Consider Exile

Today we mainly punish criminals via prison, which is very expensive. I have previously favored torture (= corporal punishment) and fines paid by competitive debtor prisons. But today, I’d like to sing the praises of exile.

To punish criminals, we could kick them out of the country to whatever other place they choose, among those that will take them. To give them an incentive to get some place to take them, we might offer a modest subsidy, and reserve an especially big punishment if no one will take them.

People worry that fines give governments too strong an incentive to find the innocent guilty (though fines paid to bounty hunters avoid that problem). People worry that torture doesn’t keep criminals off the street, and that it makes us seem cruel. Exile doesn’t have any of these problems! On cruelty, we already prevent most of the world from living here, so how can it be too cruel to prevent a few more?

Some think exile can’t impose small punishments. But you can exile someone for a year, a month, or a week. Some worry that exile can’t impose extreme punishments. But exile doesn’t have to be the whole solution, just part of a solution. For example, to impose punishments bigger than lifetime exile, beat them a bit first.

Some worry about variation in how much people dislike exile. But there is also variation in how much people dislike fines, prison, torture, and public humiliation. The best way to reduce punishment variation is probably to bundle together many kinds of punishment. Maybe fine them some, beat them a little, humiliate them a bit, and then exile them for a while.

In 2006 the US spent $69 billion on corrections, and 2.3 million adults were incarcerated at year-end 2009. A state prisoner cost an average of $24,000 per year in 2005 (source). Why waste all that money?!

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  • justin

    Two problems I would have.

    1. Exile doesn’t solve the problem, it just imposes it on a different set of people. If we exile a thief and he moves to Canada, now Canada has the burden instead of us.

    2. Say the penalty for some crime is a year of exile and I plan on going abroad for a year (or moving permanently). I can now commit the crime without any real punishment.

    • 1. Exile doesn’t solve the problem, it just imposes it on a different set of people. If we exile a thief and he moves to Canada, now Canada has the burden instead of us.

      I don’t believe Robin is suggesting that the criminals be sent to another country to be punished there. The exile itself is the punishment. Canada does have the “burden” of a thief walking the streets but this is going to happen anyway if a thief is not imprisoned or when the thief is released.

      2. Say the penalty for some crime is a year of exile and I plan on going abroad for a year (or moving permanently). I can now commit the crime without any real punishment.

      This is true, but it also applies to other forms of punishment, as Robin points out. If you don’t mind prison life, you can commit crimes without any real punishment. (However, it’s likely the social sanctions of punishment will sting for most people, and they would likely apply regardless of whether the form was imprisonment or exile or anything else). Also, it’s unlikely that prisoners would be exiled to places where a sizeable number of people would like to travel to.

  • Anonymous

    Why waste all that money?!

    Because society is supposed to have costs for punishment. If society has no costs, or even benefits, from punishing individuals, ideological or otherwise unnecessary criminalization increases. It is naive to assume that the democratic process or mere empathy would prevent that.

    • snarles


  • Anonymous

    I have previously favored torture… For example, to impose punishments bigger than lifetime exile, beat them a bit first… Maybe fine them some, beat them a little, humiliate them a bit, and then exile them for a while.

    Just out of curiosity, did you ever get tested for antisocial personality disorder?

    More seriously, there are good reasons why torture and other cruel and unusual punishments are illegal. Prison is cruel, and corporeal punishment as a voluntary alternative could be considered. But prisoners usually aren’t even allowed to die, and there’s plenty of psychological evidence that abusive situations in institutionalized contexts get out of hand very quickly.

  • The last time I recall reading someone advocate exile for crimes was Keith Preston imagining crime control in a stateless society. If they are working during their exile, we can garnish wages for renumeration.

  • Hugh

    Hey Robin, good idea to reconsider the punishment. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to impose internal exile in most countries now, since things like periodic detention and courts that can impose limits on your movements exist already. Also, it’s probably not a bad punishment for offences of mass disruption that have a low standard of proof.

    The destination country probably wouldn’t be too keen on receiving an exiled individual. You could pay the destination country, but I’m not sure it would be much cheaper than imprisonment. You could threaten to kill them if no-one takes them, which might enliven some refugee clause, but that would probably come back to bite you hard. Ditto on a smaller scale for airlines/ferries.

    • Hugh

      How much would the cost of imprisonment fall (if at all) if those serving life imprisonment without parole were offered euthanasia?

