Should people be criminally punished for behavior that may not be good for them, but that doesn’t hurt anyone else?
Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Brittany: Hi, Connor.
Connor: Hi, Brittany.
Brittany: So long, long ago, I think one of the earliest episodes we talked about a man named Lysander Spooner or Lysander. I’ve heard it done both ways, but so he was the only person in American history who ever tried to compete with the United States Post Office. If you don’t mind, if you don’t remember.
Connor: That’s a cool story.
Brittany: Such a cool story. But of course, as the government is known to do, they shut him down as they like to do with any competition. What does Ron Paul use to say, or the thing he had on his desk? Don’t steal, government hates competition.
Connor: That’s right.
Brittany: Yep. So he was also a passionate abolitionist, which means he wanted to abolish slavery. And in case you couldn’t guess, he was alive during the time of slavery. So that was a pretty big deal to be very passionately against slavery and pretty passionately against the government. I think he called himself an anarchist. I may be mistaken about that, but I’m pretty sure he did. I know we remember him as one, but he was also a great writer. In fact, other than Basia, I think he might be my favorite old libertarian philosopher, cuz he’s also very feisty. I like that. So he wrote a great essay. I don’t think it’s a book, I think it is technically an essay called Vices Are Not Crimes. And it’s one of my favorites. So what the heck is a vice? That’s what I wanna talk about today. And what did he mean by this? Vices are Not crimes. So let’s talk about, start by talking, I mixed two words about vices. So a vice is a bad behavior, but it’s not just bad behavior. Cuz I don’t want you to think that I don’t know what’s a, not terrible bad behavior like biting your nails. That’s a bad habit, right? But it’s not bad behavior. So when we’re talking about vices, we’re talking about what’s called immoral behavior. So somebody who does drugs, for example, that would be a vice, you know, smoking cigarettes might be a vice eating junk food. Actually, I think in a lot of ways I is a vice. So things like that. So it’s not necessarily like lying or cheating, but those are bad too. But the government has often tried to make vices illegal to save people from themselves, which is not always the best. It doesn’t work because it just doesn’t work. But they believe if they ban something, people won’t do it. And Connor, I’m gonna kick this to you. Can you think of some times in history that government has tried to ban something and what happened when they did that? Ban something for our own good.
Connor: Banning raw milk. All right.
Brittany: That’s right.
Connor: You’re, not allowed to have raw milk. So now we’re gonna storm in with guns to Amish, communities and, you know, take the contraband cheese. No, I mean oftentimes this is drugs. It’s the feeling that you know, if this is harmful to you for society, you know, we should ban you from doing it. We have the word prohibition to prohibit something, but it’s what we use to describe a time in the United States when there was a constitutional amendment that, so there, they changed the Constitution. The whole country kind of was voting on it. And all the states were ratifying it and they said, Hey, we’re gonna have a new constitutional amendment and we’re gonna ban alcohol. And so this was for a number of years, and we’re gonna talk about this on another episode. But it’s an example of where the government says vice. Like here’s something bad, therefore we’re going to ban it. And the problem with that, and again, we’ll explore this more on, the other episode, but the problem with, taking this approach devices is that it doesn’t work. People still, you know, use the drug or drink alcohol or do what they want. And now you’re just adding this whole additional layer of the government punishing them and making their lives hard. I saw this funny meme a while back, and it was like this police officer talking to this teenager who was like using cannabis or something, and it’s like, you’re ruining your life. And so here I’m gonna arrest you and throw you in jail and all these things, and now you’re gonna have to pay all these fines that you can’t pay, and blah, blah, blah. And like, what is he doing? He’s like ruining this kid’s life and causing all this problem when like, yeah, like drugs are a problem. Like obviously this isn’t meant in any way to condone these things or suggest that they’re okay. Yes. But we know that we live in a world where people are going to like, make different choices and do what they want. And so the question is, if we think those things are bad, do they stop happening just because we pass a law and prohibit them? Well, no, history is full of examples where these vices, even when they’re prohibited, are still used, still done, and still popular among some people. And now you just have the government coming in and creating a whole lot of additional problems.
Brittany: Yeah, I mean, the problems that are pretty severe, you know, there’s a lot of, you know, parents that go off to jail because of things like cannabis where again, it’s not the best thing to do, but it’s not as bad as the government coming into your house at gunpoint and taking you away. Then you have people that aren’t raised with both parents because of all this. Or you have, like you said, a young teenager who maybe made one little mistake, and now his whole life is ruined. So it’s crazy to me that that happened. And even though prohibition, let’s see, so Lysander Spooner was 1860s, right? About, I think so. I think so. Cuz it was during as labor. So, and then prohibition didn’t happen until the 19 hundreds. But even before this happened, he recognized that government likes to do this. They like to save us from ourselves. And you know, you hit the nail on the head. Bands just don’t work. They don’t work. And he understood this, which is why he wrote this essay. So I’m gonna read some quotes. He first starts by telling us the difference between a vice and a crime. And I think this is really, really important. So 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. So this to me is actually like.
