In Which I Apologize to John Cole

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

I owe John Cole of Balloon Juice an apology. I figured he’d just ignore the 96-page special issue of Reason featuring 23 articles devoted to the many problems with the criminal justice system. To my knowledge, it’s the most in-depth treatment of the criminal justice system any public policy or current events magazine has published to date (the Economist and The American Prospect have also addressed the topic in a series of articles, but not in an entire issue).

I figured Cole would ignore the “Criminal Injustice” issue because it doesn’t fit into the “libertarians are selfish assholes who only care about themselves” nonsense he’s always foaming at the mouth about. Sure enough, a couple weeks after the issue came out, he rolled out another libertarian bashing post, but made no mention of the issue. I suppose it’s possible he wasn’t aware of it. But if you’re going to say libertarians only devote time and energy to issues that benefit themselves, you should probably at least first look for some evidence that might contradict your thesis, no?

But as it turns out, I should have waited a bit longer. A week ago, Cole finally made Balloon Juice readers aware of the criminal justice issue. Okay, so the entire package only garnered one line in yet another silly Cole rant, populated with the usual straw men, about how libertarians are horrible, awful people because they favor policies that are different than the policies favored by John Cole. And he didn’t really acknowledge the issue so much as obliquely reference a single article from it—in this case, an article about prison rape. And he didn’t really acknowledge that article, or even link to it, so much as bring it up so he could quickly and blithely dismiss it as, in the grand scheme of things, one of those unimportant peripheral issues libertarians sometimes obsess about. (I’d imagine that actual victims of prison rape—very few of whom would likely describe themselves as libertarians—probably disagree with Cole on this point.) Oh, also, in the same post, Cole links to another article that criticized another article that mentioned the “Criminal Injustice” issue. So there’s that.

But hey, Cole did at least, sort of, in a roundabout way, in the course of writing another post attacking libertarians, hint at the fact that the criminal justice issue of Reason exists. In Balloon Juice world, this is about as close to intellectual honesty as you’re going to get. So let’s give some credit where credit is due!

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108 Responses to “In Which I Apologize to John Cole”

  1. #1 |  Highway | 

    BSK, I still don’t understand what you think could be an equitable remedy. Sure, there were historical problems. But most of the things you’re talking about are *ideas* that are not exclusive, and are not kept from anyone. There isn’t any sort of monopoly on the ideas of wealth creation, and if people who have access to the same alternatives as others who have a history of wealth building continue to perpetuate systems which are less efficient or unable to build wealth, what can the government do about it?

    The way I see it, anything that could be considered a remedy will fall into one of two camps: Spreading the opportunity equally, or punishing some group. So you can make it so everyone has the opportunity to own their residence (under the same conditions! We have seen what tragedy can be wrought by relaxing the conditions to home ownership below what is financially prudent) and no libertarian would have a problem with that. Or you can punish people: Make them sell their houses below market value, or subsidize some folks while not subsidizing others, or other things that take wealth from one group and give it to another.

    Or for instance, banks. Poor people spend a lot more of their income on short term loans. They don’t trust banks. This could be remedied by convincing folks that banks are better than payday loans, and austerity is better than gratification, in the long run. But this isn’t sacred knowledge. Anyone can know this. Or laws can be made that punish the banks that try to perform services for these folks, and while those laws are looked at by some as ‘good’ (like limits on overdraft fees), they have the effect of punishing banks who try to service that community, making the bank lose money. And that hurts the bank, and it hurts the community because it takes that institution that would help people build wealth, even if they have higher overdraft fees. Overdraft fees help you learn good banking and budgeting behavior: What young adult hasn’t had to pay an overdraft, and learns that it sucks, and you don’t want to do it ever again. But if the banks close because of punitive laws, then folks in those communities don’t have even a choice.

    So a lot of these legacy things you’re talking about are behaviors that anyone can pick up at any time. And they aren’t being kept secret by anyone. Maybe a particular school sucks for some folks, but that doesn’t mean that one couldn’t get a good education from it. Don’t we hear those stories all the time? The government obviously doesn’t know how to fix that, or maybe they know, and just won’t do it. But it’s not like there’s no way that someone can be successful with a public school education, even one from a terrible school.

