New at Cato Unbound: Glenn Loury on American Prison Policy

This month’s Cato Unbound is devoted to the topic “Behind Bars in the Land of the Free.” Brown University’s Glenn Loury kicks off the discussion with his lead essay “A Nation of Jailers,” in which he argues that American prison policy is both a travesty of liberty and equality. 

I’ve often tangled with other libertarians about the effects of social norms on liberty. Glenn has made me think harder about the way the idea of individual responsibility is used selectively to reinforce barriers to opportunity. I wonder what others think about this passage of Glenn’s, which I think is correct, but which I admit makes me a bit uncomfortable:

What we Americans fail to recognize — not merely as individuals, I stress, but as a political community — is that these ghetto enclaves and marginal spaces of our cities, which are the source of most prison inmates, are products of our own making: Precisely because we do not want those people near us, we have structured the space in our urban environment so as to keep them away from us. Then, when they fester in their isolation and their marginality, we hypocritically point a finger, saying in effect: “Look at those people. They threaten to the civilized body. They must therefore be expelled, imprisoned, controlled.” It is not we who must take social responsibility to reform our institutions but, rather, it is they who need to take personal responsibility for their wrongful acts. It is not we who must set our collective affairs aright, but they who must get their individual acts together. This posture, I suggest, is inconsistent with the attainment of a just distribution of benefits and burdens in society.

What say you?

John R. Lott, Bruce Western, and James Q. Wilson are set to reply.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center