Anders Behring Breivik and Norwegian Prisons

The latest news from Norway is the prison that might, for the next 21 years, be a home for Anders Behring Breivik. After reviewing the videos and photos, I must say, Ohio State offered me no better when I went there on scholarship some years ago (and my scholarship was only good for four years). My dorm mates were generally more presentable, perhaps, but I never got a hot blonde personal trainer. Halden Prison almost seems designed to entice the vacillating young psychopath, who has not yet worked up the gumption, to go ahead and follow through on his dreams.

It is a subject that, for the modern American, is begging for ridicule and parody. I myself nearly dipped into it in the first paragraph, and I admit that the idea of a man murdering so many innocents and thereby earning an all-expenses-paid stay at the Halden Resort rankles a bit. The fact that the descendants of the Vikings are responsible adds another fascinatingly perverse element to it.

And yet… does the modern American, currently occupied with mocking Scandinavia, not have a closer target for his contempt? Is the prison system that he is forced to subsidize any less perverse and appalling? Might one not even argue — I almost hesitate to type the words — that the Norwegian way, though indisputably stupid, is superior to the American way? Not if one is running for office, of course, but those of us not connected to politics, i.e., those of us who can still afford to use our thinking organ, might wish to examine things with a critical eye.

Though there is some difference between the best and the worst of American prisons, in general they are overcrowded, punitive and dehumanizing. Perfect, therefore, for giving us a sense of satisfaction when we send a ne’er-do-well into its walls but not necessarily designed to achieve the best long-term results. Does the inmate emerge bigger, stronger, more damaged and angrier than ever? Did we incarcerate him a drunk driver but redeliver him to the world a rape victim and incurable antagonist of civil society? Has he made innumerable contacts in the underworld where he will now spend his life working because no business will hire him? An answer of yes — or even maybe — to any of these questions should indicate, to the man who wants to think about criminal justice and not merely express rage, that our system wants some serious reform.

As a general blueprint for criminal justice, I have never seen anything better than what Rothbard argued for, and until I do I shall be a partisan for it. A criminal must pay restitution to his victim once a neutral third party has determined guilt and if the victim so demands. The victim, or the victim’s heirs, decides on retribution. The retribution may not exceed the original crime. Leaving aside for a second the obvious difficulties with precision — and I admit there are many — any society that does not adopt something like this system is medieval in its mindset on the topic and has no business calling itself modern.

So let’s be Rothbardian and release from our prisons anyone who has done nothing to make someone a victim. My understanding is that this alone would cut the prison population by more than half. Let’s follow in the footsteps of Murray and release from prison anyone who is merely a thief, whether by physical appropriation or fraud, and merely make them pay restitution. Let’s release violent offenders after a beating is administered to them in proportion to the beating they gave their victim (if the victim so desires) and let them get a job so they can pay their restitution. Let’s execute murderers.

Now who is left in our prisons? Not many. Just a few violent offenders who represent a standing threat to the community. And how should we design our prison system? I submit to the good reader that it should be something like the Norwegian model.

Remember that prisons in our new Rothbardian world are not castigatory. We gave them beatings and made them pay. There is nothing disciplinary left to do. We hold them for no other reason than that they cannot be trusted to play well with others. But in what environment are they most likely to become the sort of person who can live in civil society and be productive?

The typical pathologically criminal individual has a horrific childhood full of abuse. Though it is not something easy to cure, results can be had if the task is approached in a kind and caring manner. While the Norwegians seem to be asphyxiating on a surfeit of compassion, our system is wholly devoid of it. Halden Prison may strike one as a bit opulent, and more than prisoners would be willing to pay for if they paid for their own incarcerations — as they must in a just society — it still seems to me to be on the right track when rehabilitation is the goal — as it must be when punishment is handled by other means.

Both corrective systems are stupid and, in different ways, counterproductive. I don’t want to see a person like Anders Breivik alive, let alone within a megaparsec of comfort and contentment. But the Norwegians at least have managed to produce something like a feature of a libertarian world, even if they do not put it to correct use. America’s prisons are a ghastly embarrassment.