Politicians are aware that the votes of many people can be won by promising to fulfill their expedient desires to impose their moral standards on others. Virtually all regulations concerned with promoting the general welfare are, in reality, attempts to impose the moral desires of certain individuals or groups on others.
Promoting the general welfare, then, translates into violating the natural rights of some people to satisfy the desires of others. Because, in reality, there is no such thing as "general" welfare; there is only individual welfare. And every individual should, and certainly has the natural right to, accept responsibility for his own welfare.
Remember, a free person is one who is "not under the control or power of another." Freedom, in other words, is self-control. To the degree that one is controlled by others, he is enslaved. People living in relatively free countries may find it offensive to be told that they are enslaved to some extent; but I believe it is just that sort of blind attitude toward reality that has allowed the American Dream slowly to disintegrate.
All laws, therefore, that do not involve protecting individuals from aggression are laws that give government unwarranted power and control over citizens. Such laws may be viewed as "victimless-crime laws." If there is no victim, there can be no crime.
People tend to think of victimless-crime laws as those laws prohibiting such things as "pornography," certain types of "drugs," various forms of consensual adult behavior regarding sex, and other obvious areas. But victimless-crime laws—laws governing actions that involve no victims—must, by definition, include not only laws which prohibit certain noncoercive acts by individuals but also laws which force people to take action against their will. Any control over a person's acting or not acting, other than to prevent him from aggressing against others, is unwarranted, since such action or nonaction does not harm anyone else.
The notion that someone is committing a crime because he does something to himself that others may believe to be immoral, self-endangering, or in some way harmful to him is ignorant, irrational, and insulting. What actually happens to the person who insists on doing things which the "law" says are harmful to him is that the government will make him a victim of its aggression. He has aggressed on no one, but government may choose to aggress on him.
But laws that force an individual to take action against his will are just as bad as those which prevent him from taking action. In fact, they are worse, because these laws, in reality, make victims of those they force to take such involuntary action.
In either of the above cases, external control is exercised, as opposed to self-control. And external control of human beings is slavery, no matter how one tries to dress it up with respectable-sounding words.
All "crimes" other than crimes of aggression (crimes of aggression being crimes such as rape, murder, theft, and fraud) must be categorized as victimless crimes. Whether laws keep you from exercising your will to do things you desire to do or force you to enter into situations against your will, they have one thing in common: they imply that the government, rather than you, owns your life.
COMPULSORY VICTIMLESS-CRIME LAWS
"Compulsory" victimless-crime laws are laws that force you to do certain things against your will. Can a man be defined as free if others can force him to do things involuntarily?
The Draft. No matter what name one ascribes to it, when a person is compelled to spend part of his life training for the military or, worse, risking his life in combat, he is a victim of involuntary servitude. The Selective Service System is a travesty of human rights. One may preach endlessly about the "duty to defend one's country," but the fact remains that conscription is slavery.
While enslavement can be made to seem respectable by the use of terms like "military duty" and "serving in the armed forces," words do not affect Natural Law; no one has the right to take a peaceable citizen away from his family and put him into a kill-or-be-killed situation against his will. The desires of some people to fight wars, or the opinions of some people that the draft is necessary to protect the country, are not sufficient grounds for violating anyone's human rights. (If one were to adhere to Natural Law, the only way in which the people of a nation could rightfully provide for a so-called national defense would be through the voluntary financial support of an all-volunteer army.)
Compulsory Education. When a New Hampshire woman, Betsy Tompkins, recently was denied permission to educate her child at home, she joined thousands of others who have failed to convince the government that it is their right to educate their own children—or not to educate them at all, if that is their desire. Though Ms. Tompkins, like millions of other Americans, believed that the school system was not doing a satisfactory job of educating her daughter, when it came to a showdown, the government again made it clear that it owns everyone's life—including the lives of children.
Fortunately, Ms. Tompkins did not make the mistake of John Singer, a Utah man who was determined to demonstrate that government cannot force you to relinquish your children to its authorities. After a long legal battle, the government eliminated any doubt about its willingness to use force, when necessary, to make it clear to everyone that the lives of all men belong to the State. On January 18, 1979, Mr. Singer was killed by government "lawmen" on his own property. At the time, Singer was armed in last-resort preparation to defend his natural rights.
