Let’s Monetize Justice


This essay examines the possibility for a crime-prevention program that is neither punitive nor a safety net. The proposal is that the state monetize justice by providing payments to communities based on a crime-prevention score. Such a program would not necessarily redistribute wealth, as a high-income community would receive the same payment as a low-income community with the same prevention score. It would be defined by rights, rather than needs, and therefore meet the requirements of procedural justice with an effect similar to redistributive programs.

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

W.H. Auden

Two islands

Justice is the prevention of wrongdoing, not the punishment of it.

Consider two islands.

One island – call it the Isle of Perfect Police – has worse crime, but a better criminal justice system. One-hundred felonies are committed each year, and all the felons are properly convicted and sentenced. There are no wrongful convictions.

The other island – the Isle of Prevention – has milder crime, and an inferior criminal justice system. Crime consists of a few misdemeanors per year, but only half of the offenders are caught (maybe one is wrongly acquitted, too).

The Isle of Prevention is the more just state, despite its inferior criminal justice system. Fewer rights are violated. The rational, justice-loving residents of the Isle of Perfect Police would run to their boats and paddle like mad to the neighboring island.

Prevention from within

Programs to prevent crime belong in the justice system alongside its traditional elements, like the police, courts, and prisons. The traditional system is inherently backward-looking and reactionary, hoping to change the future by punishing the past. Creating the Isle of Prevention requires forward-looking strategies.

Currently, prevention comes mainly from outside the justice system, via the safety net system. Programs such as welfare and public education are thought to reduce crime.

Safety nets are not designed for crime prevention, however. They tend to be distributive in philosophy, whereas criminal justice is procedural. Safety nets are susceptible to free-rider and dependency problems. They provide temporary support, while a justice program provides permanent accountability.

Since they are not a part of the justice system, and do not directly address crime, welfare and the rest of the safety net do not change the concept of justice in the culture. They do not teach that the Isle of Prevention is a more just state than the Isle of Perfect Police.

Is there a way to put into action the principle that justice is the prevention of wrongdoing, and that is not welfare? Something to teach people to think of justice as prevention, by making prevention visible?

Comparison of health and justice

Healthcare makes for a natural comparison. Health is the prevention of illness. The Isle of Perfect Wellness is healthier than the Isle of Perfect Doctors.

Wellness – preventative healthcare – is a visible part of the formal healthcare system. That is necessary, even though the non-healthcare safety nets also contribute to wellness. The official healthcare system needs wellness programs, because prevention as epiphenomena is limited and does not teach that health is prevention.

Philosophy aside, the reality is that healthcare has come to include wellness because insurance companies profit from it. When smoking cessation programs for 50 people are cheaper than lung cancer treatment for one, the capitalist economy “cares” about prevention. Monetizing health makes prevention visible, and that visibility imbues the culture with an awareness of healthcare as the prevention of illness.

Let’s monetize justice

Nothing is visible like cold, hard cash. Government can make the absence of wrongdoing visible by paying residents for creating low-crime communities. It would make sense to base a community’s crime-prevention rating on two metrics:

  • Absolute performance: the current crime rate
  • Relative performance: reduction in crime rate

Both are needed.

Paying only for a low crime rate would reward wealthy communities. It would incentivize the rich not to become criminals – not a high-priority intervention. It might also make people chase the incentive by moving to low-crime neighborhoods, instead of earning the incentive by improving their own.

Incentivizing lowering the crime-rate within a neighborhood incentivizes its residents to take action. An effective system would also require the maintenance of a just community, and not just the attainment of it. Both metrics are needed.

For discussion purposes, suppose the government sends everyone in a community a check for $100 every month, for a community that rates 100 on its justice rating. What would happen?

It might perform like home ownership or gentrification, except the gentrification is being funded in advance and benefitting current residents. Research indicates that home ownership improves a neighborhood, because the residents are more invested in it. Homeowners are incentivized to have positive relationships with the police, and to advocate for many parts of the safety net held to indirectly prevent crime, such as good schools.

Paying for collective success in creating and maintaining the absence of crime could have similar effects. It might increase the figurative ownership of renters, in the sense of responsibility and pride, with benefits similar to literal ownership. Home ownership causes residents to care about justice because of their assets. Payments would cause them to care because of their cash flow, benefitting renters and owners equally.

Another way to monetize justice is to leverage the insurance model. If everyone has property insurance, property insurers are incentivized to prevent crime systemically. The power of capitalism is trained on researching what works in crime prevention, in all kinds of neighborhoods and demographics. It is no longer merely a subject for academic research.

Health insurers pay for vaccines, screenings, and fitness memberships. Auto insurers reward members for driver education classes and having a good driving record. Property insurers could pay members for completing high school, or school districts for expanded pre-K services. If there is a property insurance mandate, then the industry profits from investment in crime prevention.

