Spooner Explains Why Vices Are Not Crimes

Brian Balfour – May 15, 2018

Recent actions and statements indicate that the Trump administration is serious about ramping up the federal government’s war on drugs.

Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new directive granting US regional attorneys greater authority to crack down on marijuana growers and dealers — even in states with laws making such practices legal. Session’s memo reversed the Obama-era’s much more hands-off approach.

More recently, Trump himself declared his desire to implement the death penalty for drug traffickers, saying “These are terrible people, and we have to get tough on those people … and that toughness includes the death penalty.”

The ostensible reason drug warriors use to justify the government’s criminalization of certain drugs is the often-harmful impacts these drugs can have on the users. But what justification is there for the state to outlaw certain behaviors that don’t harm others, but only oneself?

As 19th century natural-rights theorist Lysander Spooner spells out in his essay “Vices are Not Crimes,” self-harming activities should not come under purview of any government law.

“Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property,” begins Spooner. Contrast that with his description of crimes as “those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.”

The distinction is clear. “In vices, the very essence of crime — that is, the design to injure the person or property of another — is wanting,” Spooner explained.

If the proper aim of government is restricted to merely “secure these rights” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, clearly the criminalization of vice is a gross overstep of state action. Indeed, attempts to enforce laws against vice amount to a negation of liberty.

“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,” Spooner declared.

In a free society, as long as they are not initiating harm on others, people are allowed to determine for themselves what of their actions are virtuous or vicious. Each individual — using his or her subjective evaluation — evaluates what is in concert with his happiness and emotional well-being (virtuous), or leads to his unhappiness (vice).

This process requires the freedom for each individual to inquire and experiment in order to learn for himself what constitutes vice or virtue to him. And not only will the determination between vice and virtue be unique to each person, any given individual’s evaluation will change according to time and circumstance.

For instance, a young man may decide a certain act brings happiness, but that act turns to emotionally harmful vice for that same man at an older age. Moreover, the difference between vice and virtue for a certain course of action can be determined by matter of degree. A little of something may bring happiness, but too much brings suffering. That matter of degree will be different for everybody, and often only revealed by trial and error.

The discovery process each individual must go through to learn what actions are vice and which are virtuous is described by Spooner as “the profoundest and most complex study to which the greatest human mind ever has been, or ever can be, directed.”

No third party can make these evaluations for others, because, as Spooner points out, “no one else knows or feels, or can know or feel, as he knows and feels, the desires and necessities, the hopes, and fears, and impulses of his own nature, or the pressure of his own circumstances.”

Each of us must learn for ourselves the question of virtue or vice. When a third party like the state, however, steps in to punish peaceful, voluntary actions because they determine it to be a vice, one of our most precious and personal experiences as a human is taken away. When we are not left free to determine vice from virtue, Spooner notes, “each person is deprived of the highest of all his rights as a human being, to wit: his right to inquire, investigate, reason, try, experiment, judge and ascertain for himself, what is, to him, virtue and what is, to him, vice.”

Spooner strongly rejects the right of some men to impose their determination of vice onto others, using coercion to force obedience to the ruling class’ preferences. Those that support such coercion are “shameless imposters and tyrants, who would stop the progress of knowledge” among individuals, and “usurp absolute control over the minds and bodies of their fellow men.”

The drug war is often characterized as an arm of the nanny state — government’s attempt to protect citizens from harming themselves. But the state has no businesses attempting to criminalize vices — actions that involve no aggression or harm towards others. In so doing, the nanny state denies its citizens their natural right to peacefully pursue their own happiness according to their unique evaluation of emotional well-being.

This article was originally published at Mises.org. Brian Balfour is Executive Vice President for the Civitas Institute, a free market advocacy organization in Raleigh, North Carolina.

 

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