  • Matt

    I wonder how Australians would feel about this…

  • I think this is quite a reasonable idea. I can envisage a couple of reasons why people might oppose it, though:

    – People don’t like the idea of punishment being “taken out of our hands”. Being able to keep criminals in our own prisons gives you greater feelings of power and control than letting them loose somewhere else.
    – People dislike it for similar reasons that they dislike the implications of the Summers memo: they think that the countries accepting payment for criminals would be “exploited”.

  • PJ

    Congratulations, you have re-invented slavery by accident. This is exactly the logic that my Ebu friend from Africa talked to me about. Eons ago, their people found it was expensive, problematic, and more to keep prisoners, whether they were political dissidants or social deviants. But other countries needed workers. So they sold them to other countries instead. The funds paid for the trouble to pay for the law enforcement effort (such as it was in that era) and initial trial or imprisonment, and then they were rid of them, goodbye!

    You might be saying, “I didn’t say slavery.” But that’s the point you see: once you hand them to another country, who has no reason to trust or respect them because they are criminals, they will do with them what they will.


    • Good point about slavery. I would add that masochism just ruins the satisfaction of a good beating. Perhaps we should can them as a inexpensive peotein source.

  • Khoth

    Rather than speculate about why we don’t do something, why not open a history book and find out why we stopped doing it?

  • Perverse incentive warning!

    If you are a serious criminal, not caught yet, but expecting to be probably caught soon, why not do something that will improve your position in your future exile country? For example, become a spy for them. Not necessarily a government spy; you could also be a corporate spy for a foreign company that in return will promise to hire you when you are exiled.

    Also, if you already plan to move to another country, you can commit crimes without punishment.

    • Anonymous

      For example, become a spy for them.

      That’s a bit far-fetched for most criminals.

      Also, if you already plan to move to another country, you can commit crimes without punishment.

      Not if the countries of your choice can refuse to take you.

  • Salem

    While this is a great idea, it is highly unrealistic to think it would be implemented.

    We already have the gravest difficulty in deporting foreigners who commit serious crimes here; the left supports any and all challenges on the grounds of human rights.

  • Noumenon

    Why would any country take this offer? I’m not a criminal and I doubt I could just emigrate to anywhere unless I had a job.

  • majus

    I had to check the calendar. No, it doesn’t seem to be April 1.

    This post seems to display a starkly non-nuanced view of “criminals”, and by dehumanizing them, also fails to consider the toll on the people they are connected to and the fallibility of the justice system. it also seems to imply that other nations are to be regarded as our toilets and their citizens of less value than our own.

    I imagine my wife/son/self has been wrongly convicted of something. Or harshly sentenced for something minor that is commonplace and not regarded as criminal by many people (I’m thinking of possession of pot, but there are other examples). Today one can “do the time” and then resume normal life, or appeal and possibly win release. The people penalized in this way are more likely to be young, poor, non-white.

    Faced with the exile of a loved-one, I would face the destruction of my own happiness due to uncertainty about their safety (not that different from some prison sentences, but not universal either), or the decision to uproot myself to be with them in exile (not a net win for my community and country), or the inability to stop myself from lashing out against my own government in rage.

    Let’s try this in miniature first: all criminals should be exiled to Washington DC.

    I need to check the calendar again.

    • If the standard penalty for pot possession was exile for a year in a poor-but-mostly-safe country like Romania or China or Thailand, and someone suggested “how about we lock them up with murderers and rapists instead?”, I’m sure people would raise the exact same concerns about “a starkly non-nuanced view of criminals”, or failing “to consider the toll on the people they are connected to and the fallibility of the justice system”, etc.

      • Anonymous

        Maybe nitpicking, but pot possession very obviously should never have been a crime to begin with; it’s victimless and violates no one’s rights. It’s bizarre that people are labelled criminals for the mere possession of a substance they intend to introduce into their own bodies without harming anyone else.

        As for the temporary exile to a poor-but-safe country, I’m not sure that’s much of a punishment to begin with. For crimes severe enough to justify permanent exile, who would take the criminals voluntarily? Robin Hanson’s solution to “reserve an especially big punishment if no one will take them” is a de facto signal to the world, stating “we will violate human rights severely if you don’t take our human garbage”. Not to mention that unlike Hanson seems to think, that’s pretty much out of control for the criminals unless they have serious money.

