It may seem strange for an economist to write about abolition. After all, economists focus on choices at the margin. Even when we talk about violent crimes or pollution, we argue that the optimal quantity of these “bads” is not zero. In other words, while we want to reduce the amount of murder, assault, and pollution, there are costs to doing so, and sometimes it may not be worth the cost to eliminate these harmful acts. Talk of “abolishing” long standing social institutions therefore might seem too extreme and too absolutist for an economist. After all, if the optimal amount of murder is not zero, then how can the optimal amount of imprisonment, policing, borders, and empire be zero?
But of course, abolitionist thought does not require us to take on all imaginable costs to rid ourselves of any last vestige of these forms of coercion & control. The forms of state violence we’re striving to abolish are large scale social institutions. It is clearly possible to live without them in their legitimized, institutionalized forms. Even while they exist, it is possible for us to recognize them as harmful and unjust oppressors for us to route around, reduce, and resist rather than treating them as legitimate policy tools.
Still, abolitionists and economists might see one another more as enemies than as allies. Their temperaments, at the very least, may seem opposed. Often, they come to different substantive conclusions. But there are important insights that can come from synthesizing abolitionist thought with political economy. Abolitionism can provide the basis for a progressive research program in political economy. And economics and other social sciences provide powerful analytical tools that we can use to understand the harms caused by systems of social control as well as the vibrant possibilities for self-governance.
This volume covers multiple abolitionist ambitions, but we begin with the quintessential abolitionist struggle: the struggle to abolish the horrors of chattel slavery. In this volume, we feature the works of several abolitionists from the 19th century, namely Lysander Spooner, Henry David Thoreau, and Benjamin Tucker. These thinkers operated at the intersection between the abolitionist and individualist anarchist movements.
Political economists at the time largely supported the abolitionist movement. Much to the consternation of racists like Thomas Carlyle, political economists did not treat individuals as fundamentally different based on race. Instead, economists used the same basic premises in their analysis of all human beings. This helped them realize that slavery was not just morally repugnant, but stifling human potential that would be unleashed if people were free to use their talents as they saw fit. Carlyle dubbed economics “the dismal science” precisely because he disdained its abolitionist and anti-racist tendencies.
While chattel slavery is no longer a legal, legitimized part of our society, we still live in a world scarred by injustice, authority, violence, coercion, and status hierarchies. Today’s economists have good reasons to be abolitionists towards these injustices as well. While economics is a positive science that describes the world rather than offering normative prescriptions, it still illuminates very real dangers associated with systems of authority, power, and social control.
In the rest of this introduction, I’ll focus on two basic types of problems that plague systems of social control: the knowledge problem and the power problem. I will explain how these serious problems apply to police, prisons, borders, and empire alike. Yet even given these problems, some may protest that a world without these systems of social control would descend into chaos and Hobbesian “anarchy,” a war of all against all. To assuage these concerns, I will also discuss how a growing literature in political economy shows that self-governance can work much better than many people think. A world without police, prisons, borders, and empire can be much more orderly, peaceful, flourishing, and prosperous than today’s Hobbesian defenders of the state think. Economics indeed places limits on our utopias, but it also shows us that another world is possible.
The Knowledge Problem
To realistically understand the social world, we need to acknowledge the limits of human knowledge. None of us are omniscient. Instead, we are human beings. We are fallible, limited, and prone to ignorance and error. We learn about the world around us, and each of us learns different things. The division of labor in our society gives rise to a division of knowledge, where individuals specialize and learn radically different things depending on their social position, personal experience, profession, and more.
Given our ignorance, fallibility, and dispersed knowledge, how do we learn, correct our errors, coordinate our plans, and effectively use our knowledge? Bottom-up processes of social learning and cooperation are the key.
Consider the question of whether a particular use of resources is worth pursuing. For example, every cell phone produced uses scarce resources. The minerals, plastics, and metals used as raw materials for the phone could also be used to make a variety of other products, such as personal computers, medical devices, or lamps. The time and talents of the workers who made the cell phone could also have gone towards a wide range of other worthwhile pursuits. So whenever people make a cell phone, that means giving up something else that could otherwise have been made with the same inputs. Is that cost worth it?
