Vices Are Not Crimes

Humans cannot legislate morality, because the desire to be good must come from within one’s own soul. Everyone must have the liberty to be potentially foolish, for without that, there can be no incentives for them to learn and to grow. Whether it’s with blue laws or gambling prohibitions, men in fine suits calling themselves a “legislature” can only alter human behavior by threatening those they govern with fines and caging for disobeying their commands, even if there was no victim who had lost out because of that disobedience.



Much of the reason I try to refrain from mentioning anything about so-called “social issues” (as much as possible), is because I don’t think it is appropriate to discuss any of those subjects in a public manner. What a man does in the privacy of his own home, or among his friends and family, is no concern of mine, as I am a complete stranger to him and his chosen lifestyle. The choices that he makes and the company that he keeps does not affect my life, unless of course he is an acquaintance of mine, and even then only to the extent that his actions personally affect me; otherwise, any say I have concerning the morality or wisdom of his actions is naturally rendered null and void.

Having said that, a man’s actions do affect me if he publicly advocates for government to intervene in my life somehow. Although indirect, his advocacy increases the probability that the government will grant itself the authority (such as through the aforesaid “legislation”) to infringe upon my liberties. If he and I are to live in real freedom, then he must be willing to tolerate my choices, as I must necessarily tolerate his as well.

What I despise about “social conservatism” is the fact they those advocates constantly demand the government to enforce their subjective preferences upon everyone else at the point of the sword. Whether it be Islamophobia, Jim Crow, or the Defense of Marriage Act, American fascists are nearly always more than happy to scapegoat entire collective demographics based only upon the actions of a very few. Similarly, what I equally despise about “social liberalism” is the fact that those advocates constantly demand the government to enforce their subjective preferences upon everyone else at the point of the sword. Much like their counterparts, whether it be affirmative action, truancy, or hate speech, American communists are nearly always more than happy to scapegoat entire collective demographics based only upon the actions of a very few. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

Vice and virtue are defined by the author respectively as:


“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…[v]ices are usually pleasurable, at least for the time being, and often do not disclose themselves as vices, by their effects, until after they have been practised for many years; perhaps for a lifetime. To many, perhaps most, of those who practise them, they do not disclose themselves as vices at all during life. Virtues, on the other hand, often appear so harsh and rugged, they require the sacrifice of so much present happiness, at least, and the results, which alone prove them to be virtues, are often so distant and obscure, in fact, so absolutely invisible to the minds of many, especially of the young, that, from the very nature of things, there can be no universal, or even general, knowledge that they are virtues. In truth, the studies of profound philosophers have been expended – if not wholly in vain, certainly with very small results – in efforts to draw the lines between the virtues and the vices.”


Put another way, it could be said that virtue is deferred gratification whereas vice is instant gratification. At the moment, it would seem that your vices can satisfy your desires, but by saying “no” to yourself, you are in effect holding out for something else, which ironically could satisfy you better than your vices ever could. It is the difference between lust and love, amusement and happiness, or safety and peace. By patiently resisting your impulses, you avoid compromising yourself, whether ethically or practically; however, it is imperative that the result of each temptation be uniquely your own choice, otherwise, where is challenge in living the human experience?

Spooner was very concerned about how nosy busybodies could rationalize their annoying diatribes in their attempt to sway the government to do their bidding:


“A man is under no obligation to take anybody’s word, or yield to anybody authority, on a matter so vital to himself, and in regard to which no one else has, or can have, any such interest as he. He cannot, if he would, safely rely upon the opinions of other men, because be finds that the opinions of other men do not agree. Certain actions, or courses of action, have been practised by many millions of men, through successive generations, and have been held by them to be, on the whole, conducive to happiness, and therefore virtuous.”


Because there is a variety of morally correct ways to live, pigeon-holing someone to only live this way or that way necessarily violates his own self-determination. Just as everyone is an individual, there are just as many ways of living one’s life with integrity. Spooner goes on to challenge the monopoly on morality:


“In the midst of this endless variety of opinion, what man, or what body of men, 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?’ Who are the men who have the right to say this? Certainly there none such. The men who really do say it, are either shameless impostors and tyrants, who would stop the progress of knowledge, and usurp absolute control over the minds and bodies of their fellow men; and are therefore to be resisted instantly, and to the last extent; or they are themselves too ignorant of their own weaknesses, and of their true relations to other men, to be entitled to any other consideration than sheer pity or contempt.”


