The Enduring Appeal of Perversity Arguments and Unintended Consequences Warnings

James Forman, Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize last week for his book Locking Up Our OwnIt is well-deserved. That book–and his earlier work wrangling with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow–shows the ways that we have arrived at the wicked problem of mass incarceration through something much harder to disdain than evil scheming by distant elites. We did it to ourselves, and African-American political leaders did it with the full support of their African-American constituents.

Forman’s argument is sometimes conflated with that of Naomi Murakawa, who argued that it was liberals, not conservatives, who created mass incarceration by emphasizing the importance of safety over all other civil rights goals. According to Murakawa, when Lyndon Johnson championed the the 1968 Safe Streets Act which swelled the flow of federal dollars–and federally procured military equipment–into local law enforcement, it wasn’t just a capitulation to conservatives, but:

“part of a long-term liberal agenda, one that reflected a belief that federally subsidized police recruitment and training could become racially fair.” (73)

That is, according to Murakawa, Democrats didn’t adopt law-and-order rhetoric to respond to the policy entrepreneurship from Republicans that threatened to swamp them–they explicitly preferred more coercive and punitive state institutions so long as the men and women wielding the riot gear were racially diverse. By the mid-nineties, Bill Clinton wasn’t passing the 1994 Crime Bill because he got dragged there by Republicans, the Democrats lead the way–in fact the Senate version was sponsored by none other than Joe Biden. Murakawa’s conclusion is damning:

In the end, the Big House may serve racial conservativism, but it was built on the rock of racial liberalism. Liberal law-and-order promised to deliver freedom from racial violence by way of the civil rights carceral state, with professionalized police and prison guards less likely to provoke Watts and Attica. Despite all their differences, Truman’s first essential right of 1947, Johnson’s police professionalization, Kennedy’s sentencing reform, and even Biden’s death penalty proposals landed on a shared metric: criminal justice was racially fair to the extent that it ushered each individual through an ordered, rights-laden machine. Routinized administration of race-neutral laws would mean that racial disparate outcomes would be seen, if at all, as individually particularized and therefore not racially motivated.” (151)

James Forman’s book is quite different. Where Murakawa places most of the blame squarely on white Democrats, Forman places his lens on Black politicians in DC, and finds a very different dynamic. From the start, the story of the rise of racialized mass incarceration is a tragic story of reasonable and well-intentioned Black leaders fighting white supremacy and Black disadvantage with reason and evidence. They made deliberate choices that were well-justified and supported by their constituents. And incrementally, they made things worse.

DC’s leaders saw drugs like heroin as a scourge and heroin dealers as race traitors. They saw violent crime rising, and guns playing a major role. And they wanted Black police–because those were good jobs and because Black police officers wouldn’t be tempted to engage in racist practices. So they punished drug dealers and ultimately drug users. They punished violent crime and gun possession. And they did it with a Black-led and majority-Black police force. But still they ended up creating a majority Black prison population in our (I live in DC too) Black-led and Black-staffed prisons and jails.

Forman does the hardest thing in criminology and law: he adopts the stereoscopic vision that can see both from the perspective of those who fear crime and those who bear the costs of policing and prisons.* Black District residents know what it’s like to fear that their family and neighbors will fall into drug addiction or be the victims of gun crime. They also know what it’s like to fear that their family and neighbors will be terrorized by the police or have their lives derailed by imprisonment. And Forman is able to square those stories: see the victim’s fear and rage with one eye and the perpetrator’s circumstances and his community’s losses with the other. Alone, either perspective gives a flat, two-dimensional image, but together you get depth: three-dimensions of a wicked problem where values are always at stake but a way forward is possible.

The difference between Forman and Murakawa is that where Forman wants to tell a careful story about wicked problems and their double-binds, Murakawa seems to want to show up liberals (including Black liberal elites) as self-undermining and doomed to failure. This is Afropessimism at its best and worst: any efforts at racial equity are perverse and doomed to failure. I find such arguments deeply challenging when they come from non-white authors, which is why it’s important to me to think seriously about what a perversity argument is doing.

