The United States has a higher percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other country on Earth.

I understand that this is a data point and not a conclusion in and of itself, but whatever heuristic you use to determine how “free” a country is — the percentage of citizens behind bars has got to be a big factor.

It would be one thing if all of those people were put away because they were violating someone else’s freedom, but an awful percentage of them are doing time for vice crimes — behavioral deviance — heresy, in short: nothing more than violating a bunch of politicians’ idea of what a person ought to be doing with his or her short span of days.

Any definition of political freedom has to start with the freedom to do something different, or unpopular, or disapproved.

Of course, your freedom isn’t just reduced when the government throws you in its dungeon. Just knowing that it has the will and ability to do so can shackle you. When Saddam Hussein opened his prisons in a general amnesty he may have freed the prisoners but a nation of people who knew they could be rounded up and tortured for stepping out of line probably felt no more free than before.

All governments love to prohibit and imprison. The government of the United States, more than that of any other country on earth, backs its imprisoning impulses with resources and will.

If, as in the United States, every part of your life has its corresponding shadow in the library of laws and regulations, it’s only sensible to assume that any deviation from the norm is probably illegal as well as heretical. And if, as in the United States, the government has not only the inclination to blanket the country with prohibitions but the riches and power to actually enforce this — you’d better stay close to the center of the herd.

And even if straightforward torture is relatively rare in U.S. prisons (which I think is more of an open question than we’d like to admit), I think it’s worth a pause to consider how a country that really valued freedom might weigh the punishment of imprisonment relative to thumbscrews and the rack.


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