Criminal Justice and the Left-Right Divide

Over at Reason, Radley Balko has an article on political alliances and criminal justice reform.  The gist of the pieces is that “non-traditional left-right alliances that may be emerging on criminal justice issues”, there are some very deep and very real ideological differences that exist between conservative, liberals and libertarians that might prevent any lasting partnerships on these issues.  It’s a great piece and you should read it.

In the course of the article, however, Balko says this:

Liberals put a premium on equality. Not equality under the law (as noted above by their general support for the aggressive prosecution of white collar criminals), but equality of wealth and status.

and it strikes me as only half right.  Liberals tend to be in favor greater equality when it comes to wealth, but greater hierarchy when it comes to status.  In fact, I would say that this is why many liberals have an anti-market bias: markets tend to link status to wealth.

In the criminal justice context, this explains liberal attitudes towards things like hate crimes and affirmative action.  They create special and protected classes of people and actions.  This is a hierarchy that can be centrally controlled by bureaucrats and intellectuals rather than be evaluated on an individual basis by a decentralized legal system.

There is also the difference between a broadly utilitarian ethics on the left and a consequentialist ethics on the right, at least where criminal justice issues are concerned.  Liberals tend to be willing to take much greater liberties with regards to the process so long as it grants the outcome they want, even to the point where that process shows a disregard for individual rights.  Conservatives are often so invested in their individualist ethos that they refuse to acknowledge any systemic role in the path that individuals take.  For these reasons I do agree with Balko’s main point, that liberals are unlikely to abandon their fondness for things like hate crime legislation and conservatives are unlikely to abandon their ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ mentality.  This is unfortunate, because reforming or justice system would likely pay great dividends.


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