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The Irony of Socialists Calling for Abolishing Prisons

Prisons are a staple of socialist political and economic systems, and always have been.

Some self-described socialist candidates running within the Democratic Party "advocate more extreme changes, such as abolishing the prison system," The New York Times reports.

Sure enough, the Boston Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has a "Prison Abolition Working Group" that meets monthly. The national DSA Twitter account has tweeted "we need to abolish the prison system." A resolution favoring the abolition of prisons reportedly passed last year at the DSA's annual convention.

The Times report, which came in the form of a news article about increasing numbers of Democratic candidates embracing the socialist label, made me chuckle.

The chuckle wasn't about the adverse political consequences this platform might have for the socialists. Those consequences will become clear once their opponents begin talking about the risks of violent rapists, murderers, wife beaters, and terrorists who now populate our prisons being unleashed on American cities. It would be an invitation to update attacks of the sort that were leveled back in the 1980s against Michael Dukakis for having furloughed Willie Horton.

The chuckle wasn't even about the irony of the history of socialists and prisons. In the 20th century the socialists were responsible for two of the most vast prison systems in world history—the concentration camps of the National Socialists, or Nazis, of Germany, and the Siberian gulags of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Now that socialists are out of power, they want to abolish prisons here in 21st century America? They might be arriving a bit late to the issue.

No, what really got me smiling was the theoretical challenge. How can one imagine a socialist state without prisons? I mean, I can understand the tactical benefit of emptying out the prisons during a revolutionary period, the way that, say, the Bolsheviks released criminals from Tsarist prisons about a century ago to advance their communist coup.

Once a socialist state is up and running, though, some sort of prison system is necessary. How else to enforce the confiscatory taxation necessary to pay for a vast welfare state in an economy with the inefficiency of socialism? Liens, payroll withholding, fines, and asset forfeiture can only get a government so far.

Socialist wage and price controls often spawn a black market. How is the government supposed to prevent smuggling of goods, bartering, or off-the-books labor without being able to punish violators with prison?

Socialist state-owned enterprises are so poorly run that the only way they can survive is by using the power of the state to outlaw competition. How would a state-owned enterprise be able to preserve its monopoly without being able to throw would-be competitors in prison?

People who are unlucky enough to be stuck in socialist countries sometimes realize that things would be better with more freedom and competition. They start to agitate for political and economic change. The socialists often respond by throwing those dissenters in jail.

Eventually some of the dissenters give up on changing their socialist countries and decide they are better off just leaving. Socialist countries sometimes imprison the people who try to leave or who organize others to escape. Such prisons may even be preferable to the alternative of shooting people in the back as they try to exit, say, East Germany, North Korea, or Cuba.

The socialists may complain that those were, or are, Communist countries, not socialist ones. Fair enough. But socialist countries without prisons turn out to be scarce verging on nonexistent—as rare as a McDonald's without arches. Even the Indian state of Kerala, which is often touted as a kind of progressive utopia, has prisons. So does Vermont. So does Mayor Bill de Blasio's New York.

The sad thing about the socialist push is that it arrives at a moment when there's a real opportunity for bipartisan progress on prison reform. President Trump has been emphasizing the need to improve re-entry programs. At a White House meeting on the topic earlier this year he called prison reform an "important topic."

"My administration is committed to helping former inmates become productive, law-abiding members of society," Trump said, talking about the need to break the cycle of recidivism.

Reducing prison populations might be an achievable, even desirable goal. Improving prison conditions and emphasizing rehabilitation might also be achievable goals. But abolishing prisons entirely seems like a real stretch, at least without resorting to increases in capital or corporal punishment.

At a minimum, eliminating prisons is inconsistent with the rest of the socialist program. Without prisons to quash dissent, enforce government monopolies, prevent competition, take away people's property, compel compliance, and keep people from leaving, socialism might begin to resemble capitalism, or freedom. A prison-free "socialism" might be the only kind that is non-socialist enough actually to work.