  • I’m also wondering what countries would accept; there may be a few cases, but I expect that if such a policy was accepted worldwide, there would be much more potential exiles than places in host countries.

    That is, unless the exile deal is packaged with some kind of forced labor (selling off prisonners as slaves), or if the source country pays the receiving government for their trouble.

  • Robert Koslover

    Sure… but then, wouldn’t this require that we actually secure our borders?

  • Antsan

    Funny, people talk about crime and instantly jump to punishment. As if punishment is the most effective way of counteracting the effects of crime.

    • KPres

      I think we were talking about criminals, not crime itself. Counteracting the “effects of crime” is would be another subject.

  • Albert Ling

    Ship them to a remote Island and place a navy ship to patrol any boats leaving
    The U.S. has lots of options:

    That way all the violence will be among themselves and society can feel less guilt than if there was direct torture.

    Then there is the obvious revenue from reality TV pay-per-view. Look at all the demand for violence porn like UFC and ever more sadistic blockbusters being churned by Hollywood.

    I still think forced labour and whipping for certain cases is more efficient. And the death penalty should be applied liberally when the degree of confidence on the guilt is at or very near 100% AND the crime is heinous.

    • Doug S.

      They called Australia, didn’t they?

  • Mark M

    I’m not sure how many countries would be comfortable with the idea that just hanging out there for a year is considered a severe punishment. That would probably not help their tourist trade.

  • Albert Ling

    I don’t think exile to another country, even a very poor one, has a great deterrent effect. I’m just imagining myself being a criminal and considering whether to risk getting caught and be sent to Haiti or getting whipped and the whip is near and easy to visualize but other country seems vague and not clear that it’s even a punishment

  • Lord

    As I recall, a variant of exile has been used in the past and the punishment for illegal entry is expulsion. Exile also exists for those careful enough not to caught after their crimes. While not opposed, it could not be a universal punishment as it wouldn’t have much deterrent value to aliens or those whose crime is sufficiently profitable that it makes living abroad attractive, so it could much less or more severe for different individuals and makes it more difficult to treat them equally.

  • This brings to mind a related idea. We have benefitted from cheaper goods and services from developing countries and companies in the US routinely hire engineers and other workers offshore to keep costs low.
    If we are spending $24,000 per year on a US prisoner, I see ample room for saving. I am sure there are enough prisons in the developing world, where prisoners can be housed for 1/3 to 1/2 the cost, maintaining similar standard of living, given the differential in food and real estate expenses. A return ticket to most places in the world can be managed for $1500 or so.
    Why should we not just offshore prisons, particularly when the jail terms are at least for a year.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    Most real crimes (where there is a victim), such as rape, murder, theft, etc. are defined on the state level, with the perps being imprisoned within the state they committed such crimes. The problem with exile is that you are simply dumping someone who is potentially dangerous on another population, creating a problem for the society that receives the exile.

    Most Federal crimes, on the other hand, are not real crimes and, thus, should not even be defined as crimes. These are actually political crimes against the state apparatus.

    • Anonymous

      An interesting twist could be to exile criminals to nations in which their action wouldn’t have been a crime. For instance, a sex offender who has sex with a person that would have been above the legal age of consent in another country could be exiled to that country.

  • dugancm

    What about judicial, rather than physical, exile? For a period, the state will not prosecute crimes against or enforce contracts signed by the individual. Tit for tat; If you break the rules, you don’t get to benefit from them.

    • Anonymous

      Why not an eye for an eye, tit for tat? Medieval logic, doesn’t increase human welfare, which is supposedly the function of law enforcement.

      • Emile

        Silly me, I thought law enforcement’s function was to enforce laws.

      • Anonymous

        Person A: “A bakery’s function is to improve human welfare.”
        Person B: “A bakery’s function is to greate baked goods.”
        Person A: “Well, what do you think baked goods are for?”

      • Anonymous


    • Explodicle

      Anarchists would love that. An opt-out from the law! The power to choose which organization protects your rights, without having to move.

  • rationalist

    Exile to a dangerous country like Somalia would often result in death. Imagine some white American rapist being dumped in lawless Somalia: the locals would probably kill him/her pretty quickly. However sometimes the individual would be canny, rich or connected enough to bribe the local gangs and/or escape to somewhere safer.

    In summary, there would be a huge variation in outcomes, which people would deem unacceptable.

