would say that without it life itself is worth very little. Yet we debate between locking people away for ten years or fifteen as though there were little to choose between them. We speak blithely of locking people away for the rest of their lives, with not even the remotest conception of what we are condemning them to. 

It is not simply the deprivation of freedom, though that is in my mind enough alone to condemn the practice, it is also the conditions under which prisoners are kept. They are put almost entirely at the mercy of prison staff, who are hired largely for their “tough” qualities. A kindly, empathetic prison guard will not last long at the job. We have seen from well-known experiments the effect on people of giving them power over others, even in academic laboratory settings. Imagine how bad it can get in real life situations in such places as maximum security prisons. The truth is truly horrific. 

The social purposes supposedly being served by this system are said to be fourfold: rehabilitation, segregation, deterrence and punishment. Cure them of their criminality, put them where they cannot do further harm, and apply sanctions for their criminal behavior that provide serious consequences and by their harshness discourage others from doing similar things. 

Rehabilitation is so little practiced in our prison systems that one might say that the exact reverse is taking place. There may be, it is true, places in the US where genuinely “enlightened” prison methods are being used, though the expression itself seems to me to be an oxymoron, but if so they are very much in the minority. The rest of the system can fairly be described as schools for crime. Universities, in fact. Prisons turn a large proportion of their inmates into lifetime criminals. 

Locking criminals away does indeed prevent them from committing further crimes while they are locked away, but at very great cost. The main problem is that at some point most of them will end up being released. After perhaps decades of harsh inhumane treatment they are turned loose with only whatever possessions they had with them when arrested, and a few dollars. Is it any wonder that they have difficulties readjusting to outside life, or that many of them end up back inside within a short time, sometimes preferring that life to the challenges of freedom. The only thing they know is the criminal life, and the only people they know are criminals. 

Deterrence hinges on the idea that people will avoid crime for fear of the punishment. Increasingly harsh sentences are imposed, often cemented in place by minimum sentencing laws, in pursuit of this aim. Psychological studies, however, seem to show that this is not effective. The likelihood of being caught seems to weigh much more heavily than the fear of punishment; criminals do not expect to be caught, so the severity of the punishment is immaterial to them. Furthermore such considerations do not even come into play when it comes to crimes committed in the heat of the moment, without forethought. They are also of little weight when the crime is truly one of need.

So we are left with punishment. The criminal did a bad thing, and must suffer as a consequence. This (in the absence of the other three) is perhaps the least defensible rationale. If this is indeed the only remaining justification, then the degree of punishment must bear a direct relationship with the harm done by the crime. I would argue that this is almost never the case. Instead prosecutors brag about the number of criminals they have caused to be imprisoned and for how long.  Far from carefully suiting the punishment to the crime (which would require individual examination of the circumstances of each case, and of the circumstances of the criminal) punishment is decided in most cases by a bargaining process between prosecutor and the defense counsel. The vast majority of criminal cases are decided by plea bargaining; not only is the defendant effectively denied the benefit of a jury trial, even the judge plays almost no part except rubber stamping the result.

This is done by charging the defendant with the most serious crimes that the circumstances of the case could possibly justify. The prosecutor does not imagine that he could obtain a conviction from a jury on these charges, that is not the aim. The aim is to frighten the defendant into pleading to a lesser charge that he may not even be guilty of so as not to have to run the risk (however remote) of a conviction on the harsher charges. Ironically in this situation draconian minimum sentences do act as a strong incentive, an incentive to accept a manifestly unjust punishment in order to avoid the risk of an even worse result.

There are many facets to this issue which is the great shame and crime of our society. There is the disgrace of private prisons run for profit. It outrages me that anyone should even require reasons for condemning private prisons; are they not morally unacceptable simply on the face of it? Take all of the evils I have already described, add to them the incentive to operate the entire concern as cheaply as possible and remove even the pretence of accountability imposed by a publicly run system? What could possibly go wrong?

There are the various industries that prey on the prisoners and their families. The private phone companies that charge unconscionable rates for calls. The prison run banking system that charges hefty fees for depositing money into prisoners’ accounts. The prison labor racket where prisoners are paid pennies per hour for work that is sold for regular prices, with most of the profit going to private contractors. 

All these circumstances, and many more that I do not have space for here, combine to make prisoners’ lives almost insupportable. And all of it is on top of what is already the most severe deprivation short of death, the deprivation of freedom. Even if you hold that we should lock people away, is it even good policy to make the conditions so severe? Would we not be better served by a system that really did rehabilitate people? Regardless of whether you think that this is a morally correct thing to do, surely it would be the sensible thing to do.