This post by Ampersand rounds up the recent blogosphere reaction to the scandal of widespread prison rape. As he notes, conservative, libertarian, and liberal bloggers all agree that more should be done to curb prison rape. Yet, he concludes, “this is a curious case where it appears that everyone agrees, yet nothing ever gets done.”
For what it’s worth, I agree with everyone else that we should do more to prevent the rape of prisoners. But the government’s failure to address the problem is not accidental. Government is responsive to those who have political power, and prisoners are the classic example of a group that has almost no power, and is generally unpopular with those who do. In most states, prisoners don’t even have the right to vote, and of course their ability to wield political power in other ways (activism; campaign contributions; lobbying, etc.) is also extremely limited. Most of the general public, by contrast, is either unaware of the problem of prison rape or doesn’t care about it very much. And, of course, measures to make it easier for prisoners to sue or otherwise alleviate their plight will be strongly opposed by prison guards unions and other influential interest groups.
This is an extreme case of an important broader lesson about the nature of government: it usually can’t be relied on to protect the political powerless or even the relatively weak. As I have blogged in the past, the same point applies (albeit with less force) to claims that a strong government will be good for the poor. Because the poor have little political power, government intervention is more likely to cut against their interests than in their favor – especially when the needs of the poor conflict with those of middle class or wealthy interest groups. [...]