Laurence M. Vance – October 18, 2018
Like many Americans, on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I stayed in Virginia because hotel rooms are cheaper in places such as Arlington than in Washington. After a day of sightseeing in the nation’s capital, I noticed while driving back into Virginia a large overhead sign at the Virginia state line reading, “Radar Detectors Illegal.” It turns out that radar detectors are illegal in Washington, D.C., as well, but I saw no sign to that effect.
Although radar detectors have been around for a long time, I have never owned one or even used one. These small electronic devices are supposed to detect whether your vehicle speed is being monitored by a law-enforcement officer and alert you with a light or a noise (or both) in time for you to slow down to the speed limit before you receive a speeding ticket. Radar detectors are not foolproof, but for many of those who do a lot of highway driving and want to avoid as much as possible getting speeding tickets (which cost a huge amount of money and can result in raised auto-insurance rates), they are seen as a good investment.
My question is simply this: Why are radar detectors illegal in Virginia? They are legal in every other state. If you are caught in the Commonwealth of Virginia with a working radar detector in your vehicle, you will be given a ticket even if you were not speeding. I’m not sure whether your radar detector will be confiscated, but I doubt that you could get it back if a police officer took it. In California and Minnesota, radar detectors cannot be mounted on the inside of the windshield (neither can anything else), but they are perfectly legal anywhere else in the vehicle. In Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, they cannot be used in commercial vehicles, but they are perfectly legal in private vehicles.
Again: Why are radar detectors illegal in Virginia? Some might argue that radar detectors encourage speeding. Without radar detectors, so it is said, drivers are much more likely to obey the speed limit because of their fear of getting a ticket. So, do drivers in the other forty-nine states (where radar detectors are legal) receive more tickets for speeding or cause more accidents because of speeding than drivers in Virginia (where radar detectors are illegal)? Perhaps they do or perhaps they don’t.
Again: Why are radar detectors illegal in Virginia? Others might argue that radar detectors distract drivers. Without radar detectors, so it is said, drivers are much more likely to keep their eyes on the road instead of looking at their radar detector to see whether they are being monitored by a state policeman. So, do drivers in the other forty-nine states (where radar detectors are legal) receive more tickets for distracted driving or cause more accidents because they are distracted than drivers in Virginia (where radar detectors are illegal)? Perhaps they do or perhaps they don’t.
If it can be shown that drivers in every state outside of Virginia do not receive more tickets for speeding or distracted driving and do not cause more accidents because of speeding or being distracted than drivers in Virginia, then the arguments for making radar detectors illegal are bogus. But rather than checking the number and type of traffic tickets issued in each state, comparing that information with each state’s population, and arriving at some sort of conclusion, we can use the issue of the legality of radar detectors to ask an even more important question.
What should be illegal?
A radar detector is an inanimate object. It can’t harm anyone by itself. If a radar detector has ever been used to bludgeon someone to death in Virginia (or anywhere else), I am not aware of it. But even if one has been so used, that would still not be a legitimate reason for the government of Virginia to ban radar detectors. After all, guns, knives, hammers, and blunt objects are legal in Virginia. And not only that, Virginia allows individual persons to openly carry firearms (with some exceptions, of course) and carry concealed handguns with a permit.
Clearly, it is only what people do with inanimate objects that should be cause for concern. The mere possession of a gun, a knife, a hammer, a blunt object, or a radar detector should never be considered a crime. If someone uses a gun, a knife, a hammer, a blunt object, or a radar detector to harm someone else, then he should be held responsible for the negative consequences of his actions — even if he intended no harm.
For example, if someone uses a radar detector to ensure that he isn’t being monitored by police while he drives at 100 miles per hour, and consequently loses control of his vehicle and crashes into another vehicle, then he should be held responsible for the accident to the same extent as if he had no radar detector.
Likewise, if someone keeps looking [at] his radar detector and adjusting it, and consequently takes his eyes off the road and crashes into another vehicle, then he should be held responsible for the accident to the same extent as if he had no radar detector.
In both cases, just having a radar detector in your car should never be a crime. An action that results in harm to others is the only thing that should be a crime. This principle of “no harm, no foul” can be applied to many other “illegal” actions.
Should braiding hair without a license be a crime? Not if doing so results in no harm to others.
Should selling one of your kidneys be a crime? Not if doing so results in no harm to others.
Should having a garage sale without a permit be a crime? Not if doing so results in no harm to others.
Should driving without wearing a seatbelt be a crime? Not if doing so results in no harm to others.
Should selling tickets for more than face value be a crime? Not if doing so results in no harm to others.
Should charging a high rate of interest be a crime? Not if doing so results in no harm to others.
Should riding a motorcycle without wearing a helmet be a crime? Not if doing so results in no harm to others.
This principle “no harm, no foul” is especially important when it comes to vices. As the 19th-century classical-liberal political philosopher Lysander Spooner so famously 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.
Should smoking marijuana be a crime? Not if doing so results in no harm to others.
Should gambling be a crime? Not if doing so results in no harm to others.
Should exchanging sex for money be a crime? Not if doing so results in no harm to others.
Should making a pornographic movie be a crime? Not if doing so results in no harm to others.
Should snorting cocaine be a crime? Not if doing so results in no harm to others.
What should be illegal? Only actions that cause harm to others without their consent. Every crime needs a victim. Not a potential victim or a possible victim, but an actual victim who has suffered measurable harm.
This article was originally published at FFF.org. Laurence M. Vance is a columnist and policy advisor for the Future of Freedom Foundation, an associated scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and a columnist, blogger, and book reviewer at LewRockwell.com. He is the author of Gun Control and the Second Amendment, The War on Drugs Is a War on Freedom, and War, Empire and the Military: Essays on the Follies of War and U.S. Foreign Policy. His newest books are Free Trade or Protectionism? and The Free Society. Visit his website: www.vancepublications.com.