December 18, 2013

Changing the Labels Doesn't Change Reality

I'd like to think I'm above falling for click-bait headlines, but I guess I'm as susceptible to it as anyone else.  So, when I saw the subheadline on this piece at Reason - "Would a free society be a crime-free society?" - I just couldn't help myself.  Shame that the substance doesn't live up to the promise.

To be fair, Sheldon Richman says right off the bat that he's not Utopian and doesn't:
foresee a future of new human beings who consistently respect the rights of others.
Rather, he investigates the historical distinction between crimes - wrongs committed against and punished by the state - and torts, which are private causes of actions individuals bring against each other in order to be made whole again.  In simple terms, a murder is a crime and will result in the perpetrator being sent to prison, while medical malpractice is a tort, resulting in someone (an insurance carrier, most likely) making the victim whole via monetary compensation.

The history itself is interesting.  As Richman explains, tort once reigned above all.  It was only as English kings began to accrue more power (and, Richman argues, quest for more money) that more things became crimes.  Richman sees this development as something "[l]iberty-minded people should regret," although it happened centuries ago.  He argues, while stating that the reasons are "too obvious to need elaboration," that a justice system aimed solely at restitution is more preferable to what we've got now.

I can't say I buy that, possibly because I occasionally deal with clients who are ordered to pay restitution, in the rare case where there's an actual victim involved.  The sad fact is, for a lot of people, paying full restitution simply isn't an option.  Furthermore, you'll still need some kind of coercive agency with the power to force those who can pay to actually do so.

Aside from practical considerations, I'm not sure restitution as the goal of the system is theoretically feasible.  Most tort cases involve monetary damages that can fairly easily ascertained.  But how does one determine the proper amount of restitution for murder?  Or rape?  Or some kind of systematic problem like perjury?  It just doesn't lend itself well to those kinds of crimes.

In the end, all this is sort of pointless because Richman doesn't show how any revised system would eliminate crime itself, it would just change the labels.  There may be different ways to deal with the aftermath of somebody whapping me over the head with a crow bar or kidnapping somebody's child, but regardless of what you call the system those are still crimes as any modern person would call them.  Sadly, Richman had it right when he said that people aren't simply going to start behaving nicely anytime soon.

I'm sympathetic to what, I think, is Richman's underlying point - that the prevalence of victimless crimes is something that ought to be of concern to anybody who thinks "freedom" is a good idea.  As I said, the current criminal justice system is clogged with people charged with offenses that have no actual victim.  But swinging all the way to the other direction and thinking, just by switching a label, that we can eliminate victims is just silly.

On a side note, I find it ironic that a libertarian and/or anarchist would resort to dealing with a problem simply by changing the label on it.  That doesn't make the problem go away, just obscures it for a while.  It's a favorite tool of repressive governments everywhere.  As Babylon 5 once had a character explain when asked when all the problems on Earth - homelessness, crime, unemployment - were solved:
When we rewrote the dictionary.
In the end, it's a trick, and not even a very clever one.

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