All Mr. Singer wanted was to educate his children his own way, without interference from the State, contending that he had a "God-given right to bring up his family the way he wanted." He did not feel that his children were getting the kind of religious and practical education he desired for them.
In addition to the repugnant immorality of government's claiming to own your child, compulsory education has been a disaster from the standpoint of results. An estimated 13 percent of all high school graduates are functional illiterates. (See Fred M. Hechinger, "Schoolyard Blues: The Decline of Public Education," Saturday Review, Jan. 20, 1979, p. 20.) When a person is compelled to learn something, his mind tends to block it out. You can use physical force on people, but, as slave owners in early America discovered, you cannot force them to absorb thoughts.
Finally, there is the false notion that formal schooling is necessary in order for a person to be educated. A child learns when he plays, when his parents and others talk to him, and from everything he does in life. As he gets older, he learns through reading, through his job, and through conversations with others. I personally consider my formal schooling to have amounted to only a small fraction of my education.
Obviously, one of the reasons government insists on educating your children is so they will grow up learning history, philosophy, and government itself from government's point of view.
Affirmative Action. I have yet to hear anyone categorize "violations" of so-called affirmative-action laws as victimless crimes, but they most definitely are. These laws are another case of government's applying force to a situation of personal choice.
Supposedly free individuals are told that if they do not hire people whom the government says they must hire, they will be punished. Quotas for "minorities" have been established both for businesses and universities. Not only does affirmative action infringe on the freedom of employers and college administrators, but it creates another victim—the person who loses out on a job or college admission as a result. Again, the only victims in this type of victimless crime are those created by government force.
What is particularly irritating about government meddling in this area is that both nonwhites and whites have rejected the concept of affirmative action in poll after poll. A Gallup poll in 1977 revealed that 64 percent of nonwhites interviewed rejected the idea of "preferential treatment" over "ability as determined by test scores," with an overall rejection ratio that exceeded 8-to-1. This presents a rather interesting question: who is for affirmative action?
Thomas Sowell, a highly respected economics professor at UCLA, and himself a black, gives part of the answer in an article in the June 1978 issue of Commentary:
Supporters of numerical policies have the powerful drive of self-interest as well as self-righteousness. Bureaucratic empires have grown up to administer these programs.…The rulers and agents of this empire can order employers around, make college presidents bow and scrape, assign schoolteachers by race, or otherwise gain power, publicity, and career advancement—regardless of whether minorities are benefited or not.
In other words, blacks, once again, have been used as political pawns, this time in the affirmative-action issue. It is just another appeal to people's Expediency Factors. Anne Wortham, a brilliant libertarian writer, and also a black, makes no qualms about it. Writing in the February 1979 issue of REASON, she says, "It is plainly not in the interest of black leaders and the State that blacks become individualistic, no more than it was in the interest of slaveholders that slaves learn to read and write."
Affirmative-action laws not only are victimless-crime laws, and therefore immoral, but, in addition, they do not achieve their purported objectives. A Rand Institute study cited by Professor Sowell notes, among other things, that "our results suggest that the effect of government on the aggregate black-white wage ratio is quite small and that the popular notion that…recent changes are being driven by government pressure has little empirical support."
What, then, is it that has allowed blacks to make important civil rights advances? Primarily, it has been the admirable actions of blacks themselves, particularly black leaders who have encouraged self-reliance. In truth, government force regarding such things as affirmative action and busing has created resentment and backlash, actually retarding the cause of freedom-loving blacks.
What is particularly insulting to blacks about the quota system is that it implies that most minority-group members lack talent, which obviously is an irrational blanket judgment. Minority-group members, like everyone else, want respect—particularly self-respect—which does not come to them from being given special treatment for jobs and college admissions by virtue of government force. Says Professor Sowell: "The message that comes through loud and clear is that minorities are losers who will never have anything unless someone gives it to them."
Many black leaders, undoubtedly sincere in their intentions, make a grave mistake by calling for laws to force people to act against their wills. Some of them thoughtlessly accuse people of being racists if they are not in favor of affirmative action. But in reality it is they who advocate racism by calling for a clear distinction among blacks, whites, Mexican-Americans, etc., and by favoring special treatment for some people at the expense of the human rights of others. The fact that their ancestors were victims of slavery (that is, external control by others) makes it ironic that they should wish to see people forced to act against their wills.
