Q&A on "The Illusion of Free Markets" with Bernard Harcourt discussion

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Topic #2: Paradoxical Notions of Freedom?

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message 1: by Bernard E. (new)

Bernard E. Harcourt | 16 comments Mod
I keep coming back to this idea that there is a significant tension between two different conceptions of liberty and that this tension has an important effect on the paradox of laissez faire and mass incarceration. It is a tension between the notion that freedom means "no government intervention" and the different idea that liberty means "being well governed." (I think that the Chronicle got at this idea well in their piece on the book here).

If, as I argue in the book, there is no such thing as an unregulated space (there is no "free" market), then the first way of thinking about freedom (as no government intervention) is essentially meaningless. The idea of liberty would then turn on the question of how or when we embrace or appropriate the forms of organization and governance that make up the fabric of society and economy. Thoughts?


message 2: by Bob (new)

Bob | 2 comments I think that this notion of competing conceptions of liberty is quite intriguing. Having not read the book yet, I hope I'm not making an uninformed comment, but one thing that puzzles me is how far the US outpaces any other nation in terms of the level and amount of incarceration. Laissez-faire isn't purely a US phenomenon, yet our problem with mass incarceration seems unique, or at least exceptional in some regards.


message 3: by Mia (last edited Mar 02, 2011 04:13PM) (new)

Mia Ruyter | 1 comments Bob wrote: "I think that this notion of competing conceptions of liberty is quite intriguing."

Me too. If I understand the argument in the book correctly, there are no real "free markets," so laissez faire is a misnomer, too. What is thought of as "laissez faire" in the USA must then amount to privileges or advantages for some groups and restrictions (that disadvantage) on others. Calling it "free market" is just a way of pretending that it's a "natural" set of circumstances, rather than advantages doled out by the government. Is that right, Bernard? If it's right, then how exactly are those privileges/restrictions working out? Is that why we have such high incarceration rates?


message 4: by Bernard E. (last edited Mar 02, 2011 07:16PM) (new)

Bernard E. Harcourt | 16 comments Mod
Good question, Bob, about Europe and other countries that have also embraced laissez faire policies, or what some call "neoliberalism."

My impression is that in the modern period the United States may be an outlier in the magnitude of its prison population, but that there are surprising similarities with Western European countries as to the overall recent trends: the larger Western European countries have, to a large extent, mirrored the trends in the United States, with some lag and a lot of attenuation. This suggests -— although a lot more work needs to be done here -- that the common element of neoliberalism may well remain significant.

Here are three important things to consider:

First, many European countries institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals at higher rates during the mid-twentieth century and, in this sense, may have used mental institutions rather than prisons as a way to control those deemed deviant.

Second, many European countries institutionalize individuals in mental hospitals at high rates today, especially when compared to their rates of incarceration. So there may be substitution there.

Third, like the United States, many European countries have seen rising rates of incarceration at the turn of the twenty-first century. One recent study has identified positive and statistically significant increases in imprisonment over the period 1992 to 2001 in Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, and the Netherlands.

(I present some graphs about this in the book at pages 227 to 231 if this is something that really interests you. I find it fascinating).

Overall, then, the American penal sphere may be several magnitudes larger than those of other Western liberal states, but the trends and developments over the course of the recent past may converge. There is no doubt that the timing, intensity, and impact will differ as between all these countries, and that there are unique historical, cultural, and institutional factors that will produce important variations. The question is whether and how neoliberal ideas may possibly have shaped these trends.

To be frank, I would need to do more work on this, but my sense is that neoliberalism is playing a role in the other countries as well. What is clear is that they have been experimenting with a lot of the other new penal techniques as well. In the area of actuarial methods and instruments, Canada has been experimenting with actuarial tools and the logic of actuarial prediction has penetrated a number of European countries, such as France, which warmly embraced preventative detention (rétention de sûreté) in 2007. Canada and many European countries have also embraced the increased use of order-maintenance policing strategies, such as zero tolerance and broken windows policing; harsher treatment of juvenile offenders; increased use of video surveillance, biometric data collection, data mining, and information gathering through initiatives such as CCTV video surveillance in the United Kingdom, and DNA database collection in England and in France; and harsher sentencing practices, including the adoption of mandatory minimum sentences, “three-strikes laws,” drug and gun enhancements.

There is a lot more to say, but that's a start at least. On this question, you should also look at the work of Nicola Lacey, Alessandro De Giorgi, and Mick Cavadino and John Dignan. Thanks!


message 5: by Bernard E. (new)

Bernard E. Harcourt | 16 comments Mod
Mia -- I think I will turn your comment into tomorrow's topic: how the idea of "free markets" naturalizes the outcomes. Yes, let me do that... and let me explain in the topic header. Thanks!


message 6: by Bob (new)

Bob | 2 comments Thank you for your thoughtful response Professor Harcourt. I think its interesting how we've gone from a system of mass incarceration for the mentally ill to mass incarceration for those that possess and sell illegal drugs. This is pure arm chair analysis, but these two groups seem to have some interesting parallels in that neither really fit well into a productive laissez faire society. The mentally ill because they cannot engage in productive work, and drug users/sellers either because they can't engage in productive work or because they engage in a kind of productivity that subverts the larger goal of productivity.


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