Prison Is Cruel

Bankers who take bad risks (provided those risks are legal) simply do not end up with bad outcomes in any absolute sense. … We’re not going to bring back torture, trial by ordeal or debtors’ prisons, nor should we. (Tyler)

During Europe’s Middle Ages, debtors … were locked up … until their families paid their debt. … Some debt prisoners were released to become serfs or indentured servants (debt bondage) until they paid off their debt in labor. … While Hong kong has long imprisoned debtors, the first mainland [China] prison sentence for unpaid debts was handed down in 2008. (more)

Peonage is a system where laborers are bound in servitude until their debts are paid in full. … Such systems have existed in many places at many times throughout history. … Such a system was often used in the southern United States after the American Civil War … Debt bondage has been defined by the United Nations as a form of “modern day slavery” and is prohibited by international law. … The number of debt bondage slaves [worldwide was] 18.1 million at the end of 2006. (more)

When a debtor is tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay, or when the value of their work is significantly greater than the original sum of money borrowed, some consider the arrangement to be a form of unfree labour or debt slavery. (more)

I like to make my students consider odd policy proposals, ones far from the status quo, but with simple supporting economic arguments. Students usually show a pretty strong status quo “bias” – they are sure our status quo is best, even if don’t know why. So I take notice when most of my students find a non-status quo proposal plausible.

Crimes can be punished via fines, stigma, prison, torture, exile, death, etc. Most of these types of punishment can be scaled, to allow for very small or very large punishments. I asked my students to design a system of punishment – a court sentences each convict to some punishment level, and you decide how to implement that level. Most students suggested some form of debt bondage/prison system – punish convicts via fines, and those who can’t pay must work to pay off the debt. And most of those opted for a competitive system, letting convicts choose to any “prison” willing to pay the fine.

Students noted that fines could depend on convict income/wealth, and that such a system wastes far fewer resources than regular prisons, while keeping convicts confined and letting them learn new skills. And it seems clear to me that no punishment system with a wide enough range of punishment levels is more “cruel” than any other, at least from the convict’s point of view. It is the level of punishment that a convict finds cruel, not the method of implementing it. A prison system is just as cruel as a torture system; it is large punishments, e.g., long prison sentences or severe torture acts, that are cruel, not prison or torture itself.

Commentary on the history of debt bondage is full of accusations of “exploitation” – saying debtor laborers were not fairly credited for their work. No doubt this did happen, but such a problem seems easily solved via competition, making sure a debtor can always to switch to any lender willing to pay their remaining debt. Yet even with such a fix, random walks of wealth in systems allowing debt bondage should accumulate a low tail of folks with the least allowed wealth. And the more wealth is inherited between generations, the thicker that low tail will be.

Clearly the existence of low wealth tails offends many.  (At least within a nation – low wealth elsewhere in the world offends much less.)  And such offense has motivated “anti-slavery” bans of debt bondage. But convicts with long prison sentences are in fact “slaves” with very low wealth levels. Somehow most folks see that as ok, while the same convicts at the same low wealth levels via debt bondage would be, horrors, “slavery,” and not ok.

But if my students are any guide, that conviction is weaker than it might seem. And since debt bondage can make a lot of sense in a future world of near-subsistence whole brain emulations, we may well see a large-scale revival of debt-bondage within a century or so.

Added 9a: Sentences could specify incapacitation or detailed monitoring for some period, with strong penalties for “prisons” that failed.  I’m somewhat skeptical about inevitable political pressures to exploit convicts – that seems a slippery slope argument, and I find such arguments weak.

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