Affirmative action is morally wrong on at least three counts:
1. No employer should be forced to hire anyone who either is not qualified for a job or is not as qualified as another applicant. Such force is to the detriment of the employer's business.
2. Innocent people should not be made to pay for the wrongs of others. The mainstay argument behind affirmative action is that, since blacks were treated unfairly in the past, society now must compensate new generations of blacks for that treatment. But, notes Professor Sowell:
The past is a great unchangeable fact. Nothing is going to undo its sufferings and injustices, whatever their magnitude.…Neither the sins nor the sufferings of those now dead are within our power to change. Being honest and honorable with the people living in our own time is more than enough moral challenge, without indulging in illusions about rewriting moral history with numbers and categories.
3. But the most important reason that affirmative action is immoral is that it defies Natural Law. The owner of a business, whether black or white, has the right to hire and fire whomever he pleases, without having to account for his actions to anyone, simply because it is his business. When a person is not free to do as he pleases with his own property, in this case his business, his liberty has been violated. It would be an unavoidable contradiction to refer to such a person as a free man.
Milton Mueller, in an article in the January 1979 Libertarian Review, put the affirmative-action issue in proper perspective, noting that "affirmative action is the last gasp of a crumbling economic system." Mueller went on to say:
If special exceptions and special laws are necessary to bulldoze minorities into the system, then something is clearly wrong with the system. If the regulations that burden the economy are so intrinsically racist that quotas are the only way to get minorities in, then something is wrong with the regulations…A government-controlled economy is a static economy—the people on the bottom stay there. If the energies of a free, unrestricted economy are released, if the roadblocks are blown away, then minorities—and the rest of society—can advance.
Busing. It is bad enough that Big Brother forces all citizens to send their children to school, but to make integration a function of the school system is preposterous. Schools are supposed to educate, not integrate. Busing is just another political weapon, and a very dangerous one: it implies that government can force people to change their emotions. And laws that attempt to regulate emotions never work.
Here again, a majority of both blacks and whites have let it be known that they are opposed to the wrongfulness of having their children shipped daily, like cattle, to distant areas of their cities. Professor Sowell contends that:
Underlying the attempt to move people around and treat them like chess pieces on a board is a profound contempt for other human beings. To ignore or resent people's resistance—on behalf of their children or their livelihoods—is to deny our common humanity.…The false practicality of results-oriented people ignores the fact that the ultimate results are in the minds and hearts of human beings.
As with all victimless-crime laws, the only victims involved in busing are those created by government. When a "busing law" is violated, the person found guilty of the violation is, in reality, not the perpetrator of a crime, but its victim. On the other hand, when these laws are obeyed, the children and parents involved, both black and white, become victims.
The concept of busing is particularly insulting to black children, because it implies that they must be surrounded by white classmates in order to achieve. The combination of both the aggression and insult inherent in busing has been an unnecessary political keg of dynamite planted under the feet of Americans.
Eminent Domain. Here, as in so many government actions, the question of property rights arises. Through a very impressive-sounding term—eminent domain—government attempts to give respectability to the act of forcing people to give up their homes for the "general welfare." If the government decides that it wants your property, all other considerations are irrelevant—including the number of years you have owned your home or land, the emotional value it may have to you, and even what you think it is worth.
The fact that the government pays you for your property (at a price which it deems to be "fair") does not change the more important fact that your rights have been violated. If someone comes up to you on the street and demands your watch, then pays you what he deems to be a fair price in return, such payment does not change the reality that a theft has occurred.
As with all other victimless-crime laws, however, you will be arrested and punished if you refuse to do as you are told by authorities—in this case, "sell" them your property. And if you try to defend your property physically, you will either end up in jail or lose your life in the process.
History is filled with cases like that of Stephen E. Anthony, who refused to give up his half of a house to the government. Local politicians wanted to make room for a Hollywood film museum on his property. Anthony, who protected his property at gunpoint, eventually was arrested and put in jail for six months. A few months after his house was razed, the museum project was abandoned. The site of his former home is now a parking lot. Here again, the only victim in this "victimless" crime was the person victimized by the government itself—for refusing to give up what was rightfully his.
