The Benefits of Incarceration

I rarely disagree with my now world-famous co-blogger Micha about policy matters. However, I must take issue with his latest post. The situation in under discussion deals with a few questions.

Should the prisoner be charged for "room and board"? Although Micha has concluded that this is clearly a benefit, I do not see it as that cut-and-dry. Let me start with some scenarios.

  • You are stopped at a red light. Someone walks up to your car and quickly washes your windshield. He demands payment because you benefitted from his labor.
  • A social worker forcibly takes your child from your home where you are homeschooling him and places him a government school. He demands payment for the benefit received by your child.
  • You are eating a slice of pizza. Your fit friend takes it and replaces it with a hummus and seaweed granola bar. He demands payment for the benefit you will receive from better health.
  • A struggling aspiring actress has routine surgery to remove her gallbladder, but while she is under anesthesia, the surgeon gives her breast implants. He demands payment for the benefit she will receive from her greater marketability.
  • An 18th century plantation owner charges room and board to a newly acquired slave from the jungles of Africa due to the benefit he receives in civilized living.
  • A Tibetan monk is taken by the Chinese government from a life of modest living in a monastery and made to work in a factory in Shanghai. The Chinese government demands payment for the benefit he receives from the conveniences of urban living.
  • I lock up Micha in a metal box and charge him rent, because he benefitted from the accomodations.

To me, economics fails when it ignores the very individual nature of value. Perhaps you value your windshield being washed at exactly zero. Perhaps you and your spouse value homeschooling your child enough for one of you to stop working a full-time job and forego those wages. Perhaps you value the exquisite taste of a slice of fresh mozzarella and tomato pizza greater than the 5.3 hours of your life that will be shortened by your consumption of it. I had friends in medical school who valued the nicotine high from regular cigarette smoking greater than the increased risk of emphysema, chronic bronchitis, heart disease, and lung cancer that resulted from it, even though they were completely knowledgable about the destructive long-term effects on their health.

Calculating benefit to a prisoner from room and board for wrongful imprisonment ignores the very essential questions of "Did the prisoner value the room and board?" and "How much did he value it?" A person cannot benefit from something if he does not value it. The only reasonable standard of what benefits someone is his own consent and freely made choice.

Value is a function of voluntary choices. Concluding that the prisoner benefitted from the room and board ignores the essential nature of economic value judgments.

Did the British government do a cost-benefit analysis to come to its conclusion? Yes, but not the one Micha proposes. To me the simple economic answer to why the British government wants to charge wrongly imprisoned individuals room and board is that it costs money to run jails and the government will do whatever it can get away with to generate revenues. It has nothing to do with what "we" value, nor any calcuation of how the jailtime affected the victim economically. From reading the original article, it doesn't sound like anyone asked the victim what he valued. The economic calculation performed was in determining how the British government could raise enough revenues to pay for the costs of locking people up. All firms perform a similar calculation in order to maintain solvency. Yet, to raise revenues, businesses have to convince others to voluntarily exchange money for goods and services. In contrast, the British government did what all true monopolies do - whatever they can get away with.

Is there a better way to align the interests of all parties involved? On this question I largely agree with Micha. Any arbitrators resolving disputes should make best approximations of what the wronged party values, and make economic judgments that include estimates of costs and benefits accordingly. Yet, the problem with the current legal system is that it is a socialized monopoly. A market-based arbitration system would be superior. Private arbitrators would simply be selling a service with a price attached, much like an insurance company does, and individuals would be able to voluntarily buy those services based on their own preferences. Instead, today individuals have little choice in making appraisals about whether or not the price of the service is congruent with what they value based on past rulings and acquired reputation.

To summarize, I think it is poor economic reasoning to conclude the someone values what you value, or to equate price and cost with value. Consent and voluntary choice has to be taken into account. There was much deserved and understandable outrage in the blogosphere for this very reason.

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Indeed, Jonathan. No man can

Indeed, Jonathan. No man can be placed under a morally enforceable obligation by coercive means. (A politically enforceable obligation is quite another matter.)

