Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Free Markets - then and now

In a memo made public on Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Obama policy impaired the government's ability to meet the future needs of the federal prison system.
The Obama administration said in August 2016 it planned a gradual phase-out of private prisons by letting contracts expire or by scaling them back to a level consistent with recent declines in the U.S. prison population.
From Reuters, Feb 27
What Sessions says here is that the federal government needs the private sector in order to do its work. The claim by Sessions is that the phase-out “impaired the government’s ability” to perform some function, so if we were to ask whether this is an example of the government staying out of the private sector, it is not. The private sector in prison work exists because government on some federal or state level wants to pay for "private" prisons. It is the government that is creating the private sector prison work, prison as a business. It is the government mandating the use of the private sector. This is not the case of the private sector making the decisions. The origination of the private prison business is not in society at large, it is in government spending. Why then would the government prefer a "private" firm for prison work? 
     For many years, all of us were subjected to a standard kind of thing—what were called “free market” arguments. The arguments or ideas said that the market was a characteristic feature of free, private citizens, and must not come into the domain of what the government does. Therefore, they argued, the country gets the better result when the market was allowed to stay free from what was always called "intervention," and it means government intervention. But when we look carefully, what do we find but that the same people eventually take up a position in favor of government intervention. That is exactly what this is. It looks to me like government intervention, since the private prison industry originates in a decision by government. This “private” work is contracted by government, and originates in government, and would not exist without the government, which includes the courts and the legal and law enforcement systems. So, government includes federal courts. State governments of course also use these things that are called “private prisons” but that are businesses made possible by government decisions.
     What is important here in the Sessions decision is the federal prison system, which is where Sessions is located. He is in the federal government now, which is where these arguments originate from. The decision to allow private prisons does not originate in society or in the private lives of  private persons or anywhere outside of government. The government has to hire the private prisons. What Sessions wants, this is according to the statement, is for the federal prison system to work well. His concern is not that the private prison system to work well. He is talking about the federal prison system. The argument he makes is that, in order for the public system to work, you gotta have the private system. So, the idea being argued is that government needs private prisons. And that is not a market decision, or not in the sense of traditional free market arguments. This kind of thing is not being decided by the free markets or the society. But this was the original idea of free market thought--to take government out of it. Rather than being decided by some social or market process, it is entirely subjective—Jeff Sessions saying whatever he wants. All Sessions seems to need to do is tell everyone what the government requires. He is the government so he should know. He can say whatever he likes, since he is the government. Thus: “for the government to work, we need private prisons.” But how do we know? What decision-making process is involved? He might be making that up. The important factor is that he is the government and has government power. Maybe he really believes it. Or, it could just be his opinion. How do we know? That is not letting the markets decide at all. It seems like a very arbitrary statement, or like something Sessions felt like saying and knew he could plausibly say.
     Maybe Sessions wants the government to have the freedom to make its own market decisions. In that case, he wants government to have more freedom. Well, that is one sort of "freedom," but those persons who for so long spoke of “free markets” wanted the people to have more freedoms (since some of them were businessmen). In designating how economic decisions should be make, they specifically  wanted for that power to not be given to government. 
     So, in summary, Sessions (presumably), and others, now implicitly use what we can call heritage  free market arguments for a purpose quite opposed to what the free market arguments were originally intended for. 
     If Sessions does not want the federal government's ability "impaired," it means the federal government should have more power to do what it wants. That does not sound like the original intention of the classic free market argument.


  1. "A key priority for this administration is to help develop opportunities for communities that are often the most underserved. Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential.

    Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have done this since their founding." (taken from US Dept. of Education, "Statement from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos")


  2. The theory of free markets has a long history

    The government spends money to operate, which it raises from taxation. If the government decides to spend its money on federal prisons or spends its money by outsourcing to so-called “private” prisons, it is nevertheless federal money, obtained not on the free market but rather obtained through the practice of taxation.
    The government wants to meet the future needs of the federal prison system. Sessions is trying to keep the “private,” or outsourced, prison option open to government.