Seat Belts, Helmets and Other Protective Devices. Millions of people do not use seat belts and therefore do not want to pay for them when purchasing a new car. Government, however, does not give the public an option on this extra. Everyone must pay for this protection even if the seat belts are never used and if they accomplish nothing more than flopping around on seats and causing discomfort to passengers.
Nevertheless, individuals who group themselves together under the banner of "consumer safety" still are not satisfied. They continue to campaign for the passage of a law which would force people to use the seat belts they already are compelled to buy.
Helmets and all other mandatory safety devices involve the same type of control over people. They force individuals to do what others believe to be in their best interests, even if they do not agree. Many motorcycle riders, for example, believe that helmets cause accidents by obstructing peripheral vision. But the motorcyclist is no different from anyone else: the government owns his life. Because of their desire to capture the votes of "consumer-safety" advocates, helmet manufacturers, or anyone else who may be in favor of the compulsory use of "safety devices," politicians feel obliged to burden citizens with the cost and inconvenience of expensive equipment "for their own good."
PROHIBITIVE VICTIMLESS-CRIME LAWS
"Prohibitive" victimless-crime laws are laws which make it illegal for you to do certain things you may want to do. Like compulsory victimless-crime laws, prohibitive victimless-crime laws involve external control and thus are forms of involuntary servitude.
Gun Control. Through the years there has been a great deal of heated debate over so-called gun-control legislation. Not only are all arguments that favor gun control invalid on the basis of logic, fact, and morality, but even those who are against gun control usually miss the real issue. The issue is freedom.
A person has a right to own a gun for the same reason that he has a right to own anything; the corollary to this is that the government has no right to forbid anyone to own a gun, for the same reason that it has no right to forbid anyone to own any item. Gun control, therefore, is a misnomer. When politicians talk about gun control, they really are talking about people control.
Those who insisted on the Second Amendment to the Constitution—"the right of the people to keep and bear arms"—had important reasons for wanting this protection. Having been tyrannized by the government of Great Britain, they saw the right to bear arms not only as a means of protecting one's life and property from other citizens but as a last resort of defense against an oppressive government. That is precisely why it is in the interest of today's government to disarm the population. It has cleverly masked this violation of a constitutional and natural right by appealing to the emotions of a frightened populace.
Owning guns has nothing to do with crime; if anything, it has to do with preventing crime. Notwithstanding the continual efforts to build a case against gun ownership, government legislators have failed in their attempts to show that gun control lowers crime rates; in almost all cases, in fact, the results of tests and studies have shown quite the opposite to be true.
The old slogan which maintains that "if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns," is a reality. Today, for example, it is illegal for most private citizens to carry concealed weapons. Law-abiding people, therefore, do not carry them. But you can be sure that criminals in every city in America are walking the streets carrying concealed weapons. Gun-control laws have the very real effect of giving criminals an advantage over noncriminals!
Authorities have estimated that approximately 9,000 people in the United States would be killed by handguns in 1979, which is an unfortunate fact of life. Nevertheless, this is only a small percentage of the number of people killed each year by automobiles. But the large number of automobile deaths is not sufficient cause to deny sensible, responsible individuals the use of automobiles. The exact same logic applies to guns.
Guns are a form of self-defense, and by removing from a person a tool of self-defense, government not only violates his rights but endangers his very life. A gun is an individual's ultimate means of preserving his freedom; it may well be that there is a definite connection between government's stepped-up efforts toward gun control at a time when government itself is increasingly guilty of violating individual rights.
As Morgan Norval put it in an article in REASON magazine in October 1975: "'Order' may be the excuse; 'law' may be the argument; 'keeping someone else in his place' may be the emotional rationale; 'supporting the police' may be the civic slogan; 'ending violence' may be the dream—but the nightmare of reality is total tyranny of the State." The right to bear arms should be defended to the bitter end. Because in the bitter end, as the American Revolutionists discovered, it may very well get down to a matter of whether or not you do have arms.