  • rationalist

    It seems that a much better way to save money on prisons is to increase sentence hardship and decrease sentence length. For example, whipping and beating every day, being hunted by dogs, no human contact, starvation rations, but only for six months instead of 5 years.

    To satisfy bleeding heart retards that this is equally humane, you could give a small group of prisoners choices between n years of ordinary prison and k months of increased hardship prison, and find the tradeoff point.

    Once released, prisoners would be fitted with electronic tags which tracked their movements and sent audiovisual data back to police HQ. This would discourage and prevent reoffending.

    • KPres

      Another way to save money is hard labor. Criminals can become productive, and pay their own keep.

      The problem with corporeal punishment is that you lose one of the side effects of extended prison sentencing, namely, that the bad guys get removed from society for a time so the rest of us don’t have to deal with them.

      • Anonymous

        >implying the rest of us aren’t bad guys

        The problem with productive punishment, as I repeat, is that society’s laws are not at all just and rational, and the tendency to arbitrary and excessive criminalization must be countered by a cost on law enforcement’s side.

        You guys are so naive. You keep reasoning as though law-breakers were always bad people and law-abiding people were always good people. This is absurd.

      • Anonymous, that is the definition of “bad people”, people that the justice system has found guilty. That it happens to also correspond with conventional prejudices simply shows how well founded those conventional prejudices actually are.

        If you replaced prison sentences with fines, maybe $100k per year of sentence, then people could really “pay” their debt to society and get back to being productive again. If you kept prison funding the same, then everyone is better off. The prisoners get better treatment through increased funding, the fines pay for some of the prison upkeep, and people who can pay the fines get out right away. Everybody wins.

    • Antsan

      Yeah, imagine the guy that was psychologically capable of beating someone into hospital that now also has spend six month being chased by dogs without contact to other humans. *I* seriously don’t want to live in the same region as him, even if he’s tagged. I am afraid enough of all the other nutcases that don’t care about punishment.

    • Let’s not give up on using prison to rehabilitate people. It might still work. Let’s at least not develop prisons that deliberately make people worse than they were when they went in.

      • It already has been given up on. California used to have a model system to rehabilitate prisoners, one that actually worked. Now, since the largest PAC in California is the prison guards union, the “tough on crime” politicians have lots of political donations and there is “three strikes and you are out”, criminalization of drug crimes, mandatory sentencing.

        It is all about high wages for prison guards and large prisons.

  • Dave

    I have always been attracted to the “let the punishment fit the crime” manner of punishment.Most of these would be administered in the afterlife and would be truly cruel and unusual.
    For example, the guy that invented the Phillip’s screw driver would spend eternity trying to unscrew stripped out Philips’s screws. The guy that made shirt labels scratchy on your neck would spend eternity removing them from shirts. The guy that made plastic containers you can’t get into would have his radial artery slit open as he opened one thick plastic package after another, for ever and ever. Heh Heh!! You may have other examples.

  • Tor Munkov

    Exile would be an improvement. Better that each offender be made to work until restitution to the victim is made in full. What is cruel and unusual punishment. Slaves had to fear a masters whip. I submit we are now under much greater fears. Most would prefer forced labor than 1 month in jail. A whipping than 3 months in jail. A beating than 6 months in jail. To be tattooed branded and disfigured than 9 months in jail. To be hobbled than 1 year in jail. To be blinded in one eye than 2 years in jail. Where are the cutoffs for forced organ donation, medical experimentation, finger amputation, toe amputation, hand amputation, foot amputation, electroshock, lobotomy, castration, and countless other alternatives.
    All of the above are a state power inflation scheme that grossly multiply the original maleficence.

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  • “Why waste all that money?!”

    This is like asking why waste all that money on weapons contracts. It’s not a waste – to the companies that get paid. Many prisons in the US are now for-profit enterprises. They lobby.

    Libertarians (and I don’t know what Robin thinks on this subject) have to either give up on the idea that we can save money by privatizing prison, give up on saving money by reducing the number of people we send to prison, or give up on our current implementation of representative democracy.

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  • Wade

    I just found this blog, and generally like it, but this post does not reflect well on its author.
    Exile is actually a pretty good idea, since criminals are those who refuse to participate in society’s laws, and what better way to get them to see the value of participation than to put them in a position without it?
    But torture is not a very good means of correcting behavior. I won’t ask if this is how the author socialized his own children, but I will say that the reason why the incidence of violence in raising children has decreased is that more effective methods exist, for those who will look for them.

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