A perversity argument is any argument that claims that when we try to do a thing we believe is important, we will fail and make it worse, falling further behind as we try to move ahead. The actual use of perversity and unintended consequences arguments are often justified by some of the available evidence, as well as some of the speculative hypotheses: try to make someone love you and they will feel manipulated; create a minimum wage to help the poor and you’ll increase unemployment; try to reform the criminal justice system and you’ll just make it stronger and more pervasive; tell someone they’re wrong and they’ll sink even deeper into their error; try to engage in affirmative action to reverse racial discrimination and you’ll entrench stereotypes of inferiority.

Margo Schlanger’s 2015 review of Murakawa’s The First Civil Right has stuck with me for a while in part because I still occasionally hear people pushing the Murakawa line that Democrats and liberals are primarily responsible for mass incarceration, and thus can’t be trusted to reverse it. Schlanger has a great reading of Albert Hirschman’s work on reactionaries, radicals, and academics and our enduring love of perversity arguments:

Indeed, perversity arguments are appealing not only to reactionaries and the left-of-liberal left but to academics, irregardless of ideology. As Hirschman says, a perversity argument “is, at first blush, a daring intellectual maneuver. The structure of the argument is admirably simple, whereas the claim being made is rather extreme.” Perversity arguments are counter-intuitive, attention-grabbing. These are attractive characteristics for someone trying to stand out in a crowd of monographs. And sure enough, the attack on liberalism as perversely harming the disempowered has become quite fashionable in criminal justice in particular. Bill Stuntz is its most well-known (and least radical) author, but structurally similar claims have sprouted up all over, usually from the far left. These are arguments that prison conditions litigation causes an increase in incarceration, Miranda rights cause increased arrests, and so on. The claims are empirical—A caused B—but the arguments are usually a combination of ideological and hypothetical.

Perversity arguments feel smart and daring. They make you feel like you’ve seen a secret truth. But they also work to disempower and disengage. They paralyze us with fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Every step in the minefield of unintended consequences and backlashes is probably doomed, so the only safe thing to do is stand still. From the perspective of perversity helping hurts, loving hates, attacking strengthens, and truth-seekers lie. Nothing is what it seems, and everything must be viewed through a hermeneutics of suspicion that ends with a kind of paralysis or status quo preference.

But at the same time… sometimes everything is not what it seems. Sometimes our well-intentioned efforts do make things worse. If Forman is right, DC’s leaders were facing real crime problems in need of real solutions, and they built a tidy mass incarcerated city without ever seeking to do so. And his chapters on DC’s responses to gun violence, especially, strike me as importantly relevant to current discussions of gun control in the wake of the Parkland shootings.


*Another book that manages the “stereoscopic view” well is Danielle Allen’s Cuz.

Civic Death and the Afterlife of Imprisonment

It’s primary season, and once again I am reminded at just how little the rest of the country cares about the disenfranchisement of the District of Columbia. I usually salve my irritation with the knowledge that individual votes are unlikely to sway an election, so I am largely unharmed personally. The problem, of course, is that the disenfranchisement of a large group of people who share some interests does seem likely to have serious policy effects, as those interests are systematically ignored. (Perhaps a more powerful argument defending the loss of DC’s voting rights in federal matters is that it might force us to attend to local politics where decisions are both consequential and close enough to our lives to be noticed. So far, though, I am unimpressed.)

In any case, my neighbors and I are not alone. Vann Newkirk has a piece in the Atlantic challenging felon and prisoner disenfranchisement:

The origins of disenfranchisement as a vehicle of American punishment are likely traceable to some form of the classical notion of a “civil death.” For the Greeks, the punishment of civil death was akin to capital punishment—a complete extinguishing of the civil rights that Greeks believed constituted personhood, including suffrage, landownership, and the right to file lawsuits. English common law borrowed the Greek concept, and civil death was long viewed as a suitable punishment for felony offenses.