No single person knows what all the relevant costs are. For each resource involved in the production process, there exists a bewildering range of alternative uses. And each of us has unique knowledge about what products and services we value most, knowledge that we may not always be able to articulate verbally.
Consider the cell phone again. Imagine that a mine collapses, and as a result a mineral used to make the cell phone becomes relatively more scarce. There is now less to go around, and therefore less available for all the various uses. As a result, the price of the mineral will rise. In this case, if the cell phone manufacturer can figure out a way to use less of this mineral, then they can increase their profits. The price increase creates an additional incentive for them to discover ways to economize on their use of this mineral. And they have that incentive regardless of whether they know about the mine collapse. The price increase conveys the most relevant knowledge for their decision-making. The same type of price increase would happen, by the way, if a new use for the mineral was discovered, thereby rendering it more valuable in alternative uses. Prices provide signals. They convey knowledge. And they provide incentives to adapt to changing conditions in a complex and dynamic world.
A key part of how the firm’s owners learn whether or not they’re wasting resources comes from the feedback they receive from profit and loss signals. If a firm makes a profit, that means that the revenue they are able to bring in by selling their product exceeds the total amount they needed to pay for the inputs they used. When they make losses, that means that they were not able to sell enough to recoup what they spent. To whatever extent their input prices reflect the value of alternative uses of the inputs, that loss suggests that the scarce resources they used were more valued elsewhere. In other words, the firm destroyed value. When destroying value means facing losses, that creates an incentive to adapt and change. If losses persist, the firm may go bankrupt and exit the market.
In this way, market processes weed out projects that destroy value and encourage entrepreneurs to discover new projects that create value. Prices act as signals that convey knowledge and help people from all over the world coordinate their plans.
The market process is one example of a decentralized, bottom-up process that results in social learning and social coordination. There are a wide variety of others too. For example, contestation, debate, and peer review among scientists helps create incentives to pursue research, share knowledge, and correct the errors of your scientific peers.
But these bottom-up processes of social learning are disrupted by top-down systems of social control that violently commandeer resources, control human beings, and restrict their participation in the social world.
For instance, in the case of the cell phone we discussed, part of the reason that profits reflect value creation is that the cell phones were sold to willing buyers. They bought the cell phone because they anticipated that it would be worth the price to them. But think about how things work with the American empire. Were you ever given an unsubscribe option from American empire? If I want to stop paying for the US occupation of Afghanistan, American aid to the brutal Saudi war in Yemen, or any number of other imperialist wars of aggression, I have very few options. Perhaps in theory I could engage in war tax resistance, just as Henry David Thoreau refused to pay poll taxes that funded the Mexican-American War and Noam Chomsky and others resisted taxes during the Vietnam War. However, tax resisters can be audited, prosecuted, have their wages and property seized, and ultimately be thrown into a prison. Even moving out of the United States isn’t enough to avoid paying for American empire. To do that, you need to undergo the costly process of renouncing your citizenship.
To whatever extent a market is free, market participants can rely on profit and loss feedback to discover which projects create value and which destroy value. But since the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, the border security bureaucrats, and the police all get to coercively commandeer resources, they have no such feedback. Even if political leaders wanted to know which military operations, prisons, border checkpoints, or police patrols citizens valued more than the costs, they would lack the feedback necessary to learn the answer.
And of course, so far we’ve mostly just discussed the resources used for the state’s operations. Policing, prisons, borders, and empire disrupt knowledge and social learning in other ways too! For example, immigration restrictions prohibit people from moving across borders to do a new job, start a new business, or pursue a scientific research project. There’s a reason that migrants can earn much higher wages on one side of a border than another: their labor produces goods and services that other people value more and are willing and able to pay more for. Abolishing borders and letting people freely migrate would massively reduce global poverty, and it would allow people to discover new opportunities to do things that create value for others. Today’s immigration restrictions instead require that government bureaucrats give prospective migrants permission in advance if they want to accept a job in a country. For most people, there is no feasible way to obtain this permission. This amounts to central planning of the labor market, and it cuts off the knowledge and learning that a freed market would generate.
