The DOJ Prison Report Shows That Libertarianism Doesn’t Work

Well then, that about settles it. American libertarianism simply does not work.

Even as Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson tours the nation extolling the virtues of private for-profit prisons, a report from the Department of Justice has found that these facilities “simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources,” according to Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates in a memo released Thursday.

“They do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security,” Yates continued.

So to recap, for-profit prisons holding federal prisoners were compared to facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and were found to be inferior in almost all of the categories the federal report examined. Not better, not equal to, but worse.

This is not interesting because it will release a significant percentage of Americans from the largest prison population in the history of human civilization; it won’t. Only some 22,000 of America’s 2.3 million prisoners are federal convicts incarcerated in for-profit facilities. This is interesting because of what it demonstrates about libertarianism.


Libertarianism, under its currently fashionable platform in America, calls for privatization of every service that can be privatized, including prisons, healthcare, roads, even national parks, under the premise that private companies always provide better services than government does. Libertarians look at all the corruption, waste, fraud and abuse running rampant in American politics, and conclude that government is a poor tool for getting things done.

In their desire to shrink government down to its smallest possible form in every possible area, libertarians paint themselves into the biggest plot hole in their entire platform by either denying climate change or (perhaps even more risibly) arguing that it can be litigated away. Per the official Libertarian Party platform, if an individual can prove in a court of law that they personally are being negatively impacted by the pollution of a specific company, then they can sue that company, thereby incentivizing the company to stop polluting. Which, if you know anything about how climate change works or have any common sense, you will see as absurd. Nowhere in American libertarianism is the urgent issue of climate change being addressed in a reasonable or realistic way.

The Department of Justice’s findings just help confirm what many of us have already suspected: there are some things the free market just isn’t good at. Money isn’t some wise, benevolent deity that can be trusted to solve all our problems; it’s cold and impersonal, and when it comes to vulnerable populations like prisoners or sick and elderly people, government tends to be a much more reliable advocate for them. If there’s any incentive for private industry to cut costs, and not enough of a deterrent for them not to, we may be sure that they’ll cut corners and provide the least amount of service that they can get away with. And these vulnerable populations are not sufficiently well-positioned to do anything about that.


It’s easy to understand people’s frustration with government in America. If you’ve ever had the surreal experience of having to explain what war is to a small child, desperately searching for words to explain why our country does the things it does to a new person who hasn’t yet become desensitized to our government’s horrific behaviors, you can certainly sympathize with the libertarian “just get rid of it all and try something else” approach. If you’ve ever had to extensively navigate the inexplicable Kafkaesque labyrinth of American bureaucracy, been a victim of its obscene municipal violations racket, or landed yourself on the wrong side of its immoral and ineffective war on drugs, you’ll find the libertarian platform even easier to relate to.

But government is not the problem. Our government is the problem.

Government, in and of itself, is simply a tool used by human society to keep things moving smoothly. In a healthy representative democracy, the people exercise their voting power to enact the will of the majority.

The problem is that we do not live in a healthy representative democracy. A 2014 Princeton University study found that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Only the very wealthiest Americans have any influence on what decisions get made in the American government’s legislative branch, and that influence is dependent upon their ability to make campaign contributions, and upon the absence of term limits for senators and congressmen. This legalized bribery has effectively turned American government into a corrupt plutocracy run by corporate cronies and the richest one percent.

For just a few billion dollars invested in campaign contributions, the corporate elites have been able to save themselves trillions of dollars via corporate subsidies, tax breaks and unclosed tax loopholes thanks to the friendly wiggle room provided them by their unofficial employees in Washington.


This is the real reason why everything’s so crazy in America. This is why we have the most expensive, least effective healthcare system in the world. This is the reason why the biggest war profiteers make their homes in the United States, and the very closely-related reason why America spends many times more on its military than any other nation on the planet. This is the reason over a trillion dollars has been wasted on the war on drugs, and the very closely-related reason why the prison-for-profit industry has been flourishing after pouring donations into lawmakers’ pockets to ensure that more people go to jail for a longer time.

This is the problem. Corporatism. No American has ever lived in a libertarian system of government. No American has ever lived in a socialist system of government. The only government we know is a corporatist one. And I humbly suggest that we try getting rid of that problem and finding out what a healthy government might look like without it, before we throw the whole thing out altogether.

Government is not inherently evil. Like money, government is something humans invented to help humans. It’s a fairly efficient way to keep society moving, preserve order, prevent piracy and theft, build roads and infrastructure, and in fact build and maintain the whole entire socio-economic context that the Koch brothers and other wealthy libertarian propagandists rely upon to generate their wealth. It’s okay that we ask the rich to chip in a bit to help maintain the system they benefit so spectacularly from, and it’s okay to use that system to help out those who aren’t so fortunate.

Let’s make government healthy and give it a try.

[Image by AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli]