In society today, we are faced with a question of where government gets its power, and what behaviors it can regulate with that power. Lysander Spooner in his work, “Vices are not Crimes” goes into depth describing the legal and philosophical reasoning for a limited and voluntary government that has only the rights that individuals possess, and have deemed necessary for the government to have.
Before the discussion of government and its regulating power begins, some definitions, and assumptions must be listed and explained. In Vices are not crimes, Lysander Spooner uses the following as definitions for crimes and vices,
“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, and 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. In vices, the very essence of crime — that is, the design to injure the person or property of another — is wanting. It is a maxim of the law that there can be no crime without a criminal intent; that is, without the intent to invade the person or property of another. But 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 toward others.”
This differentiation is so important because it is necessary in protecting the individuals’ right to liberty and his pursuit of happiness. This is because vices are those behaviors which a majority of people deem undesirable, but which allow individuals to increase their happiness, or avoid pain. From the time of our birth, we are ignorant of what causes happiness, and what avoids pain, and by our very natures we desire to seek happiness and avoid pain. Unfortunately, in this endeavor we have a limited amount we can learn from others because we are all unique in our situation, physiology, and psychology, and therefore each unique in the degree in which each behavior causes happiness or pain. If I am denied the liberty to experiment in the socially deemed vices, and thus find out for myself what provides me happiness and pain, then I am forever held in ignorance by the majority, and thus vulnerable to their tyranny. This is just like how the Catholic Church used to read the passages of the bible in latin, and only latin, while nobody they spoke to could understand it. The church had the authority to make moral statements and carry out punishments against those who disobeyed them, but denied the individuals the ability to understand the logic behind the moral rules. This situation only leads to corruption by those who claim superiority in morality at the expense of those entrapped in ignorance.
Any action upon degree can be a vice or a crime. If I make a median salary of 30+ thousand dollars, and gamble 50 dollars it can be considered a vice, but if I gamble 20 thousand dollars and I am unable to feed my children, then it is a crime, but if a millionaire gambles that 20 thousand dollars we must label his activity a vice. This fact proves that vices cannot be outlawed due to the uniqueness of the situation for every person. This is why people have to be able to experiment for themselves in order to figure out the point at which their vices start to have negative consequences on others. Throughout the history of man, a near infinite variety of behaviors have been engaged in and the consequences have been discovered, but with all this experimentation moral philosophers have yet to draft a unified theory of morality,
“Yet it is in the politician’s mind that in the midst of endless variety of opinion, that he has the right to say, in regard to any particular action, or course of action, “We have tried this experiment, and determined every question involved in it. We have determined it, not only for ourselves, but for all others. And, as to all those who are weaker than we, we will coerce them to act in obedience to our conclusion. We will suffer no further experiment or inquiry by any one, and, consequently, no further acquisition of knowledge by anybody.”
Another argument used by society to prevent the engaging in of vices is making the sale of such materials required to engage in said vice illegal. The problem with this logic is that the very nature of a sale is moral. The sale has been voluntarily entered into by 2 consenting individuals, and thus has no immorality attached to it. What can be said is that the purpose of the objects being sold has some weight on the morality of the sale. If the object of a sale, such as alcohol, is used as a vice, then the merchant can at the most be considered an accomplice to a vice. In our legal system, and in our reason, we understand that an accomplice to an act cannot have any more responsibility for the buyer’s acts than the buyer himself, unless the merchant engaged in fraud or knowingly sold an object to a mentally deficient individual.
The question will doubtless come up that such vices as drinking and driving when posing a danger to other men are performed then the behavior is legitimately prevented. I respond to this, “ where does this principle stop?” There is reasonable evidence that when a women is pregnant she is more likely to have injuries from complications of that pregnancy or through the natural course of that pregnancy, is it legitimate to prevent the voluntary act of conception? In addition it is quite likely that specific parenting techniques, genetic defects, or the simple birth of the child into a bad environment will lead to crime. This is the argument that was used by the eugenicist, who claimed that only certain individuals should have the right to conceive children because of the potential harm to society that inferior individuals would have, but as a society we have flat out refused to accept it.
Now that the rationale behind the permitting of vices has been discussed, we must move onto the discussion of government. Lysander Spooner has a philosophy characteristic of a classical liberal, or an anarchist, and shows it in his stance towards government as highlighted in this quote, “It is a natural impossibility that a government should have a right to punish men for their vices; because it is impossible that a government should have any rights except such as the individuals composing it had previously had as individuals. They could not delegate to a government any rights they did not themselves possess. They could not contribute to the government any rights, except such as they themselves possessed as individuals.” In order to bring a better understanding of the argument an example of a real life situation is needed. If I said that it is unacceptable for everybody to engage practicing religion, watching TV, playing video games, reading fiction, rock collecting, and drinking, and claimed I had the right to kidnap those who engaged in such behavior, and then further enslave a dozen individuals to preside over his trial as a jury, and after a guilty verdict is found, I hold him hostage in my barn for a decade, and claim the right to hold a gun up to everybody’s head demanding their wallets in order to pay for is captivity, and all under a contract which nobody which lives under it has signed, I would be laughed at, but when a majority claiming itself to be government does this we applaud it as if we are being protected from some great evil.
It is the contention of this writing that Lysander Spooner’s work, “Vices are not crimes” provides a very accurate and powerful explanation of the difference between vices and crimes, namely whether or not there is a victim of the crime other than the perpetrator. It also tries to discuss the extent of the power government has over our lives, put more precisely, government should only be a voluntary association of individuals with rights no greater than the individuals who comprise that association