Reaction to Les Miserables

Antony — January 17, 2013

Following on from Dave’s post, I also recently watched the movie version of Les Miserables, and have a few comments. While I agree with Dave’s point that Jean Valjean should not be absolved from guilt for stealing the bread, the legal consequence he suffered were completely disproportionate, and would never occur in a libertarian society. In a libertarian restitution-based justice system, the primary goal of the law would be to seek appropriate compensation for the victim. For such a petty crime, it would not be worth the cost to invest huge resources needed to pursue Valjean over many years, since the damage done was so minimal. It is only by using the resources of the state that Javert’s costly manhunt can be maintained.

The fact that the state has taken over the codification and application of law in our society is what leads to the possibility for these excesses. The criminalization of “victimless crimes” is one example of this phenomenon; in a system of private law focused on restitution, it is unlikely that anyone would devote sufficient resources to banning or regulating acts that hurt no-one. For an excellent analysis of private versus state law, check out this recent talk by Stephan Kinsella.

The principle of restitution-based justice is demonstrated when Jean Valjean’s commits his second act of theft – stealing silver from the monastery. In this case the victim, the bishop, chooses not to seek restitution, in fact he does the opposite and actually gives more silver to Valjean. It is up to him whether to seek compensation, and in this case he exercises his prerogative to give Valjean a second chance, to seek his redemption, thereby setting the stage for the entire rest of the movie.

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