Knowledge problems also hamper imperialist efforts to reshape entire societies through nation-building. Many American military operations aim to use a mix of force, occupation, and aid efforts to redesign other countries. Yet the interveners lack knowledge of the facts on the ground, the values and dreams of the people they’re interfering with, the constraints they face, and the purposes and plans of the factions they back. There is, in a very important sense, a fatal conceit associated with foreign intervention.
Even if those who are attempting to use foreign intervention, police forces, incarceration, or borders genuinely want to make the world a better place, they lack the knowledge to do so. They are insulated from the feedback of prices, property, and profit and loss, so they cannot know whether they are using resources in a way that people value more than alternative uses. They are coercively attempting to impose their will upon communities that they often poorly understand, so their actions are likely to create unintended consequences. These knowledge problems are inherent to the institutionalized positions of power that the rulers occupy. Placing benevolent reformers in charge will not alleviate these knowledge problems.
The Power Problem
Due to the limits of human knowledge, even truly benevolent people who solely want to make the world a better place are likely to cause harm when they hold power over others. But the reality is that we cannot assume that those who hold power are benevolent.
Even if those who police, imprison, patrol borders, and spread empires had the knowledge to make sure they serve “the public interest,” would they have the incentive to do so? When economists analyze markets, they assume that people are to a large extent self-interested. While they can act altruistically, they are largely interested in helping themselves, their friends, and their immediate family. Sometimes, their self-interest will guide them to do things that help society as a whole. In other contexts, such as those with significant negative externalities, they will face incentives to act in ways that are costly for others. Economists call this “market failure.”
For too long, economists assumed that these market failures could be optimally solved through state intervention. But the problem with this assumption is that it rested on inconsistent assumptions about human motivation. Individuals in markets were assumed to be largely self-interested, but the state was treated as a benevolent despot. Rather than examining the incentives that individual political officials face and how they interact, too many economists treated the state as if it were a single, unitary actor maximizing a social welfare function.
Public choice theory pushed back against this romantic view of the state. Rather than treating the state as a benevolent despot, public choice economists examine politics as a social process where individuals interact. Rather than treating politicians and voters as angels and private citizens as selfish devils, the public choice theorists apply behavioral symmetry. The same assumptions used to analyze individuals in markets are used to analyze individuals in politics. This allows the public choice theorist to analyze politics in a clear-eyed way. Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan called this approach “politics without romance.”
While this research program sees people in the political arena as essentially the same as people in any other setting, it acknowledges that the rules in politics are different. These different rules result in different incentives, and therefore in different outcomes. Consider, for example, the incentives an individual faces in the voting booth, as compared to the incentives they face in the marketplace. An individual’s choice of which car to buy is decisive. If you choose to buy a Toyota and you make a payment at a dealership, you will receive a Toyota. If you choose to buy a Ford, you will receive a Ford. Since your decision is decisive, and you have thousands of dollars riding on it, you have incentives to do your own research and figure out which car is right for you. If you don’t, then you will directly pay the price. The same is not true in the voting booth. Regardless of how you individually voted in November 2020, Joe Biden was elected president. Changing your individual vote would not have changed the outcome. And this is not unique to the November 2020 presidential election. The probability that your individual vote will change the outcome in any given election is vanishingly small. The result is that an individual voter has little incentive to research the particulars of each candidate’s agenda or record. They will therefore be rationally ignorant.
While voters in general have incentives to be ignorant about politics, some people have incentives to learn quite a lot indeed. These are the members of interest groups that receive concentrated benefits from public policies. For example, American sugar farmers get significant benefits from sugar tariffs, which protect them from foreign competition and allow them to charge consumers higher prices. While consumers as a whole lose a great deal as a result of these policies, each individual consumer pays at most a few dollars more each year due to the tariffs. So while the social costs of the tariffs outweigh the social benefits, the sugar farmers have strong incentives to carefully watch how politicians vote on tariffs and hire lobbyists to influence those votes. The consumers who pay the cost, on the other hand, have no incentive to lobby, or even to study the issue at all. This results in policies that create concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.
