Orange is the New Black[/caption]

Warning: The following post contains Orange is The New Black spoilers.

If you are a fan of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, you already know that far too much of Season 3 was spent telling the tale of Piper’s Prison Panties. As a fan of the show, I was a bit sad that the screen time invested in this plotline was not spent on some of the more interesting ones. But as a libertarian, I must say that the way this story concluded in Season 4 provides a great parable for how regulation hurts people in the real world.

Let’s start with a quick recap of what happened in Season 3: The fictional intimate apparel company Whispers made a deal with Litchfield Prison that allowed them to use inmates as cheap labor. As one of the inmates selected to sew the sexy underwear together, Piper figured out that by cutting the fabric differently, she could actually make more panties than what Whispers asked of her. This inspires a new business venture: wearing the surplus underwear for a few days and then selling them to people who are into that sort of thing. By the end of Season 3, Piper has established an entire supply chain: numerous inmates wear the underwear, a naive prison guard sneaks them out, and Piper’s brother sells them on the outside.

At the start of Season 4, Piper has gotten cocky. After mercilessly disciplining some of her rogue employees, she loves her new position of power within Litchfield. But as in the real world, money-making ideas breed imitators. Just like Apple inspired Microsoft, and Coke inspired Pepsi, Piper’s Prison Panties inspired a copycat business as well. This new business, lead by Maria, draws many of of the Latina inmates into the illegal panty trade, and Piper is not happy about it.

In the real world, there are constantly new startup businesses challenging more established ones. This is a good thing, as it can inspire all businesses to be more innovative, gives the consumers more options, and give employees more freedom to leave unfair employers. Of course we’ll never know if that’s what would have happened to the used panty industry of Litchfield Prison because like other established business people before her, Piper decided restrictive rules were preferable to a free market.

In the context of Orange is the New Black, those restrictive rules come from Piscatelli, an exceptionally hardass guard introduced in Season 4. Piper goes to him and says she fears gang activity and is worried about the safety of the prison. This is part of what makes this plotline so analogous with the real world. Of course businesses can’t go to the government and say “we don’t like that new businesses are threatening our profits. Make a law against their existence.” No, instead they convince the government that things like occupational licensing are needed to “protect the consumer.” Likewise, Piper convinces Piscatelli to let her form a task force to promote prison safety (i.e. Piper accidentally starts a white supremacist group). This group, which calls themselves “the Community Carers” enforces rules such as “no congregating in groups of four or more.”

Orange-Is-The-New-Black-Season-4-NetflixNow of course this rule is stupid as hell. There have been numerous scenes over the course of four seasons that involved groups of four or more, and most of them were entirely innocent.  What’s especially ironic is that the task force charged with enforcing this rule is a group of more than four people. It’s the same double standard of the actual government. The government enforces rules it’s allowed to break in order to enforce the rules.

So eventually Maria gets caught. Rather than punishing Maria with a couple weeks in solitary, as less strict guards might have, Piscatelli recommends extending Maria’s sentence by 3 to 5 years. Even Piper feels this punishment is too harsh. After Maria gets busted, she decides to use the already-established supply chain to sell drugs. After all, if she’s going to be harshly punished anyway, why not go for the most profitable option? What does she have to lose? The lesson to be learned here is that when we criminalize relatively safe behavior, people have more incentives to engage in dangerous behavior. When the risks are the same, why not go for more rewards?

Another point OINTB makes is that regulation doesn’t just hurt the people who are the target of that regulation. After the illegal panty trade is exposed, ALL inmates who worked at Whispers were let go in favor of more “trustworthy” inmates. Given that Whispers was by far the highest paying job available, this left a lot of innocent (well, by prison standards) women paying the price for Piper getting the authorities involved. In real life, protectionist regulation doesn’t just hurt the businesses that challenge more established competitors. It can hurt the consumers who have to pay higher prices. It can hurt the employees of established enterprises when their bosses mismanage the business and they have no other places to work. Ultimately, Piper ended up worse off because she didn’t just leave things to the free market. Karma doesn’t always work quite as quickly in real life, but the story told in Orange is the New Black can still remind us of the dangers of the regulatory state.

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