In many ways, it could be said that Spooner is contesting the viability of religion itself, but I don’t think such is the case here, necessarily. If anything, Spooner appears to condemn those social engineers who pass themselves off as lecturers, intellectuals, and political pundits, because they, more than anyone, possess both the motive and the means to proclaim what they believe “society” should and should not do, as if they were the puppet masters. What such arrogant men commonly forget is that what they are really concerned about, if they were being truthful, is themselves:


“If those persons, who fancy themselves gifted with both the power and the right to define and punish other men’s vices, would but turn their thoughts inwardly, they would probably find that they have a great work to do at home; and that, when that shall have been completed, they will be little disposed to do more towards correcting the vices of others, than simply to give to others the results of their experience and observation. In this sphere their labors may possibly be useful; but, in the sphere of infallibility and coercion, they will probably, for well-known reasons, meet with even less success in the future than such men have met with in the past.”


Correct yourselves in your own households before you venture out into the world to do the same to others, I think, is the lesson to be learned here. As simple and straightforward as that sounds, almost nobody wants to do it because not only is it significantly harder, but also because it is far less glamorous than publicly debating each other over nothing at all. Had more people fixed their own lives before investing so much time and effort on “society” and its problems, then all of us would be much freer by now.

Speaking of collectives, the punishment of vice by government is little else than coercion sanctioned by the (a)moral majority. Spooner explains that:


“The object aimed at in the punishment of crimes is to secure, to each and every man alike, the fullest liberty he possibly can have – consistently with the equal rights of others – to pursue his own happiness, under the guidance of his own judgment, and by the use of his own property. On the other hand, the object aimed at in the punishment of vices, is to deprive every man of his natural right and liberty to pursue his own happiness, under the guidance of his own judgment, and by the use of his own property.”


Again, self-determination is the key here, and by denying the practice of it in everyday life, the government is creating a social climate whereby the victim mentality enjoys a fertile breeding ground. Like Thomas Jefferson said, the only limits drawn around our otherwise unobstructed action are the equal rights of others; for in order that we may become fully human, every man must be free to form, test, and act upon his own choices, as Murray Rothbard said. Spooner reminds everyone that:


“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 practises a vice with any such criminal intent. He practises his vice for his own happiness solely, and not from any malice toward others.”


This is rather significant, for it means that absent mens rea, there is no crime. What this implies is, that should the accused individual in question not genuinely consider what he did to be a crime, then it is no crime (unless the judges adjudicating his case do so on the standard of strict liability). Most revealing was when Spooner admitted:


“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 which they did not themselves possess. They could not contribute to the government any rights, except such as they themselves possessed as individuals. Now, nobody but a fool or an impostor pretends that he, as an individual, has a right to punish other men for their vices. But anybody and everybody have a natural right, as individuals, to punish other men for their crimes; for everybody has a natural right, not only to defend his own person and property against aggressors, but also to go to the assistance and defence of everybody else, whose person or property is invaded. The natural right of each individual to defend his own person and property against an aggressor, and to go to the assistance and defence of every one else whose person or property is invaded, is a right without which men could not exist on the earth. And government has no rightful existence, except in so far as it embodies, and is limited by, this natural right of individuals. But the idea that each man has a natural right to decide what are virtues, and what are vices – that is, what contributes to that neighbors happiness, and what do not – and to punish him for all that do not contribute to it; is what no one ever had the impudence or folly to assert. It is only those who claim that government has some rightful power, which no individual or individuals ever did, or could, delegate to it, that claim that government has any rightful power to punish vices.”


Not only does Spooner reaffirm John Locke’s perspective on self-defense and “law enforcement,” but also the very important idea that government does not enjoy any rights which individuals themselves do not enjoy. The implications of this are quite staggering and certainly worthy of going into depth on their own merit at another time, but sufficient it to say for now that if this idea were sincerely followed to the letter, then it would have been impossible for Leviathan to have grown as it unfortunately has beyond the chains of the Constitution.

Tyrants aren’t just limited to the political sphere of human life, for they can also be just as easily be found right at home. Spooner observes that:


“The attempts of parents to make their children virtuous are generally little else than attempts to keep them in ignorance of vice. They are little else than attempts to teach their children to know and prefer truth, by keeping them in ignorance of falsehood. They are little else than attempts to make them seek and appreciate health, by keeping them in ignorance of disease, and of everything that will cause disease. They are little else than attempts to make their children love the light, by keeping them in ignorance of darkness. In short, they are little else than attempts to make their children happy, by keeping them in ignorance of everything that causes them unhappiness…[t]he results of such coercion are not to make the children wise or virtuous, but to make them ignorant, and consequently weak and vicious; and to perpetuate through them, from age to age, the ignorance, the superstitions, the vices, and the crimes of the parents. This is proved by every page of the world’s history.”


It seems to me that Spooner is saying that parents who coerce their children are just as bad as when the government does the same to adults. Although I’m certainly not stating here that I think that “peaceful parenting” is the correct solution here, what I do think is necessary is that a child’s self-determination, just like their adult counterparts, must be held as sacrosanct, even if those busybodies don’t like it. Similarly, Spooner had some choice comments to say regarding errant spouses:


“If a government can step in and say to a man – who is compos mentis, and who is doing his duty to his family, as he sees his duty, and according to his best judgment, however imperfect that may be – ” We (the government) suspect that you are not employing your labor to the best advantage for your family; we suspect that your expenditures, and your disposal of your property, are not so judicious as they might be, for the interest of your family; and therefore we (the government) will take you and your property under our special surveillance, and prescribe to you what you may, and may not do, with yourself and your property; and your family shall hereafter look to us (the government), and not to you, for support”—if a government can do this, all a man’s pride, ambition, and affection, relative to this family, would be crushed, so far as it would be possible for human tyranny to crush them; and he would either never have a family (whom he would publicly acknowledge to be his), or he would risk both his property and his life in overthrowing such an insulting, outrageous, and insufferable tyranny. And any woman who would wish her husband – he being compos mentis – to submit to such an unnatural insult and wrong, is utterly undeserving of his affection, or of anything but his disgust and contempt. And he would probably very soon cause her to understand that, if she chose to rely on the government, for the support of herself and her children, rather than on him, she must rely on the government alone.” [emphasis added]


Obviously, if you substituted the pronouns so that the shoe would be on the other foot, I think the principle of what Spooner was trying to convey here would still be correct. Put simply, if a spouse prefers to side with government oppression against whom is supposed to be their soul mate, then that disloyal spouse only deserves scorn and contempt for such a betrayal; not only that, but should that spouse also prefer to rely on the government for his support, then he must rely solely on the government, and not also mooch off of his (former) beloved.

After giving his apologetics against the government’s intervention of alcohol, Spooner remarks that:


“Poverty is the natural parent of nearly all the ignorance, vice, crime, and misery there are in the world. Why is it that so large a portion of the laboring people of England are drunken and vicious? Certainly not because they are by nature any worse than other men. But it is because, their extreme and hopeless poverty keeps them in ignorance and servitude, destroys their courage and self-respect, subjects them to such constant insults and wrongs, to such incessant and bitter miseries of every kind, and finally drives them to such despair, that the short respite that drink or other vice affords them, is, for the time being, a relief. This is the chief cause of the drunkenness and other vices that prevail among the laboring people of England.”


As provocative an explanation as I’ve ever heard, given the history of the English people. Unfortunately, Spooner does not go into any real detail why there is such rampant poverty, but at least he’s pinned down a key culprit for why some people engage in self-destructive behaviors when otherwise they would not. Spooner goes onto explain that:


“In fact, the poverty of the great body of mankind, the world over, is the great problem of the world. That such extreme and nearly universal poverty exists all over the world, and has existed through all past generations, proves that it originates in causes which the common human nature of those who suffer from it, has not hitherto been strong enough to overcome. But these sufferers are, at least, beginning to see these causes, and are becoming resolute to remove them, let it cost what it may. And those who imagine that they have nothing to do but to go on attributing the poverty of the poor to their vices, and preaching to them against their vices, will ere long wake up to find that the day for all such talk is past. And the question will then be, not what are men’s vices, but what are their rights?”


Here, Spooner is brilliantly illustrating the hypocrisy of all those statist busybodies who will lecture everyone else why they should live as they do, yet they shroud the harsh reality that is the iron fist of the State in the velvet glove of kindly speeches. Perhaps by emphasizing this, all the while avoiding the question of how the invisible hand of the market is what truly advances the evolution of human liberty, Spooner is able to simply get across the paradigm shifting idea that coercing your neighbors, by way of a third party, to live as you do, is in fact no way to live at all, for it only breeds chaos, destruction, and heartache.

Lysander Spooner’s Vices Are Not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty is a remarkable work of political philosophy. Unparallelled by most other ethicists, Spooner truly demonstrates the value of consent over coercion, especially when it comes to government. I can only hope that, one day, the next generation (or two) will read for what passes as “the law” today, and consciously decide to simply disobey its statutes, because they will realize that laws cannot, and do not, ever create virtue.

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1 Response to Vices Are Not Crimes

  1. Pingback: Austin Municipal Court Docket Session (10.05.2015) - Liberty Under Attack

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