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of JFK, Conservative.

Photo Credit: John Rudoff/Sipa USA/Newscom

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  • BestUsedCarSales||

    This is a fun shit-talking post.

  • DLTooley||

    Just like the corporate socialists, eh?

  • Juice||

    Wait, two different comments sections?

  • gormadoc||

    This article is the article itself. The other is a teaser.

  • Juice||

    The comments links usually both go to the same place.

  • gormadoc||

    I don't know if that used to be the case but it hasn't for a little bit now. The Trump and Syria article was the same way.

  • Ron||

    You have to empty the prisons so that the newly formed SPPOA, Socialist prison police officers association, can now round up the non believers to put in prison

  • gormadoc||

    You don't need prisons if you shoot the capitalists.

  • colorblindkid||

    We all know capitalism is a genetic trait, so removing capitalists will eliminate the evils of capitalism from the gene pool.

  • techgump||

    Right, shoot or starve them. This has been a typical strategy too.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Socialist states don't need prisons. They are prisons.

  • Jerryskids||

    Of course they don't have prisons, they have Happy Fun Camps For Exercise And Education In Support Of The Goals Of The People's Glorious Revolution. These places are popular resort-style communities where the guests are treated to one square meal a day, sometimes even with more than one food item, a cot in a dorm-room style common area, sometimes even with a blanket, daily educational classes and hands-on learning activities on such subjects as how large rocks are turned into small rocks, all under the close supervision of trained instructors. These places are so popular that they have to fence them off and install guarded gates and machine gun towers to keep people from breaking in and taking advantage of all the fine amenities on offer. Attendance at the Happy Fun Camps is an honor generally reserved for those who display specially remarkable talents in areas such as political philosophy, religion and logical reasoning.

  • Chipper Jones||

    Don't forget access to the latest groundbreaking medical trials.

  • DajjaI||

    Um.... not sure how to break this to you.......

  • John's broseph||

    Spending tens of thousands of dollars a year to pay able bodied men to watch other able bodied men walk around in a cage is a ridiculous use of resources.

    Corporal punishment and the death penalty would be just as much of a deterrent as the threat of jail. On the plus side corporal punishment would allow everyone to get on with their lives. Nobody ever got out of prison saying "well I had real anger issues but in prison I was forced to make my own bed so now I'm better". They say it sucked and they don't want to go back. You could accomplish the same thing with some lashings.

    Insert libertarian disclaimer that if there is no victim there is no crime.

  • James H||

    There are other ways to abolish prisons. There are ways to rid the country of the deplorable people that don't tow the party line. These solutions are more final, no need to lock people up for long periods of time. Final solutions.

  • mtrueman||

    " These solutions are more final, no need to lock people up for long periods of time. Final solutions."

    Why the finality? I suggest raping (and re-raping) miscreants. It condenses all the horror of capitalist prisons into one brief, inexpensive act.

  • Sevo||

    "Why the finality? I suggest raping (and re-raping) miscreants. It condenses all the horror of capitalist prisons into one brief, inexpensive act."

    "Capitalist prisons", dimwit?
    Par for the course.

  • Sevo||

    BTW, socialists are ALWAYS in favor of liberty and freedom. And "equality"!
    Until the exact moment they assume power under those claims.

  • NoVaNick||

    Speaking of equality-these two 20somethings showed up at my door the other night just as we were about to eat dinner and were there two have a "conversation" about "equality and reparations." I told them it wasn't a good time and they left promptly. I then saw them on my neighbor's porch lecturing them with lots of finger waving for about 30 minutes. We get lots of political groups going door to door here, and occasionally Jehova Witnesses, but I have never seen anything like this.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The Democratic Party is losing core voters. They hope that buying votes via these schemes will get them enough votes to defeat the GOP once and for all.

    Then the left can reinstitute the prison system based on who they think should be in there rather than criminals.