Connor: Like, breaks it down pretty simply.
Brittany: Breaks it down pretty simply. And I think this comes down to almost every bit of when the government is justified or when you could say the government is justified and when it isn’t. Right? So what does this mean? So for a crime to take place, a person has to do harm to another person, right? They have to physically hurt them, they have to steal something from them. There has to be a victim. Someone has to be the victim in this situation. But what advice is there’s not really a victim, right? Because you are the victim, you’re just hurting themselves. Sometimes we call this a victimless crime or a victimless crime. So it’s not great. And you know, we’re not saying that you shouldn’t get help and maybe family and friends and community members, they should talk to people who are struggling with something and, and see if they can help them. But it shouldn’t be illegal to harm yourself, right? You’re allowed to do what you want, even if those things have consequences. So that’s a really important distinction that again, you know, for those people who believe in limited government, we usually say that you should have limited government only to protect yourself against other people. So I think that his quote is not just good for the vices are not crimes argument, but just for, why we have government or why we should have government at all. So he also wrote, and we’ll unpack these cause they’re a little long, but to punish men for their vices is a sheer and utter absurdity for any government claiming to derive its power wholly from the grant of the governed because it would be granting away their right to seek their own happiness. So what does this mean? So in our constitution, we have the right to pursue our own happiness. And for some that might include indulging vices, right? It’s not great behavior, but they’re allowed to do that. So he’s saying, by letting the government punish people for this, they’re literally violating one of the first lines, you know, that we are allowed to pursue our own happiness. So that’s just silliness or what did he, what did he say? Utter absurdity, which I really like. So then he goes on to say, you know, everyone wishes to be protected. And I think that’s true, right? We all wanna feel safe and secure. So he says in his person on the property against the aggressions of other men, but nobody wishes to be protected against himself. He only wishes to promote his own happiness and to be his own judge as to what will promote and does promote his own happiness. So that’s kind of restating the thing above that. People definitely want to feel secure, they wanna feel safe, they want, they don’t wanna feel like somebody’s going to come into their house and steal from them or harm them without recourse. But they don’t need to be protected from themselves. And I think that some people, this is actually interesting, Connor, when I was a teacher, I liked to teach my kids this, right? Like, I’m not here to protect you against yourself. If you’re not gonna do your work that’s gonna harm you, it’s not gonna harm me. And I had one student tell me, he’s like, no, I need you to tell me what to do, or I’m not gonna wanna do it, so you need to force me to do it. And I was like, you understand, this is the whole point of teaching you, you know, self-sufficiency as you’ve gotta do it yourself. And he would argue with me back and forth, and I’d never met another kid who wanted me to give him rules so badly. And it was so crazy to me.
Connor: That’s interesting.
Brittany: Yeah, it was, and you know, it’s funny, his parents were like these very strict Russians. And so I was like, you, I would think you’d have the opposite view. But, that was a, he challenged me every single day.
Connor: In the previous quote that you shared, I’m gonna read a portion of it again. It stands out to me. So where Spooner said to punish men for their vices is a sheer and utter absurdity.
Brittany: Love it.
Connor: Or any government claiming to derive its power wholly from the grant of the government. Okay? So who are the governed? That’s us. We are all being governed by the government. And so he is talking about us and then he is talking about how the government claims to derive its power wholly or entirely from a grant of the government. What, when you grant power to someone, you give them the power. So he’s saying, here’s the United States government, and it claims that it derives its authority from a grant or a kind of delegation, a gift of authority from the people. The people have the authority and then they come together and they say, Hey, government, we want you to do these things. We’re joining together and we are granting you this power. And so what Spooner is really saying, I think, is that we have to look at who is granting the authority. Thomas Jefferson talks a little bit about this and so does our hero Frédéric Bastiat. But the point Spooner’s making is that you cannot grant authority that you don’t have, right? Because if the government’s power comes from the people, then the government can only have powers that the people gave to it. But the people can only give the powers that they have. So the government can never have more powers or different powers than the people who it governs. Like the creature, like the government is our creature. You know, we’ve like come together and like made this thing, and yay, let’s have government. And so the government is our creature. and so the creature can never exceed the creator. Like we are the creators of government and we have this creature government, but if the creature like grows bigger and has more power than we do, its creators, then something’s broken, right? Because like, that’s not the way this works. And so for Spooners, like, wait a minute, the government claims that it gets the power from the people, but I mean like, let’s just be silly here for a second. Brittany, do you have the power, like let’s say this guy’s walking down the street in front of your house and you see him smoking a cigarette? Do you have the power to take his wallet and find him $20?