But civil death as a formal punishment in the American colonies differed from the English system on which it was based, and from the punishments that would later evolve. Civil death was initially only adopted in America for a very small number of felonies, the most common of which were violations directly connected to voting—for example, fraud or bribery. This paralleled both an expansion of crimes considered felonies and a decoupling of felony punishment from capital punishment. The use of long-term imprisonment, instead of corporal or capital punishment, only came about in fits and starts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In Maryland, former felons are regaining their voting rights this year, and that affects some of the graduates of the JCI Prison Scholars Program! It’s pretty great.

For too long, we have begun to imagine that violators of the social contract are somehow unable to participate in its revision. In a world without ungoverned spaces, it’s no longer possible to exile our trangressors into the wastes. But what we do instead is significantly more cruel: exiled to social and civil death, prisoners are meant to continue to live in our midst while occupying as little of our time and energy as possible. They’re invisible men whose future is supposed to hold no future except to be ignored.

Yet the fantasies of social death are pernicious precisely because they imagine no return. The reality is that most of these men must someday rejoin the communities from which they have been exiled. People come back. What’s more, they’re never really that far away.

Their lives and ours are still bound together: at the very least we still pay to keep our fellow citizens incarcerated, we still send some of our fellow citizens inside to guard and “correct” them. But it’s also worth remembering that the prison’s walls are remarkably permeable. Guards and visiting family stream in and out. Gang members inside help their outside colleagues agree to cessation of hostilities.

If we were still able to punish our criminals with exile or death, it would be much easier. Instead ghosts still haunt us long after their social death. Fathers and mothers still parent their daughters and sons from within the prison’s walls. Husbands have long arguments and tender reconciliations with their wives as phone calls and letters go back and forth at great expense. And in most cases, the men and women who go off to prison must eventually shamble back from the social death we’ve wished upon them.

I still don’t know if there’s room for prisons in a just society. Our vengeful impulses seem to require some sort of satisfaction, and imprisonment might just be the fairest one remaining. But I do feel confident that those prisons cannot be premised on social death any longer.

Reprobation as Shared Inquiry: Teaching the Liberal Arts in Prison

One of the reasons I blog less than I used to is that in addition to running this journal I’ve been teaching and organizing a college program at Jessup Correctional Institution. (Although I think it was having a daughter that really sucked the wind out of my sails, blogging-wise.)

Anyway,first page to prove I haven’t been completely unproductive, my collaborator Daniel Levine and I just published an article on the philosophy of punishment that reflects on our experiences at JCI. Here’s the abstract:

Respect for victims requires that we have social systems for punishing and condemning (reproving) serious crimes. But, the conditions of social marginalization and political subordination of the communities from which an overwhelming number of prisoners in the United States come place serious barriers in the face of effective reprobation. Mass incarceration makes this problem worse by disrupting and disrespecting entire communities. While humanities education in the prisons is far from a total solution, it is one way to make reprobation meaningful, so long as the prison classroom is a place where the educators’ values are also put at risk.

If your library doesn’t have a subscription to RPR, you can read an archival copy (which excludes the final formatting and page numbers) through philpapers here.

Scanlon’s “Giving Desert its Due”

A couple of years back Tim Scanlon did a blog post and comment-section discussion on PEA Soup. Here’s one bit:

In earlier work, including my Tanner Lectures on the significance of choice and Chapter 6 of What We Owe to Each Other, I rejected the idea of moral desert because I identified it with the idea that the fact that someone has behaved badly can make it a good thing that he or she should suffer some loss. I still find the latter view morally unacceptable. But it now seems to me that this rejection of desert is too quick. Desert should not be identified with this retributivist idea. There is, I believe, a distinct category of valid desert-based justifications. A desert-based justification for treating a person in a certain way claims that this form of treatment is made appropriate simply by facts about what that person is like, or what he or she has done. By simply, I mean without need to appeal to other factors such as the good consequences of treating the person in this way or to the fact that this treatment is called for by some institution or practice that is independently justified. Moral blame, gratitude, and some honors and distinctions can be justified in this way, and these justifications do not presuppose that the qualities that form the basis for justification are all under the person’s control. The responses are justified simply by what the person is like, or has done. By contrast, legal punishment, insofar as it involves forms of hard treatment such as fines or imprisonment, cannot be justified purely on the basis of desert, nor can significant differences in economic reward be justified in this way. I argue for these views in “Giving Desert Its Due,” which has just appeared in Philosophical Explorations.