Zoning. Remember, one of the true tests of ownership is whether or not you can do anything you want with your property. If you have to get government's permission to build the house of your choice, or even to do remodeling or put up a fence, how can you be called the owner of your property in the true sense of the word?
Aside from the moral implication of others' telling you what you can and cannot do with something you own, the whole concept of zoning is based on the mythical vision of a vicious entrepreneur building a slaughterhouse adjacent to someone's $100,000 home. For obvious economic reasons, this would never occur: Why would someone want to pay an enormous price for land on which to build a plant, when he could choose an industrial location at a fraction of the cost? Land prices negate the practical need for zoning laws. The beautiful city of Houston, with virtually no zoning laws, is living proof of why such laws are an unnecessary intrusion of privacy.
Usury. The major effect of usury laws is somewhat analogous to the effect of minimum-wage laws. Minimum-wage laws force people to be unemployed; usury laws force people out of business. Because some voters think that "usury" (that is, interest rates they deem to be too high) is immoral, politicians have burdened the public with yet another nuisance. They must protect the "innocent" citizen from being victimized by unscrupulous lenders.
No thanks. When I was down and out, I needed to borrow money badly, and I was a poor risk. When I did find people who were willing to lend me money at interest rates commensurate with the risk they were taking on me, we had to spend many days working out the legal details necessary to get around the law that "protected" me. Such time-wasting maneuvering goes on every day, particularly in the business world, between borrowers and lenders who must create legal facades to protect the lender from government usury laws.
Of course, banks and other lending companies with special government "licenses" are allowed to charge more than the official usury-law rates in most states. If government does not give them an outright exemption from usury laws, this is accomplished through special fees, "compensating balances," and a variety of other means.
Gambling. Various voters conceive of gambling as "sinful," which gives politicians yet another opportunity to preach about "public morals." Gambling, of course, puts government in a slightly hypocritical position, since it does allow selected "licensees"—who give government a cut of the take—to conduct gambling operations.
Horse racing is licensed in most states, but only to privileged operators; this licensing arrangement contributes enormous revenues to state-government coffers. In Nevada, virtually all types of gambling are legal, and recently gambling was "legalized" in Atlantic City. Other states go further by operating the gambling apparatuses themselves, such as New York State's bookmaking facilities and the lotteries run by many state governments.
The rather strange implication is that gambling is immoral unless government is involved. Since every person who gambles loses money in the long run, I guess the reasoning is that citizens are protected so long as the government is the one who ends up with their money.
"Pornography." "Pornography" is so subjective that it is an absolute absurdity for government to involve itself in this area. Obscenity, like everything else, is in the eyes of the beholder. The libertarian approach here, the same as to all victimless crimes, is best expressed by Murray Rothbard in his book For a New Liberty: "The good, bad, or indifferent consequences of pornography, while perhaps an interesting problem in its own right, is completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not it should be outlawed.…It is not the business of the law…to make anyone good or reverent or moral or clean or upright."
Sexual Behavior. Government interference in the sexual behavior of consenting adults is one of the most flagrant violations of individual liberty. The idea that government has a right to say what goes on in your bedroom should make even the most unconcerned person think twice before laughing at the suggestion that we are beset with "creeping totalitarianism."
It is irritating even to have to argue for the rights of people to engage voluntarily in sexual acts of their choosing, because it dignifies the incredible gall of absolute moralists who believe they should have a say-so in the most private affairs of others. If you believe in the right of individuals to control their own lives, then you know that the sexual conduct of consenting adults is not the government's business and should not carry legal consequences. Big Brother has no place in the regulation of private conduct—period.
"Drugs." Probably no other promoting-the-general-welfare function of government causes so many innocent people (including nonusers of drugs) so many problems. As happens with virtually all outlawed products and services, government, by prohibiting the use of certain drugs, creates a black market for them.
As soon as something is outlawed, criminal elements will gladly jump in and provide the illegal product or service at substantially increased prices. The higher prices are due not only to the scarcity of the product or service but also to the seller's need to be compensated for the government-created risks involved. These high prices motivate some consumers of such products and services, particularly "drugs," to commit crimes against innocent people in order to raise the money needed to obtain them.
