I see there’s a US nationwide campaign against private for-profit prisons. Maybe the campaigners are right. It’s certainly easy to imagine ways in which the profit motive would work against the interests of prison inmates and the public interest in lower recidivism rates and so on. Yet at least judging by the sign, it’s notable how the campaign is based not around either of these things but how the idea of private prisons makes us feel. How does it make us feel? Well yucky. But that’s at least in part because prisons make us feel yucky.
Then again in some senses private anything sounds somehow worse than publicly supplied something. Who’d want those greedy private business people selling us bread? Wouldn’t they be tempted to cut corners, put in lousy flour and charge us too much? Public providers of bread wouldn’t do that would they? Well we all know (I think) that those things that the private providers would like to do, they can’t do in a competitive industry. So on reflection we’d rather take our chances against the pathologies of private sector misbehaviour than public sector misbehaviour.
And if private prisons are bad, the trouble is, we know that state run prisons are horrible too.
Then we all go into our corners with the people with the signs to your left arguing that privately owned prisons are Bad and economic rationalists arguing “what’s wrong with private ownership?” and assuming that all objections to private prisons are irrational and that the real issue is always and everywhere the adequacy of contracting.
It seems to me that the emotions around the campaign are reasonable enough. We want some kind of fiduciary relation – between the prison and the public interest and the prison and the prisoners’ interest. And profit seeking makes us uneasy about this. But like I said, however this is done it needs to be brought within some kind of organisational logic and there are likely to be some nasty things about that – whether you go public or private.
I made the same kind of point when offering a sympathetic critique of Ken Harvey’s opposition of ads in medical prescription software. Yes ads are tacky – indeed they’re ethically dubious. But while we squabble about that we seem to spend almost no time on a much more compelling question which is how could we use things like medical prescription software as decision support technology and in so doing hugely improve the quality of prescribing.
And I’ve suggested the same thing regarding regulation of financial advisors and other professionals. “We regulate them within an inch of their lives, and there’s disclosure regulation all over them, but no-one troubles them to (for instance) keep sample portfolios to demonstrate how capable or not at what they are advising others to do.”
We won’t get far while stuck in the ‘regulation as morality play’ rut. But how does one get out of it? Any suggestions?