I’m just today reading the article in Philosophical Explanations, and it has some interesting features that bear on some of my recent work with Daniel Levine. For one thing, he tries to argue that when we distinguish moral from legal blame–that is, when we distinguish blaming from punishment–we can start to justify withdrawing our personal willingness to have special relationships and obligations to a person based on what they are like or what they have done. For instance, if your male neighbor abuses his wife, it’s reasonable to find yourself less trusting of him, less willing to enter into friendship or shared projects, and less happy for him when things go well in his life… and thus less unhappy when things go badly. (page 11)

But what’s important is that these attitudes are all of the “special” designation: conditional attitudes which we cannot grant equally to all and thus appropriately deprive most people of–and now the neighbor as well. It is appropriate to “withdraw good will” towards a person if they act in certain ways. This is the distinction: everyone, regardless of their behavior, deserves certain unconditional kinds of respect. But conditional forms of respect are conditioned and thus winnable and loseable: esteem, deference, and honor; disesteem, disdain, and contempt.

So far, so good. Now, we know on Scanlon’s account that in some sense responsibility is merely a matter of attribution: so we blame and praise and engage in all the special interpersonal relationships because our actions are attributed to our character. We don’t just blame or praise an action, we blame or praise the person for being the kind of person who would engage in that action.

Now as it happens, I am not convinced that we need to so quickly conflate acting and being. Because what happens in punishment, at least in our society, is that everyone simultaneously withdraws good will towards the prisoner, while simultaneously we become willing to inflict suffering upon them. Scanlon focuses on this second element, and deplores it as not appropriate when we decide not just to acquiesce (by being less unhappy) to their suffering, but to actively visit it upon them, to act (often at our own expense, and obviously so in the criminal justice system) to make them worse off.

Interestingly, this rule-following punishment that Scanlon deplores is at the heart of the social production of norms in community. It’s at the heart of common pool resource management, including the management of the common pool of social reasons and thus our community and its mores, so there’s a strong practical sense in which Scanlon is probably wrong. More on this in moment.

Where Scanlon really seems to go wrong is in the special kind of deprivation in the widespread withdrawal of special relationships that Scanlon calls for in addressing the wrongdoer. It takes an odd kind of individualist contractualism to assume that the universal deprivation of good will and willingness to share projects is somehow unobjectionable. Shared projects are at the heart of human agency. They are the basis not just of the special respect of friendship and love, but of the shared practices that make dignity possible. We have ample evidence of this, that the conditional and unconditional interpersonal relationships are not as easily prised apart as Scanlon claims here.

I think we must probably accept that Scanlon has the wrong end of this problem. Probably it should work something like this: we deem it acceptable to visit suffering on another in a directed manner as a response to normative failures like wrongdoing. But we do so under the understanding that the punishment is a part of the restoration of the conditions of special interpersonal relationships–of good will. We punish so that we can go back to trusting and collaborating. Anything else is inappropriate. Thus we restore the priority of the conditional over the (allegedly) unconditional reactive attitudes, acknowledging as we do so that these never really were unconditional attitudes in the first place, that reactivity always trump unconditionality and honor always trumped dignity.

I need to think some more about what that means for the latter half of the paper, where Scanlon tries to tie these questions of punishment and moral blame to economic distributions and redistributions. I’m sympathetic to his conclusions there, but having undermined his foundations I’ll have to see if I can justify an alternative means to that end.

The “Humanitarianism” of Living in Prison Until Death

The profile of Judith Clark from last month has me worried:

We are more willing to impose death when the killer is painted in monochrome—if we can define him or her by the horror of the crime. Many think this is just; that is what blame and punishment are about. But in rare public comments to the magazine of Washington and Lee University’s law school, where she has taught, Clarke argued that no person should be defined “by the worst moment, or worst day” of his life. She laboriously constructs a complex and sympathetic portrait of the accused, working with a far more varied palette, sketching out the good and the bad, unearthing the forces that drove a killer to the terrible moment, and insisting that judges and juries and prosecutors see the larger picture, weighing not just the crime but the whole person. She seeks not forgiveness but understanding. It takes only a small spark of it to decide against sentencing someone to death.