There are many instances of this dynamic influencing the operations of prisons, police, borders, and empire. There’s a reason that “the military-industrial complex” has become such a well-known phrase. Corporations like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and General Atomics engage in persistent rent-seeking to influence the government and secure lucrative defense contracts. A revolving door between these firms and the Pentagon cements strong ties between war profiteers and military decision-makers. The result is a permanent war economy in which resources and ingenuity are diverted away from satisfying human needs and towards manufacturing weapons. America’s national security state, in an important sense, represents “peak cronyism.”
The defense contractors who benefit from American empire abroad also benefit from and lobby for border militarization at home. They sell drones, surveillance towers, weapons, vehicles, and other equipment to the Border Patrol, which wields them in ways that jeopardize the civil liberties of migrants and citizens alike. There is a revolving door between the Department of Homeland Security and the defense industry just as there is a revolving door between the Pentagon and the defense industry. Both public officials and private sector businesses therefore have incentives to promote more coercive border security efforts and invasive surveillance.
There are similar incentive problems in the operation of the criminal justice system. Police departments often engage in legal plunder, using civil asset forfeiture to seize property without due process. They then auction off their loot and use the proceeds for their own purposes. This results in incentives for officers to focus on nonviolent offenses such as drug crimes and deprioritize less lucrative violent crimes. Evidence suggests that police target black and Hispanic suspects based on these perverse incentives.
Perverse incentives are pervasive throughout the criminal justice system. Police unions and prison guards unions lobby for more power, job security, and money for their members. Wardens and police chiefs seek to increase their own discretionary power too. Towns that employ prison guards see their political power increased, as prisoners are disenfranchised yet counted on the Census for the places they’re imprisoned. Prosecutors, judges, and legislators all act punitively to improve their reelection prospects. A variety of private firms profit by providing healthcare, food service, cell phone service, and more to a literally captive clientele inside the state’s cages. Within the criminal justice system, there are many incentives to incarcerate, punish, and exploit other human beings unjustly.
So far, we have been analyzing incentives through the lens of public choice theory, which assumes that individuals in the political arena are fundamentally the same as those outside the political arena. But this assumption may ultimately be too optimistic about politics. This is because the institutional filters of politics ultimately select for those who find positions of power attractive. Decent, humane people will not want to work as overseers on a slave plantation. For the same reason, those who spend their careers as prison guards, police officers, prosecutors, Border Patrol agents, generals, and presidents will tend to be those who are comfortable wielding discretionary power and violent authority over others. Even if principled people occupy these positions for a while, they are likely to be quickly replaced by ambitious people willing to bend their morals in order to obtain and hold positions of power. As a result, systems of power create institutional filters and selection effects with one simple and devastating consequence: the worst get on top.
This combination of selection effects and perverse incentives means that those with power will tend to abuse it. This has had disastrous, tragic consequences for those brutalized by state agents. For example, William Jennette is dead. He was killed by deputies and police officers on May 6th, 2020 at the Marshall County Jail in Lewisburg, Tennessee. He told the officers that he couldn’t breathe. Officers taunted him. One said, “You shouldn’t be able to breathe, you stupid b*****d.” This is just one example of the power problem at work. But the reality is that William Jennette is not alone. Police, prison guards, and other agents of the state beat, choke, shoot, murder, harass, berate, humiliate, assault, and rape people all too often. It’s disgusting. It’s wrong. It’s unacceptable. You’ll read much more about the ways police, prosecutors, prison guards, Border Patrol agents, ICE agents, soldiers, and politicians abuse their power throughout the rest of this volume.
Another World is Possible: The Promise of Self-Governance
The knowledge problem and the power problem are serious and pervasive pathologies of institutionalized, hierarchical social control. They are institutional problems, and they will persist as long as these institutions persist. This is a big part of why I want abolition, not just piecemeal reforms that leave the fundamentals of the system intact.
But skeptics reasonably ask whether abolition is worth the cost. They’ll acknowledge that the knowledge problem and the power problem are real issues with police, prisons, borders, and empire. However, they’ll say that it’s worth living with these problems, because a world without police, prisons, borders, and empire will descend into chaos, poverty, squalor, and civil war.