Brittany: No. And if I tried it probably would not end well.
Connor: You know, some jiu-jitsu or something,
Brittany: Right? No, but I should.
Connor: So, you don’t have the power to you know, take that person’s money, punish them with a fine, okay, let’s say you smell something funky and there’s some college students that live next door and they’re smoking marijuana in the basement. And you say, well hey, a minute, wait a minute, that’s wrong. That’s a vice. That stuff can hurt you or whatever. So you grab one of them by the wrist and you take them, down to your basement cellar and you lock the key and you keep them locked in your little jail in your house for, you know, 48 hours to teach them a lesson. Do you have that kind of authority or power to be able to do that?
Brittany: I absolutely do not have that authority.
Connor: I mean, these are silly examples, right? But the point is like that the government does these things. If people are, you know, using drugs or these, having these vices doing things that we may disagree with or think is wrong, but if they’re not hurting anyone, if there’s no victim, you know, like if there’s a victim that’s different. If someone is like high on whatever drug and then they get in a car and then like crash into someone and hurt them or kill them like that’s clearly a problem.
Brittany: Cause there’s even that’s different, right? Cuz it’s just they hurt them by being, you know, in the car they did that bad thing. It wasn’t the drug or the, or whatever they were on. And so it’s like, oh no, you got in your car and did it, which is a whole other thing. So they, to make.
Connor: Same thing with, you know, drinking a beer, right? Like now that’s legal after prohibition stopped. But, so drinking beer is legal, but then if you get behind the wheel of a vehicle and you’re, you know, drunk and you and drive, then you can be punished. And that makes more sense because you know, you’re a risk like you have this like, the massive vehicle might like to kill someone, but like, if you’re just drinking a beer in your living room and you’re not at all a threat to anyone, then you know you should be left alone. But there’s so many other vices where that’s not true. And so the question is like, well wait a minute. Where like, what’s, what I hear Spooner saying in like our modern English, I guess is like, well hold up, the government is using all these powers, it’s locking people in jail, it’s taking their money, it’s taking their property, it’s punishing them in all kinds of ways. But if you don’t have the right to do that to your neighbor just because they, you know, use some drugs or, you know, looked at something online they shouldn’t have or said something they should have or like whatever. If you don’t have that the power to do that to them, how in the world can the government have that power if the government gets its power from the people? And so I think the answer to spinners question, which he himself would say and kind of said in his pamphlets is that the government has far exceeded its bounds, right? Like it’s not allowed to do this. The constitution that we pass to try and limit the government has been ineffective because the government is exercising all kinds of other powers that you and I do not have ourselves. And so like we’ve created this thing, but it has far outgrown the powers that you and I have. And so that to me is the power of what Spooner’s talking about here is that you know, vices, yeah. Like, they can be a problem, they can be bad, they can be morally bad or ethically bad, or physically bad. Like, we can agree on those things. But when you say, oh, the government ought to outlaw that, what you’re really saying is that men and guns should go threaten these people that if they don’t stop, they’ll go in jail. And if those people try and resist, they can be shot or killed, which happens. And so it’s like, well wait a minute. If you couldn’t do that to your neighbor, if you wouldn’t feel right doing that to your neighbor who was doing that thing, then how can you ask the police to do it for you? Because they should only be doing things that you can do yourself. So I think this is a topic that we don’t analyze enough, Brittany, I think like this is like at the foundation of government, you know, of like it’s doing all these things that shouldn’t be. And so I, like asking that question. When I speak to youth groups, I, often kind of say like, okay, whatever law you think that there should exist, number one, are you willing to, you know, kill someone over it? Cuz that’s ultimately what happens if people continue to break the law. But number two, like do you have the power to do that yourself to those people? And they’ll often be like, well no, I, you know, I couldn’t do that. Then why are you asking the government to do it? You know, like, where do they magically come up with this power? It just doesn’t make any sense. So, that’s vices. We’re gonna talk about prohibition soon. This is an important topic because it, we don’t have to agree with things, right? We don’t have to agree with drinking alcohol or doing drugs or, you know, having hate speech or like, whatever it is. You don’t have to agree with these things. But it’s really a question of like, whether we’re gonna use persuasion or force, whether we’re gonna like live and let live and just say like, Hey look, you know, I don’t think you should do that, but it’s your life. Or Hey, let’s have this big government that bosses you around and throws you in jail if you do things that I don’t like. And I think that’s a big problem. So Lysander Spooner’s totally worth reading. Check out the show notes page, you guys, for a couple of links to some of his writings. Lysander Spooner’s got some really, fun essays like the one that Brittany was referencing earlier. very much worth reading and learning more about his thoughts. And, stick around for the episode here on Prohibition, coming up. And until next time, we’ll talk to you later.
Brittany: Talk to you later.