  2. #2 |  BSK | 


    But the behaviors require capital. Wealth begets wealth and poverty begets poverty. Are there counter examples? Obviously. But you are basically saying that people who have been systematically disadvantaged, and continue to be so, “We know this sucked/sucks for you. Sorry. Nothing we can do about it now. Figure it out on your own.” I’m sorry, but I find that morally repugnant.

    If you were to buy a TV from Best Buy for an amazing price and it was later found out that Best Buy stole that TV, would you be entitled to keep it? If you had to return it to it’s rightful owner, would you be entitled to a refund of the actual cost of the TV or what you paid for it? Even if you had no idea it was stolen it’d be hard to argue that you are entitled to anything more than the money you doled out. Well, let’s consider the land stolen. And the labor stolen. Let’s just look at tangible, practical theft of property and labor. Ya know what, let’s leave labor out of it and just use land. Land was stolen. Plain and simple. It should be returned, plain and simple. Those who are on it, innocent or not, aware or not, should be remedied by the government. If they were only able to possess that land in the first place because it was stolen and sold to them or the previous sellers are below market rates, they are entitled to nothing more than that below market rate.

    It’s just hard to take libertarian economic policy seriously when they are objecting to 1% tax increases and pay no mind to the wholesale theft, enslavement, and disenfranchisement of entire groups of people.

    Again, I don’t know what the solution is. And I’m not saying they would be easy or pretty. And I fully concede that much of what the government has attempted to do has failed. Your solution seems to be, “Let’s just do nothing then.” Sorry, but I can’t buy that.

    (By the way, I appreciate the spirited debate. This is obviously a topic I’m fired up over, but I do enjoy discussing it intellectually and honestly as you have.)

  3. #3 |  Ovresmot | 

    “Taking what I earn to spend it on what you want, instead of what I want, is a violation of my civil liberties.”

    By that logic, all taxation is violating your civil liberties. Every cent of it. So it’s back to feudalism, I guess. Or just subsistence farming, really. Pass the hoes! (sorry just a little serf humor).

  4. #4 |  Highway | 

    You may find it morally repugnant, but you’re arguing that people who were NOT complicit in the theft be held culpable for actions they did not do, and be made to compensate other people who were also not involved. I find it hard to believe that punishing people innocent of this is much less repugnant. And that the amount of compensation is some amount that cannot be calculated, and is extremely dependent on years and years of activity that likely would not have happened.

    I think one thing you do miss is that generally a libertarian position (and my personal one) is not just ‘let’s do nothing’. It’s also “let’s do as much as we can to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” It’s not ignoring it. It’s realizing that it’s happened, far enough in the past that there is no hope of making people whole. There’s no way to place a value on it. For instance, if land was worth 1 cent an acre when it was taken, and through subsequent effort and other effects is now worth 500,000 dollars per acre 150 years later, what value should be remanded to the heirs of the person who it was taken from? Would it be the current value? Would it be the starting value plus inflation? Would it just be the starting price? I can’t see it rightly being argued that the people who would be recompensed are entitled not just to the land, but to all the value generated by labor and others on the surrounding land.

    Libertarians aren’t ‘ignoring’ the issue. It’s realizing that theft, enslavement, and disenfranchisement are wrong, but that trying to redress wrongs from such a distance is just continuing with theft, enslavement, and disenfranchisement. It’s certainly not the case that libertarians would say “Everything that everyone has right now, no matter how they got it, is what they start with.” No libertarian is saying that Bernie Madoff should be let go, no problems. Libertarians are constantly fighting government property takes, private property takes, voter fraud, etc.

    But in situations where the harmed parties are “this group of people way in the past”, and the offending parties are “this other group of people way in the past”? Where even as you acknowledge there’s no real way to figure out what redress can be made, who should make it, what time frame, or who should be made whole. Then it starts to really get into the feeling of “Well, we should do something.” And when that’s the motivating factor, innocent people get harmed, and that cannot be justified.