It seems like such a laudable goal: to demonstrate that since even the worst criminals are ultimately unworthy of the death penalty, lesser criminals ought not to receive it either. Yet I see the appeal in the death penalty, too. As Arendt puts it in Eichmann in Jerusalem:

And just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations…we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.

I’m sympathetic to Arendt here, but I worry that the great mass murders and our outsized vengeance justifies a whole system of lesser punitiveness (like the supermax) that we ought to rein in. Maybe we can’t.

And to a large extent that paragraph is self-refuting: “as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world.” On Arendt’s view, that kind of authority could never exist (what theory of political authority or consent would justify it? how could it be epistemically reliable? who would hold it in check? what does the claimed authority do to the regime that claims it?) and yet our courts regularly assert it. And, yes, this is the same boring claim made by opponents of capital punishment everywhere, an argument that Arendt acknowledges was just as valid in Eichmann’s case as in any other but “this was not a very promising case on which to fight.” Clark disagrees, of course: while hard cases make bad law, they do make good tests of general principles.

I think it’s notable how simple and straightforward the arguments against the death penalty are, and how convoluted and twisted the arguments in favor of it are. It seems we must go to considerable cognitive trouble to justify what we know is wrong (and we know it is wrong because murder is so often what we are punishing in the first place.)

So a life sentence is more humane. It’s the most ethical of the punishments, right? My friend Sarah Shugars challenges this humanism, again in the context of Tsarnaev:

a life sentence allows us to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done: our judgement was harsh but humane. Our prisoner will get no appeals while he lives in extreme isolation – cramped in a 7 x 9 cell and fed through a slot in the solid steel door. But at least he will have his life. We are progressive after all.

There is something wrong with this dynamic.

I’m not sure what to recommend in the Tsarnaev trial – whether life or death is ultimately a worse fate. But more broadly we need to rethink our options. We need to recognize the deep, systemic failures of our prison system and identify new strategies and options for reparation and justice. If we want to be harsh, we can be harsh, but let’s be honest about what we are and what we want from our punishments.

After all, if we’re quibbling over whether someone should die slowly or die quickly – we’re hardly arguing about anything at all.

Life without parole (LWOP) is a weird kind of humanitarianism. It’s often defended by reference to how easy death is in comparison, which hints at how little there is of humanitarianism in our drive to sentence wrongdoers to life rather than death… to make them live rather than make them die.

Perhaps thinking similar thoughts, Corey Robin shares this poem from Primo Levi, “For Adolph Eichmann”:

O son of death, we do not wish you death.

May you live long as no one has ever lived:

May you live sleepless for five million nights,

And every night may you be visited by the grief of everyone who saw

The door that closed off the way of return click shut,

the dark around him rise, the air crowd with death.

For Primo Levi, a life sentence is not about mercy: it’s the ultimate punishment, or it is supposed to be. It’s the only way to make the harms received equal to the harms perpetrated.

We see this same conflict in the work of the ACLU. They call LWOP both “a living death” and “swift, severe, cheap, and fair,” depending on whether they’re criticizing its use for nonviolent offenders or offering it as an alternative to the death penalty. It’s torture unless it’s justified; or, it’s torture, but some people deserve torture. That can’t be right.

LWOP seems to exist only to make sense of our greater economy of punishments, not because in itself it’s recognizably fair.

This idea–that there’s something like an order or an economy to all the bad things people can do–strikes me as pernicious and nonsensical. Arguably, it’s that first effort to rationalize our revenge that makes room for mass incarceration: it’s only when we try to make all this resentment and anger sensible and procedural that we end up with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Can we imagine a real alternative to the death penalty, though? And if we can’t, is there much point in pushing the issue? What about life with parole? Is this imaginable?

Anders Breivik got 21 years, so clearly it’s possible, though even in Norway he can be imprisoned indefinitely if he’s still considered a threat.