I disagree. I dispute the premise that anarchy entails a war of all against all. Orderly, peaceable anarchy is possible. Self-governance works better than you think. The range of possible ways people can provide governance, security, and justice is far wider than most people realize.
When Elinor Ostrom began her research on the commons, social scientists studying common-pool resources had a consensus. They believed that the tragedy of the commons was inevitable in any commons that was not subject to external, state-provided regulation. They saw only two ways to escape the tragedy of the commons: privatize the commons or have the state regulate it. Elinor Ostrom decided to empirically check the track record of common-pool resources. And what she found did not match this simple consensus. Instead, she discovered that many communities had successfully used self-governance to manage the commons and prevent resource depletion. This did not mean that self-governance was a panacea or that it would always work. But it did mean that there were real, functional institutional arrangements that the mainstream consensus had overlooked.
A growing research literature provides good reasons for a similar paradigm shift in our thinking about governance and security in general. Just as people can work together from the bottom-up to preserve common pool resources, they can work together from the bottom-up to adjudicate disputes, provide security against plunder and predation, and even fend off invasion and conquest.
Examining history shows us that there have been many types of legal systems, some of them very different from ours. When merchants crossed borders, they could not always understand or rely on the legal system of the local and national governments. So they devised a body of international merchant law, the lex mercatoria, that they enforced themselves, largely through reputation mechanisms. Many people think that reputation mechanisms break down for large and heterogeneous populations. However, when there are heterogeneous groups, individuals from one group can adopt costly signals that help build trust and reduce social distance, and thereby trade with members of another group. In precolonial Africa, such signals were successfully used to facilitate widespread trade.
The brutality of police and prisons create situations where many people simply cannot trust state-provided law enforcement. The government’s failures create entrepreneurial opportunities, as individuals come together to fill the gap left by bigoted, untrustworthy, violent law enforcement systems. For example, a group of LGBTQ people of color associated with the Audre Lorde Project in New York City operates the Safe OUTside the System Collective, which works to de-escalate potentially violent situations and stop hate crimes without calling the police. The Oakland Power Projects, a group of prison abolitionists in Oakland, California, has been working to make sure people can access healthcare and emergency services without calling 9/11, which unfortunately brings police to those in crisis. And people are trying new projects each day. Prison abolitionists are keeping track of some of these efforts, documenting illustrative examples at a website called One Million Experiments. Prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba explicitly acknowledges the importance of social learning when she writes, “We need a million experiments. A bunch will fail. That’s good because we’ll have learned a lot that we can apply to the next ones.”
This type of experimentation and social learning requires polycentric systems of governance. A polycentric system is one with multiple centers of decision-making. It’s a system with room for competition, contestation, complexity, and power-sharing. Many economists see public goods, collective action problems, or other social dilemmas and think that a centralized, coercive solution is necessary to solve them. But polycentric solutions are more robust to the knowledge problem and the power problem. And empirically, they’ve worked to address big problems, like security, governance, and defense.
Far too often, people conflate realism with an acceptance of the status quo. They think you can either be radical or scientific, but that you cannot be both. Yet understanding social science helps us understand the structural problems that arise from institutions of social control. And it helps us understand the diverse, complex, polycentric range of alternative ways that people can cooperate, self-govern, and flourish.
Abolition is not an ossified dogma. It’s not a blueprint. It’s not a set of policies that we can impose on the world from the top-down. Abolition is a process. A process of critiquing, challenging, and delegitimizing prisons, police, borders, and empire. A process of studying how they work. A process of learning about alternative ways people actually secure the peace and social order that states falsely promise. A process of experimenting with new ways of living and cooperating without top-down control. A process of addressing our conflicts with others head-on, rather than calling on cops to resolve them for us.
This book is just one small step in this process. It documents some of the statements, ideas, and arguments that writers around the Center for a Stateless Society have made in pursuit of abolition.
Once you read this book, I hope you’ll join the process. I hope you’ll discover things that none of us realized. Let’s learn, grow, experiment, and build together. Let’s fight for a world where all are free.