  • TLBD||

    I can understand the tactical benefit of emptying out the prisons during a revolutionary period, the way that, say, the Bolsheviks released criminals from Tsarist prisons about a century ago to advance their communist coup.

    You answered your own question.

    Don't know why some can't see just how evil these people are.

  • JuanQPublic||

    Without prisons to quash dissent, enforce government monopolies, prevent competition, take away people's property, compel compliance, and keep people from leaving...

    That's how it currently works as well. No ideology will change that. Only treating human beings as human beings with consequences that aren't, say, insane and on a case-by-case basis will change anything. Essentially, that means ending legislative instrusion into the judicial system in the form of mandatory minimums and scarlet-letter style handling of felons after they have served their time.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Honk if you like PAWGs!

  • tlapp||

    A socialist system with no prisons. This might work, just ignore all the laws and laugh at the police and say if I don't follow the law will you say something mean about my mother? The ultimate freedom laws with no enforcement mechanism.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Why would conservatives -- who favor imprisoning people for doobies, for early-term abortion, for gambling, for crossing borders without certain papers, for certain mushrooms, for homosexual conduct, for conception, and for being on the wrong side of an 'endless detention without trial' list -- voluntarily invite a discussion of prisons?

    Lack of self-awareness and stupidity seem the most likely culprits.

  • ace_m82||

    Let's assume that conservatives actually want all those things.

    Why would we care? We're libertarians!

  • ace_m82||

    Prisons are bad things. Why?

    Justice is repayment (to the victim), aka "tort". If you steal $100 from person A, you owe person A $100 (plus some expenses, probably). You own no-one else anything. You owe the government nothing.

    If you initiate force, you ought to be brought to a trial, and if convicted, you should owe the victim UP TO what you took plus expenses (medical bills, loss of interest, etc.) If the victim is feeling merciful, then they could "forgive" the debt, either in part or the whole thing.

    If you beat someone, the victim ought to be allowed to beat you in a similar way/manner IF you are convicted and the victim wants to. If the aggressor pleads the victim for a different "repayment", that's up to the victim (and no-one else).

    The only reason one would want a prison in this system is if the victim were kidnapped and wanted actual direct "repayment" against the aggressor!

    There is no crime without a victim. Why would a victim want the aggressor in prison instead of repaying them?

  • John B. Egan||

    I only know one self-proclaimed socialist... That would be Bernie Sanders. I can't recall him ever calling for more incarcerations? In fact, aside from Republicans like Trump and Sessions, who seem Hell-bent on building new prisons and incarcerating more people, I don't know anyone that doesn't realize that the US has a problem with priosns and punshment in general.

    While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population, it houses around 22 percent of the world's prisoners. Corrections (which includes prisons, jails, probation, and parole) cost around $74 billion in 2007 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

    Another BS article from Reason. Buck up your quality guys.

  • BlueStarDragon||

    "only know one self-proclaimed socialist... That would be Bernie Sanders. I can't recall him ever calling for more incarcerations? In fact, aside from Republicans like Trump and Sessions, who seem Hell-bent on building new prisons and incarcerating more people, I don't know anyone that doesn't realize that the US has a problem with priosns and punshment in general.

    While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population, it houses around 22 percent of the world's prisoners. Corrections (which includes prisons, jails, probation, and parole) cost around $74 billion in 2007 according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

    Another BS article from Reason. Buck up your quality guys."

    The reason our prison population is so high started with the prohibition against drugs, alcohol, prostitution and gun bans that started in the late 19th and early 20th century (Also the Comstock laws that are now gone). If we rid of those type of laws our murder and crime rate would drop as well. Plus less people in jail.

  • Unemployed Armenian Tranny||

    There is no Irony here - Socialists know they only need bullets and a wall.

  • Liberty Lover||

    what about Labor camps and Re-education camps? I am sure socialist would find them appropriate.

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