People sometimes accuse libertarians of being immoral or amoral because we do not define vices as crimes. At its most harmless, the accusation is groundless and based on ignorance. At worst, however, it is an act of deliberate deception — the first step in a chain of thinking that leads to the proliferation of genuine crimes that cause great harm to innocent people on a massive scale.
Furthermore, the contrived category of vice crime undermines the integrity of police, judges, juries, prison employees, and anyone else who is led astray by the wicked example of victimizing people who are guilty of nothing more than violating the sensibilities of others.
And most fundamentally, this confusion of vice with crime undermines the very concept of morality itself. Although some excitable people are under the mistaken impression that legalized vice is the first step on a slippery slope leading to chaos and perdition, they should remember that until the demise of the Soviet Union anyone in that country caught engaging in “profiteering” was labeled a criminal and sentenced to jail. In a grotesque parody of American vice-haters, members of the Soviet Communist Party worried about the slippery slope from communism to capitalism, and they fought each step toward freedom with the full power of the state — citing the existence of their own foolish laws as proof of their virtue. Rather than confuse vice with genuine crime, the vice-haters should remember the words of Dickens: “If the law supposes that … the law is a ass, a idiot.”
Vice vs. crime
First let’s clear the air about the meaning of the terms “crime” and “vice.” The libertarian lawyer Lysander Spooner (1808–1887) succinctly defined both:
Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another…. Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property.
With this understanding, the prevention of crime is a justifiable concern for all of us. Nobody wants to be victimized at the hands of another person against his will. Note that there is a clear demarcation between criminal and victim, and the victim may justly seek restitution from the wrongdoer.
The prevention of vice, however, is quite a different matter. Who is the criminal and who is the victim? Since they are one and the same person, the intervention of legal authorities is completely unwarranted.
We libertarians can be forgiven for suspecting that legal sanctions against vice are not the concern of normal, healthy human beings. They are the concern of busybodies. And busybodies, for the record, are people who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what other people do in private. They hatch plans to catch their victims, engage in voyeurism as they peep into windows, and then break into homes and businesses to arrest their prey with the help of professional “busybody enablers” called vice cops.
In some cities, vice cops avoid potentially hazardous duty by engaging in all kinds of creepy behavior. When they aren’t sniffing under the sheets of sex workers, they spend endless hours at great taxpayer expense sitting in dark, sultry rooms watching dancers gyrate in strip clubs — all to ensure that nipples are covered with the requisite swatches of material. And of course, these tireless officers must measure the swatches by hand at great risk to their own virtue.
Meanwhile, real criminals are busy raping, robbing, and murdering innocent people, creating real victims in the process.
The foundations of morality
That libertarians are accused of immorality because of their stand on vice laws is a mystery. Anyone who skims the vast libertarian literature is bound to run across the strong moral foundation of libertarianism.
As Murray Rothbard explained in his book For a New Liberty, the libertarian creed rests on a central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. Rothbard called this the “nonaggression axiom,” and he defined “aggression” as the initiation of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. This concept is the key to understanding libertarian positions on most issues, including vice laws.
The nonaggression axiom is found in most of the world’s codifications of moral behavior, including the Ten Commandments. In fact, the nonaggression axiom is an element of most of the world’s major religions.
To help understand the fundamental nature of the nonaggression axiom, it is necessary to understand the pivotal role played by free choice in all moral systems. In fact, without the existence of free choice (free will), morality itself is impossible. Why? Because without it, people simply cannot be held responsible for their actions. Similarly, they cannot possess virtue if they are not free to make immoral choices. As in running a foot race, a runner cannot win if he also does not have a chance to lose.
With that understanding, we can see why vice laws render morality itself impossible. Just as slaves cannot be held responsible for actions forced upon them by their master, we cannot claim to be virtuous if we do not have the choice to engage in vice.
For those who confuse themselves with the notion that a repeal of vice laws is the same as repealing laws against murder, I must repeat that vices are not the same as crimes. Crimes require aggression against victims who are acted upon against their wills. But in the case of vices, no action takes place without consent; therefore, they are not crimes. So when officers enforce vice laws, it is they who are guilty of prohibiting the exercise of free choice and of violating the nonaggression axiom.
Consequently, it is they who are guilty of committing crimes, and their supporters are accomplices.