As I wrote some time ago, without the bounds imposed by the moral constraints we call rights, economics would become indeterminate, essentially a trip through fantasyland. It would cease to apply to the real world, because its prescriptions would be generally recognized as a call for chaos.

A social worker forcibly

A social worker forcibly takes your child from your home where you are homeschooling him and places him a government school. He demands payment for the benefit received by your child.

This is an incorrect extension of Micha's argument about "making someone whole". Here the government should pay an amount equal to the harm done. This is basically the difference between the value of the public school, and the surplus (value minus cost) of the homeschool. If the public school is worse, then the parent gets paid. Its just that he isn't being paid quite as much, since he is receiving some value. If the public school's value is negative, then the parent gets paid even more than the homeschool surplus! Surely libertarians agree with that? Well, if they can get paid more when its a cost, why can't they get paid less when its a benefit?

(just as the prisoner is being paid, not charged, he just isn't being paid quite the full value of his salary + freedom. Again, if he was fed poison, he'd be entitled to be paid extra, right? So we can't he be paid less for being given calories?)

Calculating benefit to a prisoner from room and board for wrongful imprisonment ignores the very essential questions of "Did the prisoner value the room and board?" and "How much did he value it?" A person cannot benefit from something if he does not value it

But this is why room and board are what Micha is arguing for. Unlike most other goods, the choice to eat is made almost universally. Unlike, say, the choice of cell color, we can be almost certain that the prisoner values his meals.

I think it is poor economic reasoning to conclude the someone values what you value, or to equate price and cost with value. Consent and voluntary choice has to be taken into account.

On the price/cost/value issue, I disagree with your economic reasoning that cost should not be equated with value here. Suppose I value a candy bar at $10, but it costs $5, and is easy to buy. You give me a candy bar. I value that candy bar at $10, but you haven't given me a benefit of $10, because I could just take $5 and get a candy bar myself! I would prefer to have ten bucks cash to the candy bar. Thus $10 is the wrong measurement. The proper measurement is an offer which makes me indifferent, and that offer is $5, the cost. Unless I somehow don't have access to candy bars or money, it is the cost and not the value which measures the benefit I receive.

Also, its easy to push things into the general realm and forget the underlying issues. Yes, in general, someone's benefit from something you force on them is not necessarily its cost, or its value to the giver.

But this is FOOD. Concluding that most people value eating instead of starving to death and would make the voluntary choice to eat is not imposing my values on others! It is based on overwhelming empirical evidence. Do you really care to dispute it?

The issue of consent and voluntary choice is interesting, but I think Micha has correctly sidestepped it by pointing out these are specifically goods which are not voluntary, they are chosen by everyone because they are required for life.

If we talk about goods which the prisoner would *not* have chosen voluntarily, then I see far more merit in the idea that it is wrong to charge the prisoner for them, for all the reasons Jonathan is stating. But that is not what we are talking about.

Patri, "...If we talk about

Patri,

"...If we talk about goods which the prisoner would not have chosen voluntarily, then I see far more merit in the idea that it is wrong to charge the prisoner for them, for all the reasons Jonathan is stating. But that is not what we are talking about...."

When the prisoner was fed, he was given no idea that he would be charged for his food and was given no chance to choose to eat something less expensive.

Regards, Don

The market value of prison

The market value of prison accomodations is likely far less than the prisoners are being charged. How much would the prisoner be willing to pay to voluntarily enter the prison, eat prison food with the inmates, and sleep in the prison cot in a cell with another inmate? Surely not 8 pounds a day (3000/year as stated in the article.)

The question is not, how much would he be willing to pay for food and shelter (whatever he had to,) but how much would he be willing to pay for the food and shelter provided (very little.)

Patri, Actually if you

Patri,

Actually if you willing to spend $10 on a candy bar, that means that you value the candy bar _more_ than the $10. If you valued them equally, you would have no reason for the exchange.

Regards,
Hans

What I took away from

What I took away from Ghertner's post is a general disapproval of the idea that "one cannot even suggest deducting room and board from overall compensation". So even if you think deducting room and board from compensation is a bad idea, you should be willing to defend that opinion rather than denouncing everyone who begs to differ. I think Blunkett is dead wrong, but on this point I agree with Ghertner.