  5. #5 |  BSK | 

    Many of the victims remain. When was segregation struck down? Certainly within a vast majority of people’s lifetimes. Racial profiling and gender discrimination still exist; not legally, but they do go on and the deck is stacked against those seeking redress. The issues are ongoing and are not distinct from the initial crimes.

  6. #6 |  glasnost | 

    What you’re doing is disequating libertarianism with the promotion of Darwinian-market based approaches to every problem. That’s an okay thing to do. If I wanted to try to be a libertarian, I’d recommend doing just that in practice.

    But to say that markets have “nothing to do with” my scenario where rich people get good, expensive lawyers and poor people get incompetent ones or none at all is an empirically false statement. A market for legal services exists. The fact that this market is artificially enhanced, distorted, etc by the need to legally defend yourself from criminal charges brought by the government, doesn’t make that market not exist. Who gets a lawyer is decided by who has the required currency, the amount of which is determined by supply and demand. It’s a market. A market without subsidized public defenders is a market with less government interference than a market with them.

    Your point is that the reason we don’t just let the market decide who gets a lawyer is that libertarians value liberty, and liberty is infringed when the government can put poor people on trial who can’t afford and don’t have lawyers. Thus public defenders. But this is a clear example of intervening in an existing market, for legal services, to create an outcome of greater civil liberty.

    Now that we’ve established this scenario pitting liberty against ‘free’ markets – meaning markets in which the government does not intervene to help out the losers – there’s no shortage of other examples. Of course, libertarians aren’t interested in conceptions of liberty wherein bad things that happen to people constitute a loss of their practical freedom, unless those bad things are done with violence or illegal behavior. But even under that narrow conception of liberty, there’s no shortage of other examples.

  7. #7 |  glasnost | 

    Regarding global economics – globalization is currently making poor countries richer and rich countries less rich, capital fleeing to where labor is cheap, employing it in large quantities, creating shortages, raising wages, etc etc etc. Hooray.

    There’s no necessary contradiction – though there is often tension – between a strong state and a state that allows access to markets.
    The current state of the world is such that relative wage disparities are so high that many states are benefitting from market effects to one degree or another. But the textile industry hasn’t started making Bangladeshi a first world country yet, while South Korea has changed completely in 50 years. It takes a lot more than simply lowering your tariff barriers. In fact, your tariff barriers are completely irrelevant as long as your rules for foreign investment are liberalized. In fact, lowering your tariff barriers at the Congo state is a great way to make sure that most of the resulting foreign investment capital is repatriated or immediately burned on imports, while your country stays at the bottom end of the value chain. This is called, more or less, mercantilism. government-created market distortions and restrictions are helpful in this process but not neccessary.

    This is rather too complicated to be a useful discussion without some specific case studies. What it boils down to is that opening markets to new entrants tends to bring wealth to the new entrants, which is a great thing about international markets. That’s the expansion phase of competition in a given market. It’s followed by the contraction phase of competition, which gradually eliminates all of these benefits, and to which libertarianism’s solution is a combination of denialism and utopianism.

  8. #8 |  Eric H | 

    Having never read BJ or their commenters before, I saw all I needed to see with this defense of order:

    Brachiator: “Great Rant. … I can never understand why some people are so big on imposing or admiring order for it’s own sake.”

    cleek (who is apparently unable to find the caps key): “order makes life easy to understand, predict and diagnose. if everybody else is behaving predictably, and your place in the scheme of things is clearly defined, everything will be efficient, with little conflict, and few failures.

    “in other words: it’s the engineering impulse.”

    Really? Really?! Do they think that libertarians are imposing their view of order? Even while they make light of how little actual power Libertarians have? Radley, I agree with other commenters here: please ignore these people. Anyone impressed by that paragraph enough to call it “epic”, “awesome”, “great” or even “good” is not a deep thinker; and if that was his “best ever”, then the bar must be very low.

    Incidentally, thought I think it mostly petty, nobody should be defending the Kochs. Such ill-advised activity is what Kevin Carson refers to as “vulgar libertarianism”, and for good reason.