Every crime needs a victim

Laurence Vance

July 28, 2017 (article originally published May 20, 2010)


Just as every husband needs a wife, every child needs a parent, and every teacher needs a pupil, so every crime needs a victim. Not a potential victim or possible victim or a supposed victim, but an actual victim. . . .

The volume and scope of federal laws are especially distressing because very few of them are authorized by the Constitution. . . . The most senseless category of what governments — federal, state, or local — have labeled crimes is victimless crimes. . . . New Hampshire even requires a bicycle helmet for riders under sixteen even though no one who rides an obviously more dangerous motorcycle is required to wear one. . . .

The problem with the moral crusades of the nanny state against gambling, prostitution, and drug use is that they fail to distinguish between vices and crimes. As the 19th-century classical-liberal political philosopher Lysander Spooner explained it: 

Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another. Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property. 

Unless this clear distinction between vices and crimes be made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property — no such things as the right of one man to the control of his own person and property, and the corresponding and coequal rights of another man to the control of his own person and property. 

To be a crime, adds Spooner, there must exist criminal intent to invade the person or property of another. But vices are not engaged in with criminal intent. A man practices a vice “for his own happiness solely, and not from any malice toward others.” This reminds me of H. L. Mencken’s famous definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

. . . No one should be deceived into thinking that the state is really concerned about the immorality of gambling. It is only illegal gambling — gambling in which the government does not get a cut of the action — that the government is concerned about. State lotteries, which have odds worse than any casino, are marketed to the poor with tax dollars.

. . . Not only has the unconstitutional drug war had virtually no impact on the use or availability of most drugs in the United States, it has destroyed civil liberties and financial privacy. The costs of drug prohibition far outweigh any possible benefits.

. . . the purpose of government is supposed to be to protect life, liberty, and property from violence or fraud. It is simply not the business of government to prohibit the advertising, sale, and use of what it deems to be harmful substances. Likewise, the government should not be concerned with keeping people from vice or bad habits and regulating or prohibiting activities that take place between consenting adults. A government with the power to outlaw harmful substances and immoral practices is a government with the power to ban any substance and any practice. A nanny state is a perversion of government. 

. . . all governments — the U.S. government included — eventually degenerate into the greatest violators of the life, liberty, and property they are supposed to protect. As former Foundation for Economic Education president Richard Ebeling has said: 

There has been no greater threat to life, liberty, and property throughout the ages than government. Even the most violent and brutal private individuals have been able to inflict only a mere fraction of the harm and destruction that have been caused by the use of power by political authorities. 

. . . Victimless crime legislation requires a nanny state to enforce it. A nanny state must of necessity be a police state and therefore hostile to liberty. Real crimes that violate personal or property rights should be enforced to the fullest extent of the law; victimless crimes should be opposed root and branch.

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Lee Friday

Great article by Laurence Vance. I want to comment on his final sentence:

Real crimes that violate personal or property rights should be enforced to the fullest extent of the law; victimless crimes should be opposed root and branch.

I agree with Vance. Victimless crimes should be opposed, but they are NOT. And real crimes should be enforced to the fullest extent of the law, but they are NOT. I have written a thirteen-part series of essays about this, which you can find here. Read these essays and think about the government’s incentives and priorities as it decides how to deploy its law enforcement resources.


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