Restitution Q&A

Excerpts from the 1998 edition of Short Answers to the Tough Questions


What happens if someone steals in a libertarian society?

In a libertarian society, aggressors would be required to compensate their victims and pay for costs of their trial and apprehension. Studies show that such restitution is one of the most effective deterrents known.

So what happens if the thief refuses to pay? Is the victim out of luck?

Thieves unwilling to make payments towards a court-ordered judgment would most likely be placed in a work prison. In addition to compensating their victims, inmates would be required to pay the expensive costs of imprisonment. Most thieves would probably make compensation payments rather than risk such a huge increase in their liability and the loss of their liberty.

Most people steal because they are poor and have few marketable skills. It would be literally impossible for such people to repay their victims, let alone the costs of their trial and apprehension.

Most people who steal are able-bodied, and could easily perform simple factory work. They are indeed capable of providing substantial restitution to their victims.

Until 1980, Maine State’s prison inmates were allowed to manufacture arts and crafts, making as much as $60,000 per year in today’s dollars. Many companies currently employ inmates for telephone work, such as booking airline reservations.

Working trains inmates to support themselves after release and gives them an alternative to crime. Restitution through productive work is highly successful rehabilitation.

So the thief goes free, while the victim must wait years for compensation?

Not necessarily. Insured victims would be compensated immediately. The judgment against the thief would be collected by the insurance company instead. Of course, time payments are better than no payments at all, which is what most victims receive today.

What would happen if the thief dies before the victim is fully compensated? What happens if the judgment is so big that the thief cannot pay it, even if he or she works for a lifetime?

The victim will receive at least partial compensation, more than what he or she would receive today.

Today, victims are robbed twice. Not only are they robbed by the thief, but they are taxed by their government for apprehending and jailing the thief.

If the courts and police don’t get full payment from an aggressor, who pays the bill?

The courts and police would probably write off bad debts, and factor them into their fees, just as businesses do today. Since the criminals pay these costs, you won’t!

Without taxes, where would the money come from to lock up the murderers and the rapists?

Ultimately, the money would come from the murderers and rapists themselves. Prisoners could work off their room and board in the prison or pay for it out of their own resources. Convicts who refused to work might have to depend upon the charity of others.

Isn’t it cruel and unusual punishment to make prisoners work?

Law-abiding citizens must work to provide their own food, clothing, and shelter. How can expecting the same from criminals be “cruel and unusual punishment”?

On the other hand, making innocent taxpayers or crime victims feed and clothe felons certainly seems “cruel and unusual” to me!

Having the thieves pay might work if we could actually catch these people. Hardly any of them get caught though. You’d have each one that got caught paying fees for the ten that don’t. That’s not fair either!

In a libertarian society, police would have more incentive to prevent crime. Then, if someone did break the law, more resources would be available to apprehend the criminals.

For example, Rural Metro is a private police service which was hired by the town of Oro Valley, Arizona. Because Rural Metro profited more when crime was less, they focused on prevention. Rural Metro checked the homes of vacationers and instructed the public in ways to thwart burglars. Thefts dropped 95%, so Rural Metro could give each theft that did occur top priority.


Today, half of our police efforts are dedicated to victimless crimes. In a libertarian society, our police would focus on the thieves, rapists, and murderers, so many more would be apprehended.

So if prisoners don’t work, will they starve to death?

Prisoners who don’t work would depend on charity just as we, on the outside, must do if we don’t work.

Charitable individuals or groups might support non-working prisoners if they felt the circumstances warranted such compassion. Some groups might only help prisoners who were at least trying to help themselves. Other organizations might freely assist prisoners regardless of circumstances.

What could possibly motivate aggressors to keep on working if there was no chance that they could ever repay the debt to their victims?

Aggressors making payments to their victims might be able to remain at liberty. By refusing to make such payments, they risk incarceration.

Sounds pretty gruesome to me. Isn’t there any mercy in a libertarian society?

In a libertarian society, any debt incurred by an aggressor represents a real injury or loss to the victim. Letting the aggressor off the hook simultaneously robs the victim of what is rightly due him or her. What could be more gruesome than that?

In a libertarian society, charitable organizations or sympathetic individuals, like yourself, might choose to pay the aggressor’s debt to the victim, especially if the aggressor was truly repentant.

A victim might occasionally relieve an aggressor of their debt. Imagine that a drunk driver hits your car, killing your spouse. The driver is devastated by what he has done and never takes another drink after that fateful day. Instead, he often goes to schools to tell his story, begging the young people not to drink and drive. Might you consider his debt paid if you didn’t need the money that the jury awarded you?

What’s to keep murders and rapists who are already in prison from working just hard enough to pay for their food, but not hard enough to give their victims any compensation?

Prisoners would probably be given a percentage of their work credit for their own personal needs and the rest would go to their victims. Perhaps the victims would be paid a certain amount before the inmates received anything. Obviously, work prison payments could be structured to thwart both laziness and discouragement.

What will prevent prisons from using convicts as slave labor?