It is vital to understand that when we violate the nonaggression axiom, we violate the very moral foundation on which rules of morality depend for their existence. We simply cannot chop away the root of a tree while claiming to be preserving the tree’s ability to bear fruit on its branches. It is an impossible contradiction, and a person of integrity simply cannot ignore it with a clear conscience.
With this in mind, we can see that it is not libertarians who are immoral. Instead, it is the vice-haters who are responsible for the widespread atrophy of the moral sense in our society and its replacement by the cheap substitute of slave-like conformity and the decay of free choice.
Now that we understand the central importance of free choice and the nonaggression axiom, let’s confront the day-to-day behavior of those who falsely accuse libertarians of immorality because of their stand against vice crimes. As we shall see, these “moralizers” fall far short of their own professed standards. They have transformed what normally would be simple human failings affecting a limited number of people into a toxic environment that is universal in its impact and far more severe than anything that vice laws were designed to prevent.
Like moral alchemists from hell, the pseudo-moralists have transmuted self-destructive behaviors into crimes with real victims. For example, by refusing to allow drug addicts to harm themselves, the moralizers have become “crime socialists” in two ways. First, the “crime socialists” deprive nonusers of the positive consequences — the rewards — of not misusing drugs. How? By forcing them to pay taxes in order to police, try, incarcerate, and “treat” those who misuse drugs. The most avid socialist could not envision a more complete method for redistributing the consequences of human behavior — confiscating the positive results of sobriety from the virtuous and redistributing them to the self-destructive.
Second, the “crime socialists” spread the negative consequences of drug misuse from users to nonusers by exposing non-users to the crime wave spawned by artificially high drug prices — a natural consequence of driving the drug trade out of the hands of honest chemists and into the hands of criminals.
For those who doubt that innocent people become the prey of criminals as a result of the war on drugs, my deceased grandmother, Urszula Ludkiewicz, provides a typical example. In 1970, two heroin addicts broke into her home in Hamtramck, Michigan, and nearly beat her to death, hoping they could force her to reveal the location of “hidden money” they suspected she had placed, as so many immigrants do, in a secret stash in her home. When the junkies fled and 70-year-old Urszula regained consciousness, she crawled to a neighbor’s home and spent weeks in a hospital.
As a result of this incident, my grandmother suffered a stroke that permanently paralyzed the right side of her body and forced her to spend the remaining five years of her life in a nursing home. It took months before the bruise — which covered her entire body and was the color of a prune — began to fade.
The wicked men who attacked her were the inevitable byproduct of the war on drugs. The price of heroin had skyrocketed as a result of the illegality of drugs, making her attackers desperate. As a result, my grandmother, who never smoked a cigarette, carried the injuries of this government-manufactured crime with her until she died.
Wouldn’t it have been better — wouldn’t it have been more just — if Urszula’s attackers had been allowed to abuse themselves and perhaps overdose and die without laying a hand on Urszula and others just like her? Was it just and moral for Urszula to pay the price for their drug use? Just as America’s experiment with Prohibition in the 1920s led to a vast increase in crimes of violence and the creation of large criminal organizations (while the subsequent repeal of Prohibition led to a steep drop in crime), today’s war on drugs has spawned the culture of violence that shattered my grandmother’s life.
Behind the scenes, profiting from all of this chaos and pain are employees of federal agencies such as the FBI, DEA, and ATF; local police agencies; lawyers; judges; and prison keepers — all of them fastening themselves onto this social chaos and feeding off of it like leeches that refuse to drop off when they finish gorging.
By profiting from the personal tragedies of others, they are guilty of far worse than the comparatively innocent vices of the “criminals” they pursue. So when I hear pompous politicians, DARE cops, and other drug-war profiteers speaking about the blessings of their policies, I remember my grandmother’s broken body and wish that the callous and vicious pseudo-moralizers could be held jointly responsible for her victimization.
First, do no harm
Armed with the nonaggression axiom, libertarians have devoted themselves assiduously to the cause of morality and its basis in free choice. It is time to call a halt to the bad habit of making an imperfect situation even worse by enforcing laws against vice. Instead, the pseudo-moralizers, the vice-profiteers in law enforcement, and the misguided physicians who support legislation to protect us from our vices should all try to remember what physicians are supposed to bear in mind when attempting to fix a problem: First, do no harm. For all of us, the supposed cure is far worse than the imaginary disease of vice.