It is not government's business to run around protecting people from hurting themselves, whether with marijuana, caffeine, or alcohol—or cholesterol, for that matter. I have no personal axe to grind regarding any of these substances, because I rarely indulge even in a social drink and have never taken so much as a puff of marijuana. These are products which just happen not to be of interest to me. But, while I consider it very unwise and unhealthy to use such substances indiscriminately, the fact is that their use is not a political matter—it is a private matter.
Who would protect children from the harmful use of drugs in a free society? The same people who are supposed to protect them from touching a hot stove, getting run over by cars, or committing crimes against others: parents.
One thing certain is that government certainly does a poor job of it. The fact is that the finest work done in the area of drug rehabilitation has been accomplished, as one would expect, by private charitable organizations. Individuals can solve problems just fine—even "community problems"—if left alone to do so on a noncoercive basis.
It is time for Big Brother to get out of our private lives and off our backs and let us fend for ourselves. Self-responsibility was a major ingredient in the American dream.
Smoking. Most of the same points made in regard to antidrug laws are equally valid for antismoking ordinances. There is, however, one additional twist to antismoking laws: some nonsmokers claim that they do not care if others smoke, so long as they do not do it in a "public place."
The problem here is the curious latitude people use in defining the term public place. A restaurant is one outrageous and commonly used example, yet a restaurant is a privately owned establishment. As such, its owner has the sole right to decide whether or not to allow people to smoke on his premises. If he chooses to allow it and a nonsmoker (like me) is bothered by the smoking, the nonsmoker can take immediate noncoercive steps to do something about it—on his own—simply by not frequenting that restaurant in the future.
On the other hand, if the owner does not allow smoking, a smoker either can refrain or he can take his business elsewhere; there is no need for the heavy hand of the law. Free men can settle differences by respecting each other's rights, especially property rights.
Should antismoking crusaders ever succeed in having smoking outlawed, look for organized crime to set up an elaborate black market in cigarettes that will make the days of Prohibition look like a nursery-school game by comparison. Smokers will continue to smoke; you can be sure of that. The question is whether smoking will be controlled by private industry or organized crime.
Suicide. There is virtually nothing to say on this subject, except to point out the ridiculous fact that suicide is actually against the law in some states. The right to take your own life is perhaps the ultimate test of whether or not you own it. In outlawing suicide, government makes it absolutely clear that your life belongs to the State and that therefore only the State has the right to decide what will be done with it.
PRIVACY: LOST FOREVER?
The aggression that is couched under the benevolent guise of "promoting the general welfare" continues to grow each year. People are becoming more and more complacent, accepting Big Government interference in their lives as normal. Consider:
• The Bank Secrecy Act (a deliberate reverse description of its effects) requires that you file detailed reports with the government any time you take more than $5,000 cash out of or into the country.
• You not only need a passport to travel but must fill out detailed reports naming your destinations, your original point of embarkation, the nature of your business, how long you will be away, and many other personal details of your trip.
• A federal appeals court in St. Louis ruled that the government has the right to break into an unoccupied office to install electronic devices if a judge deems that to be the only "reasonable way" to obtain evidence and issue warrants.
• Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. admitted that it routinely releases unlisted telephone numbers of private citizens to the CIA, the military, the governor's office, and other governmental agencies and branches.
• The CIA and FBI have virtually unrestricted access to all of your tax information.
• As Robert Ellis Smith reports in Privacy: How to Protect What's Left of It, the government has an incredible average of 18 files on each man, woman, and child in the United States!
Was all this what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they threw out those oppressive rascals from England? I think not. Certainly not in the history I have read. I believe, in fact, that they had just the opposite in mind when they signed the Declaration of Independence.
Can these violations of freedom be stopped? Not unless an awful lot of people get educated to the facts very quickly and get very mad about the situation. So long as millions of citizens play right into the government's hands and demand that their expedient moral desires be met, the number of victimless-crime laws—under the guise of "promoting the general welfare"—will continue to increase, along with invasion of privacy, which means a decrease in freedom.
Unfortunately, not too many people are working toward stemming the tide of this coercive government function. And it appears that things are speeding up considerably in the direction of more government control over the lives of individual citizens.
Robert Ringer is the author of Looking Out for #1. This article is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of his book Restoring the American Dream, newly released from Harper and Row.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Victims of Benevolent Aggression".