Rothbard’s Wet Dream: Privatizing Management of the Dangerous Classes

According to a New York Times story published today, titled “Arizona May Put State Prisons in Private Hands,” Arizona is seeking bids from private companies for nine of the state’s ten prison complexes that control some 40,000 inmates, including 127 death row inmates. “It is the first effort by a state to put its entire prison system under private control.”

A state with an entirely privatized prison system including privatized medicine and administration of death represents a giant leap forward in the emergence of the corporate state. Corporations are based on a fascist model of social organization: top-down hierarchical bureaucratic organization of mass human action for the sake of a collective goal determined by the chief executive officers and the wealthy elite. It follows that when corporations take over government functions in a republic, what democracy exists in that republic is reduced—if not eliminated. Put another way, if all government functions are privatized, then the republic ceases to exist altogether, replaced by a de facto corporate state. In such a situation, corporations would run your lives more than they already do. Indeed, corporations would run everything.

Murray Rothbard is the man on the far right. F.A. Hayek is in the center of the picture

But even partial privatization means the destruction of a significant degree of democratic freedom. This is Murray Rothbard’s wet dream. Who is Rothbard? Rothbard is idolized by right-wing congressman Ron Paul, the politician who believes white business owners should be able to refuse service to black families. Rothbard influenced philosopher Robert Nozick, who believes individuals should be allowed to sell themselves into slavery. Rothbard argued that all government functions should be privatized. The police. The military. Everything. He called this arrangement “anarchocapitalism.”

But this isn’t anarchy at all, since the resulting order of things is neither emergent from the people nor based on individual freedom. The order of things is instead emergent from the corporate hierarchy. Anarchy means no rulers (“No Gods! No Masters!”), and if corporations run society, then corporate executives and the wealthy elite who own the companies would be our rulers and their corporate slogans would be our mottoes.

The corporate state won’t be shaped by the public interests, but instead by private interest for the sake of profit. A democracy puts people before profits. A corporate society puts profits before people. The people wouldn’t contract with corporations for police protection under corporate state arrangements (really, individuals would only be able to contract to rent or sell their bodies to corporations); the corporations would institute police systems to control workers. They do this now in part through the state and have the citizen pay for it (the other part of control of people—the larger part—is private), but this is because the state under capitalism is not sufficiently democratic.

Why is Arizona doing this? Arizona is facing a two billion dollar budget shortfall, and they hope to make $100 million by selling their prison system to a private correctional corporation. It’s an auction of human lives, something like selling one’s plantation with slaves included. The state could raise taxes on the wealthy, but, nah, instead they want to turn over to the wealthy the incarcerated portion of surplus workers.

That is what prisons are for: controlling the so-called dangerous classes. A third of inmates aren’t working when they are arrested for the crime that sends them to prison. Another third are earning very little money. Two-thirds are illiterate and haven’t graduated high school. So rather than have the capitalists and their managers pay for the problems of capitalism, the state of Arizona seeks to turn the prison system over to corporations who will profit at the taxpayers expense.

The article is shocking in that it doesn’t discuss at all the implications for democracy but instead looks at the matter as a technical problem. The Times quotes James Austin, a co-author of a Department of Justice study in 2001 on prison privatization (and president of the JFA Institute, a corrections consulting firm), who suggests that private companies may not be ready to manage the most dangerous prisoners, since their experience has been overseeing minimum—and medium-security inmates.

Moreover, the article is upbeat about the future, noting that prison privatization advocates are pleased by Arizona’s move given that privatization “has been on the decline across the country as cost savings from prison privatizations have often failed to materialize, corrections officers unions have resisted the efforts and high-profile problems in privately run facilities have drawn unwanted publicity.” Arizona representative John Kavanaugh, Republican, told The Times that private prison corporations “are the future of corrections in Arizona.” It is hoped that Arizona—that little engine of democracy—can provide a model for other states.

From the corporate point of view, many states have tragically been pursing a different strategy: closing prisons and changing sentencing rules to reduce crowding. How horrible is that? Less authoritarian control in a corporate society is never a good example. “There simply isn’t the money to keep these people incarcerated,” said Ron Utt, a senior research fellow for the Heritage Foundation; “the alternative is to free many of them or lower cost.” The Heritage Foundation work on privatization was cited by one Arizona lawmaker as expert opinion. The Heritage Foundation, a leader in the corporate-led movement to privatize everything, is a right-wing think tank bankrolled by corporations and corporate-funded foundations.

The privatization movement itself gained momentum because of the massive burden on state budgets with the get-touch-on-crime disaster of the 1980s, fueling the private prison boom in the 1990s. The benefit for authoritarians pressing for the de facto corporate state is that companies do not generally provide the same wages and benefits as states and therefore attracts less-qualified workers and allows states to stick it to the unions. The federal government jumped into private prison contracting, as well, more than doubling the number of federal prisoners in private facilities, a much faster rate of growth than in the states.

The Times notes, “With bad economic times again driving many decisions about state resources, other states are sure to watch Arizona’s experiment closely.” If there were a Heaven, Rothbard would certainly be up there smiling.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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