Prisons would be privately run in a libertarian society and would compete for inmates. Prisoners would choose the one offering the kind of work and environment they preferred. Normally, inmates would choose the institution that maximized their earnings and minimized their prison stay. If the inmates were mistreated or otherwise dissatisfied, they could transfer to another institution.

Work prisons that had the most productive and congenial environment would profit by attracting the most “customers.” Work prisons that were shunned by inmates would go out of business.

It sounds like an aggressor could just declare bankruptcy in a libertarian society and get off without paying a dime or doing any time!

Bankruptcy is a grant of partial immunity which government gives to debtors at the expense of their creditors. A libertarian government would not have the power to waive a victim’s right to restitution.

How about corporations? Would they enjoy the limited liability that they have today?

Limited liability is a grant of partial immunity given to corporations by government. In a libertarian society, government could not waive a victim’s right to restitution.

I am helping Cambodia rewrite its corporation laws. Here’s a place that desperately needs a shot in the arm economically, from corporations. Consequently, I was most distressed by your comments on limited corporate liability.

Do you really want to protect foreign investors at the expense of Cambodia’s environment and populace? Getting rid of taxes, regulations, and trade restrictions is the best way to give your economy a “shot in the arm.” Look at how it helped Hong Kong!

Surely the libertarian approach would be to let people incorporate with limited liability and then let the consumers choose!

By including “Inc.” in its title, a business could notify customers of the limited liability for their products. Consumers could choose whether or not to buy a product under such a “contract.”

However, if the corporation harmed its neighbors by polluting their soil, for example, liability limits are unlikely to apply, since the victims never “contracted” to do business with the company as its customers did.

Do libertarians believe in capital punishment?

Libertarians believe in compensation of the victim, not punishment. Most victims and their families would probably prefer monetary compensation, not execution.

However, if an aggressor was not repentant or was unwilling to provide restitution, victims might ask for execution as compensation. The courts would then decide if execution of the aggressor was warranted.

What if a murderer was eventually executed? Should he be made to pay the cost of his lethal injection? What a barbaric thought.

While I’m not an advocate of capital punishment, I would not be revolted by the idea of the criminal paying for his or her execution. Bombing a building that results in the killing and maiming of innocents is barbaric; making these victims or their families pay, via taxes, for the imprisonment or execution of the aggressor is even more so.

If criminals only have to make restitution to their victims, how do they ever pay their debt to society?

Libertarians believe that aggressors owe their debt to their victims, not society. If the victim is made whole, isn’t the debt fully paid?

Criminal defendants are routinely represented by public defenders whose services are often woefully inadequate compared to the resources that are available to the prosecution. Over 90% of these defendants plea bargain, even though some are innocent. In a libertarian society, however, they would not even have public defenders to turn to.

In a libertarian system, false accusers would often be liable for the defendants’ attorney fees. Thus, defendants would be able to get top-notch law firms to represent them on contingency.

As you so rightly observe, a person in today’s system can be bankrupted by false charges and pressured into confessing. Such a travesty would be much less frequent in a libertarian society.

How would libertarians meet the public concern that there are too many frivolous liability suits?

If the loser had to pay the winners’ costs in a frivolous lawsuit, they would be much less common. Without this provision, someone can wrongfully accuse others and force them into bankruptcy with litigating costs. Indeed, this is one of the government’s favorite tactics against individuals.

What if someone harms another, but the victim is afraid to sue because he or she might have to pay the aggressor’s legal bills if the jury didn’t turn in a guilty verdict?

If the suit had a legitimate, rather than frivolous basis, it’s likely that the jury would require each side to pay its own fees.

In a libertarian society, arbitrators could attempt to establish a mutually-agreed upon settlement. This economical alternative is ideal for situations where guilt is shared or not easy to establish.

How does the amount of compensation get set in the case of a murderer of a retired individual without family? With no one to compensate, is there no consequence?

A person who harms another owes the victim compensation. If the victim has been killed, the claim to that compensation usually passes to the victim’s heirs. Without apparent heirs, it’s likely that a libertarian jury would direct the compensation towards a charity or group that the victim favored.

Although compensation is primarily awarded to restore the victim, studies show that restitution serves to rehabilitate the criminal as well. Thus, claims for compensation are likely to be enforced, even when the victims cannot personally receive them.

My only problem with libertarianism is that it pays no attention to prevention of initial force. In a free society, the government can only retaliate when force has already been initiated. Is it true that in a free society, preventative government regulation is always wrong, no matter what the consequences (death, etc.) will be?

Studies show that requiring aggressors to compensate their victims deters crime. Restitution is the most effective regulation of all!


  1. Im no expert, but I believe you just created the best point. You certainly know a great deal about what youre talking about, and I can actually get behind that. Thanks for becoming so upfront and so honest about the subject matter. I actually feel like I have a far better understanding now.

  2. Dr. Ruwart, thanks for the eye-opening discussion. I think you’re a genius at explaining libertarian principles by giving concrete examples. I’ve shared Healing Our World with several people and changed a few minds. 🙂 Our current “justice” system is broken, and more statism is not the answer. Thanks for articulating some brilliant alternatives.

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