The Prisoners' Dilemma: Political Economy and Punishment in Contemporary Democracies

August 7, 2008

Many critical observers would agree that democracies are experiencing the growth of a "culture of control", that they are creating "exclusive societies" and that they are multiplying attempts to "govern through crime". These three phrases allude to key books of recent years in the areas of criminology and the sociology of law, all addressing the expansion of punishment, the decline of rehabilitative ideals and the spread of penal populism.

Nicola Lacey argues that, despite a degree of convergence, advanced democracies display substantial differences in crime levels, criminal justice policies and penal severity. At the core of her argument is the notion that the perception of the crime problem in national contexts is influenced by a number of variables, including cultural norms, macroeconomic arrangements and institutional factors. The question she poses is whether any lessons can be learnt "from research on the differences between the criminal justice systems of democratic societies at relatively similar levels of economic development".

Drawing on a broad typology suggested by Michael Cavadino and James Dignan, the author compares penal systems in clusters of countries characterised, respectively, by neoliberal, conservative-corporatist and social democratic economies. After showing that countries with neoliberal political economies (the US, South Africa, England and Wales, Australia and New Zealand) have the highest rates of imprisonment, Lacey proposes to link macroeconomic models to cultural, social and institutional factors. The association is noted between proportionally representative electoral systems and conservative-corporatist and social democratic economic systems, on the one hand, and "first past the post", "winner takes all" systems and neoliberal economies, on the other. Countries adopting the former electoral system, it is suggested, have to negotiate within coalitions and to incorporate a variety of groups in the governmental process. "We might say that coordinated market economies with PR systems are both more representative and more oriented to effective participation in and contribution to policymaking," Lacey says.

Even campaigns to increase the fear of crime, in countries adopting PR electoral systems, cannot be translated into harsher policies without negotiation with coalition members and opposition forces. In short, penal policies are harsher and incarceration rates higher in countries where the capacity and willingness to control the economy and contain inequality are weak.

After discussing whether penal populism is likely to establish itself in more tolerant countries as well, this incisive book concludes with the identification of some space for reform in neoliberal countries. While unemployment is deemed to feed crime and fear, economic policies aimed at increasing opportunities in the labour market are advocated. Such policies, however, would be insufficient in contexts in which law and order is a factor in the competition between political parties, each preoccupied with displaying toughness and terrified by voters' demands for security.

Hence, the debate on law and order, we are told, is to be taken away from the political arena along with the discussion around the costs of imprisonment. It remains to be seen, however, whether systems so prone to dissipation and waste might suddenly become sensitive to problems of "costs".

The Prisoners' Dilemma: Political Economy and Punishment in Contemporary Democracies

By Nicola Lacey. Cambridge University Press. 256pp, £35.00 and £12.99. ISBN 9780521899475 and 728294. Published 29 May 2008

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