Finally, monetizing prevention may increase prevention simply by teaching the society to view justice in those terms. Instead of punishment dominating the public discourse on crime, prevention would define the discussion. Voters would weigh prevention more when they vote, with ripple effects on the legislation elected leaders propose. Changing the ideal changes the culture.

Does this seem like a crazy idea? The only way to have a great idea is to take enough crazy ideas seriously that you get lucky.

Place in political theory

Libertarians have the right starting point for political philosophy. They ask: How should people be allowed to treat each other? They answer: People should be made to leave each other alone. It is a procedural conception of justice, instead of a distributive one.

The philosophy eschews starting points like: What social goals should everyone have? What is the correct distribution of capital? Those questions have no answer.

In this view, justice is strictly a question of boundaries. It results in the minimal state of “that government is best which governs least”. Once the rights of the individual are established, groups work toward their social goals without government.

What the government may make people do is different from how it may get them to do it. For example, bullying is a behavior that should not be allowed, therefore, teachers should be able to punish it. It does not follow that the authority to punish is the only way teachers may create bully-free classrooms. A teacher may also use positive reinforcement to minimize the occurrences of bullying that require consequences.

Disease should not be “allowed.” Therefore, doctors should have the authority to treat it. It does not follow that treating disease after it has occurred is the only or best approach.

By the same logic, violence and fraud should not be allowed. Therefore, the government should be able to arrest robbers and con artists. It does not follow that the traditional criminal justice system is government’s only, or best, method of preventing crime. If it is justifiable to tax people for a crime-punishment system, it is justifiable to tax them for a crime-prevention system.

Since taxation is a failure to leave people alone, it is only justified when designed to prevent greater violations of the right to be left alone. Welfare is redistributive, designed around fundamental needs rather than fundamental rights, and is incompatible with procedural justice (except as charity).

A procedural philosophy of justice requires a procedural method of crime prevention. If there is no such thing, then the minimal state cannot meet a state’s obligation to bring about justice.

Here is the concern as a syllogism:

  1. All just states are crime minimizers
  2. No crime minimizer is merely punitive
  3. All minimal states are merely punitive
  4. Therefore, no just state is a minimal state

The goal of this essay is to scrutinize the premise in step 3, and propose a program of crime prevention that is neither punitive nor redistributive. Monetizing justice meets the requirements of procedural justice because it does not provide a safety net or otherwise redistribute wealth. A high-income community would receive the same payment as a low-income community with the same prevention score.  It is based on accountability, and designed to be permanent.

A variation worth pondering:

  1. All crime-minimizing states are just
  2. Some welfare states are crime-minimizing states
  3. Therefore, some welfare state is just

Having the right starting point in political theory is not good enough. You’re supposed to get the ending right too. World population has increased by orders of magnitude since political philosophy began, forcing the development of environmental ethics. The fundamental need of healthcare has become impossible for people to earn simply, like food or housing. Corporations, not individuals, dominate economies. The precise meaning of “to be left alone” is increasingly called into question by the concept of exploitation or “social justice”. Adapting to a changing world is a necessary challenge for any political philosophy, including the libertarian’s minimal state.


There are two ways that monetizing prevention in the form of government payments could increase prevention.

It might actually work as an incentive, just as owning assets in a neighborhood does. The cash flow might cause people to commit less crime, or to take preventive action in their communities.

It might work indirectly, by changing the culture. When punishment is the only system of justice, it becomes the only understanding of justice. The problem with justice is that it is invisible, and like health, appreciated most when it is lost. Making prevention visible would change thinking about justice from a mindset of blame to one of bringing out the best in people.

Preventing crime contributes to social justice, even while belonging to a different political philosophy. Prevention is not necessarily corrective, in the sense that something like affirmative action aims to correct. The injustice done by a mugging is measured independently of whether the mugger was previously victimized. However, if the victimization earlier in life was a factor in the mugger’s later crime, his punishment would compound that injustice. Preventing someone from committing a crime flattens the wrong of his own experience as a victim.

Rating a “community” on its justice requires defining the community, which carries tradeoffs. If it is small, such as a zip code, there is a higher risk of the “not in my backyard” syndrome. Monetizing justice could increase antipathy toward high-risk individuals (experiencing homelessness or addiction), instead of empathy. If the community is large, such as a county, individual actions are diluted. The rating could be an average of an overlap of both communities. A neural net could optimize formulas.

Quantifying prevention allows artificial intelligence to tackle the problem. As long as the components of the community rankings make sense, there should at least be some useful discoveries. Do skateboard parks and Head Start really reduce crime? When do incentives work and when do they boomerang? Computers already predict successful chess moves and investments better than humans. It is time to utilize quant strategies in predicting winning moves in the game of justice.

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Ben Sharvy

Ben Sharvy lives in Portland, Oregon. He is interested in libertarian theory as a dynamic approach to problem-solving, rather than a static ideology. He hosts the Green-Libertarian website: http://luvnpeas.org/glib/ecolibparty.html.