Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Tom Rakewell’s Nightmare Lives

December 2nd, 2009 · 4 Comments

As the once-sparkling metropolis of Dubai flounders, it’s worth revisiting Johann Hari’s eerily prescient, deeply disturbing take on the city-state from earlier this year. There are lots of nasty anecdotes contained therein, but none more depressing than the fact that the United Arab Emirates still imprisons debtors, a practice abandoned in the United States during the early 1830s.

We immediately wondered if the UAE had any company in continuing this practice. But search as we might, we couldn’t verify that any other nation still tosses its citizens in jail for the crime of falling behind on private debts. The most recent country to abolish the the incarceration of latter-day Tom Rakewells was the Republic of Cyprus, which did so in 2005 under pressure from international human-rights organizations.

And make no mistake, this is a human rights issue. It’s long been obvious that private individuals should not have the power to cause the imprisonment of their business associates, as this practice is too open to easy abuse—a sure road to the re-establishment of serfdom. Check out this cogent argument for the abolishment of debtor’s prisons from the U.S. Senate, circa 1828.

To be fair, though, old English debtor’s prisons did feature tennis. Though if we had to do time, we’d still prefer to serve our sentence in contemporary Norway; our tanning base could sure use some work, after all.


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Throwing debtors in prison never made a whole lot of sense to me. How are you ever going to recover any money from someone with no income? It’s not very economically efficient or socially optimal. There’s a reason we allow personal bankruptcy under certain circumstances.

  • pat

    hallo, sir: i’m sure you’ve already seen this, but in case you haven’t, the new yorker published an interesting article on debtors’ prisons and the origins of bankruptcy this past spring. (sorry for commenting on such an old post; i’m playing some catch up!) hope all’s well.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @pat: Thanks for the link. I somehow missed that Leopre bit, but I’ll check it out–always like her work (esp. the recent review re: American homicide)