The problem, though, is that

The problem, though, is that the State perpetrated a crime on the falsely/wrongly imprisoned. That some services were provided at a cost to the perpetrator of the crime is irrelevant.

It is almost as though the guy who shot you gives you a bill for the cost of the bullets that ripped through you, morally speaking.

Or, more precisely, if the guy shot you, then gave you some first aid while waiting for the ambulance to come. The guy who shot you owes you restitution, period, and you owe him nothing. Presentation of a bill for first aid services rendered (and the cost of the bullets) would, in my mind, warrant putting a cap in the original shooter's ass.

So, no, really, it is quite outrageous for the perpetrators of the crime to demand any sort of claw-back for "services rendered" in the course of their crime.

I'm with Jonathon. It's

I'm with Jonathon. It's unclear to me how a free citizen can be charged for a service delivered to him through coercion.

Such a reality violates first principles of free market theory.

The reality also violates common sense political codes cherished in lands characterized by free men and women (politics).

If the government imprisons me for a crime it cannot prove, how can it possibly charge me for its discretion and investment in that misguided effort? Will there be another hearing to examine the preponderance of evidence for doing so, as in a civil hearing or parole violation, or is the very fact of arrest (since assumedly on some basis of proof) enough?

Indeed, the only time one gets charged for the reasons of another's coercive activity is when one is required, as a guilty party of a crime and found such in a court of law by one's peers, to make restitution to the state (and perhaps the victim).

Further, the whole precedent of charging someone for prison time is ludicrous. Will this then be extended to all prisoners behind bars? How will this affect reimmersion into society after release, since, as hard as it is to find a job, you're paying back rent, board, and utilities due?

It's very clear to me that authorities ought to establish the precedent of charging guilty parties for services rendered, through coercion, before intending to charge wrongly detained and presumably innocent parties for services rendered against their will.

Indeed, one would expect that the presumption of detainment would seem to show confidence by legal authorities that the evidence exists to prosecute and find guilty.

If not, and especially in cases where no trial ends up occurring, the burden of restitution should actually fall on the state.

Is that what this is? A whitewash to distract from the fact that the UK government owes these men for taking the most valuable thing in the world from them - freedom and family?

My above post took a general

My above post took a general line on the matter, in asserting what I consider to be first principles and common sense, and strayed a bit from the facts of the case.

With that in mind, I want to be clear that even a party once convicted by one's peers by due course of law, and then later found to be innocent, owes nothing for the services coercively rendered inbetween true determination of guilt in the matter at hand.

In this case, however, minus evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, negligence, or undue malevolence, there wouldn't seem to be any impetus for claims against the state for the involuntary confinement and loss of liberty, home, and family life.

On the other hand, where no charges are ever brought, or where there may be cases of prosecutorial malfeasance, the recourse to remedy would seem open, though, in the case of no charges being wrought, as long as the period was not excessive, as in a case brought to acquittal, though one could philosophically make the case for restitution, practically most of us would likely attribute it to a case of bad luck and be grateful the wheels of justice, though perhaps slow, worked in one's favor.

In China (and several other

In China (and several other countries), it's common for the government to send secret police to your home in the middle of the night to abduct political dissidents. They always refuse to tell the family where the prisoner will be sent or what will happen to them, but in many cases, a few months or years later, they get a letter telling them that their relative was tried and executed by firing squad. The letter includes a bill for the cost of the bullet.

Assume that you are taking

Assume that you are taking an airline flight home to Boston from Buffalo, when your plane is diverted to Montpelier, Vermont because a cabin attendent overhears a sportswriter referring to an 'explosive' Red Sox rally.

Because of aircraft crew work rules, your flight cannot proceed on to Boston and you are put up overnight in the Ritz-Montpelier hotel, in the Presidential Suite. Some of your fellow travellers are instead ensconced in the airport Motel Six, where they endure not being able to turn off the lights.

In the morning, with the weather under flight minimums, you are transported on to Boston in a five hour limousine ride. Other passengers are transported by means of a Peter Pan bus.

After any compensation, how much should you be charged for the volunteered limousine service and the benefit of the Presidential Suite instead of your own bed?

Regards, Don