Vices Are Not Crimes

Liberty is often categorized into types: economic freedom, political freedom, freedom of conscience, etc. One who seeks to promote freedom and liberty must consistently promote all types of liberty, so long as those freedoms do not infringe on the liberties of others. I consider moral freedom one of those liberties that must be protected.

For that we come to what is called vice. "Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property," says nineteenth century libertarian Lysander Spooner in his essay "Vices Are Not Crimes". Statists, conservatives and liberals, who use the state to promote their ends, will often support laws against vice. What vices have been prohibited have changed over time and change from one political arena to another. For example, drinking alcohol, considered a vice by many, including myself, was once prohibited in the United States in the early twentieth century, but not any longer. Smoking and chewing tobacco are not currently illegal, but smoking marijuana is. In some places in the U.S., smoking marijuana prescribed by a physician is legal. And in a few places in the U.S., prostitution is legal. The federalist nature of the United States has created this inconsistency. As his title states, it is Spooner's argument that vices are not crimes.

Since vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property, crimes, then, must be defined as "those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another." The biggest difference between crime and vice is "that there can be no crime without a criminal intent; that is, without the intent to invade the person or property of another." He goes on, "no one ever practices a vice with any such criminal intent. He practices his vice for his own happiness solely, and not from any malice towards others." And unless this clear distinction of vices and crimes be "made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property."

How so? After explaining that judging the difference between virtue and vice, that is those actions that lead men to either happiness or unhappiness, and their degrees is "the profoundest and most complex study to which the greatest human mind ever has been, or ever can be, directed," Spooner examines how each of us escapes the state of ignorance that we are born into by acquiring for ourselves knowledge. "To learn it, he must be at liberty to try all experiments that commend themselves to his judgment." Some succeed, and because so, are called virtues, and others fail, called vices. "He gathers wisdom as much from his failures as from his successes; from his so-called vices, as from his so-called virtues. Both are necessary to his acquisition of that knowledge - of his own nature, and of the world around him, and of their adaptations or non-adaptations to each other - which shall show him how happiness is acquired, and pain avoided. And, unless he can be permitted to try these experiments to his own satisfaction, he is retrained from the acquisition of knowledge, and, consequently, from pursuing the great purpose and duty of his life."

It is written in the Declaration of Independence that men are endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Though others can claim they know how to achieve happiness, only the right "to inquire, investigate, reason, try experiments, judge, and ascertain for himself, what is, to him, virtue, and what is, to him, vice" can guarantee to someone their right in pursuing happiness. "If this great right is not to be left free and open to all, then each man's whole right, as a reasoning human being... is denied him."

Spooner's essay goes on to examine what right men have to force their own determinations of happiness on others, the utter impossibility of enforcing laws against vice impartially without quickly throwing everyone into prison, the legitimate and proper roles of government including only those delegated to it by individuals who do not have the right to punish vice themselves, the "attempts of parents to make their children virtuous" and the resulting ignorance, weakness, and viciousness that such attempts, in practice, produce, and also that of vice in relation to poverty and the commission of crime. It is obvious that liberty cannot be attained while their remains public laws prohibiting the indulgence of vice.