I’d like to pose a puzzle to my conservative/libertarian-inclined readers.
You support school vouchers in large part because of the idea that competition among private schools for voucher dollars will improve service delivery. I take it that you would also accept the idea that there’s an incentive misalignment because the state stands as an intermediary between parents and students and schools — schools have an incentive to maximize revenue from the state, which need not mean maximizing educational quality. We might most helpfully see this as a complicated sort of principal-agent problem: the students/parents have the power to monitor but not control school behavior, while the state has the power to control but not monitor.
But similar points might be made with respect to prisons, particularly privatized prisons. I take it that the state has some legitimate interests in prisons (pretty much entirely the interest in making sure the prisoners don’t escape), but that there are also many legitimate interests that the prisoners have in prisons — the prisoners have a legitimate interest in not being tortured, for example, in being fed adequately, in receiving medical care, in being protected from violent fellow inmates. There’s a similar principal-agent problem with respect to those interests — prisoners can monitor their treatment, but can’t change it, and the state can change the behavior of those who run privatized prisons, but can’t monitor it.
So, rather than having state-run prisons or private prisons, why shouldn’t the state establish minimum standards for the things it cares about (people not escaping — which is something the state CAN readily monitor), and then let the market handle the rest? Suppose prisoners were entitled to choose in which prison they served their time, and the state paid per prisoner on a cost-plus-profit basis? Presumably, the prisoners would choose the less brutal prisons. We can imagine that prisoners would get to move prisons periodically to avoid bait-and-switch tactics, as well.
This would also relieve some of the pressure of prisoner mistreatment administrative complaints and lawsuits that the right is always complaining about. The problem with these fundamentally is that prisoners are not terribly trustworthy and have all the incentive in the world to lie and bring frivolous charges, so it’s not as if the courts and higher-up officials can just believe them, but there is lots of actual abuse of prisoners, and so it’s really unjust and cruel to pass things like the Prison Litigation Reform Act that impair the access of genuinely mistreated prisoners to the courts. But if prisoners could simply move away from mistreatment, a market solution rather than a legal solution, that problem would be resolved. We can imagine that prisoners would be charged some nominal cost to move — perhaps some money from their prison account, perhaps an extra month on their sentences — to deter frivolous moves.
There might be consequences for prison choice that wouldn’t be an issue for school choice, like people choosing the prisons in which their fellow gang members were also incarcerated. But, assuming those problems could be resolved, is there any reason in principle why those who support school vouchers shouldn’t also support prison vouchers?
This idea developed at about 4am in a conversation with fabulous friends Yin Yin and Shazad, but the matcha tea gets all the credit.