Illicit Pleasures


Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society, by Peter McWilliams, Los Angeles: Prelude Press, 815 pages, $22.95

Peter McWilliams has made his name and fortune writing best-selling pop-psychology tomes with titles like DO IT! and LIFE 101. As these titles indicate, he is a rhetorician who deals in advice bestowed with bold strokes and emphatic insistence. It would take such a man to devote 815 pages to a book that, by his own admission, has just "one idea" behind it: "You should be allowed to do whatever you want with your own person and property, as long as you don't physically harm the person or property of another."

McWilliams's self-help best sellers preach a message of personal responsibility, which is a refreshing switch from the miasma of tomes hyping inner children and codependency. In a world where so many people are falling over themselves to assure us that nothing is our fault, McWilliams earns respect for telling us that we are responsible for what we do—and that it's nobody's business but ours, unless we are directly and physically harming others.

I hope McWilliams's "one idea" will be intuitively attractive to his readers, because if it isn't this book may not convince. At best, it may engender the grudging consent of someone weary from an hours-long browbeating. At 815 pages (the impact is softened by the large epigrams laid out on every page), this book is far too long. While McWilliams's style and approach are breezy—often too breezy by half (he's not nearly as funny as he thinks he is)—this rambling and repetitive volume stinks of a secular Inquisition. Especially after one realizes that the target repeatedly trotted out in McWilliams's shooting gallery is that weary liberal bogeyman, right-wing religious fundamentalism, as personified by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

In service of the attack on the Revs. Robertson and Falwell and all they represent, ensconced uncomfortably in the center of this overly long book is another overly long book. Part IV, "Consensual Crimes and the Bible," is 190 pages intended to debunk contemporary Christian support for laws against drug use, prostitution, gambling, homosexuality, adultery, suicide, and other acts usually called "victimless crimes." McWilliams calls them "consensual crimes," since everyone involved in them is so by free choice. (McWilliams chooses this sensible new locution to avoid the sophistry over the alleged "victims" of victimless crimes, such as the upset relatives or those who can no longer count on the continued support of the indulger.)

McWilliams's argument suffers from his insistence that a misunderstanding of biblical teaching lies at the root of our culture's animosity toward consensual criminals. He states this explicitly in the introduction and depends on it implicitly to bear the weight of his arguments by devoting hundreds of pages to proving that Jesus didn't really condemn drug use, adultery, homosexuality, and gambling, and was in fact a rather pacific and forgiving fellow.

McWilliams spends dozens of pages reciting picayune Levitical and Pauline regulations to make the irrelevant point that modern religious right-wingers don't ask for the state's strong hand to clamp down on, say, those who don't cancel all debts after seven years (see Deuteronomy 15:1) or who boast (James 4:16). A moment of reflection could tell anyone McWilliams is barking up the wrong tree. Surely we all know plenty of atheists and nonpracticing soi-disant "Christians" who don't believe in legalizing drug use or prostitution. McWilliams himself makes it painfully obvious after about 10 pages of this litany that it's not really religion that motivates intolerance of consensual crimes; we don't condemn as a society everything God condemns as a deity.

McWilliams nonetheless continues to insist that it is religion, but dumb Christians befuddled by Robertson and Falwell just don't understand their religion. And if they could be made to understand it his way, their objection to legalization of consensual crime would cease. This emphasis on religion is fundamentally mistaken, wastes hundreds of pages, and leads McWilliams to make silly arguments, such as claiming that all laws against consensual crimes violate the First Amendment because they are really establishments of religion.

McWilliams is wrong on other issues as well. While the sections on Christianity are irrelevant, they are at least mostly sound in their biblical analysis and are entertaining and educational for someone interested in Christianity. Other chapters have less redeeming value. McWilliams's greatest failing as a scholar—which admittedly he doesn't claim to be, but which a book of this scope requires—is that he seems to believe almost anything he hears or reads, as long as it's not from Robertson or Falwell.

The worst chapter is "Putting the Problem in Perspective," in which McWilliams discusses all the uses to which "we" should be putting the estimated $50 billion a year we spend enforcing laws against consensual crimes. Among the problems he'd like to address are the usual panoply of bogus environmental ills (overpopulation, ozone holes, global warming, landfill overflow); weird Oprah Winfrey bugaboos like 400,000 children abducted a year, many for the purposes of rape, murder, and torture; the rampant spread of heterosexual AIDS; and so on. The two most interesting "facts" that McWilliams uncritically parrots in this book are that secondhand cigarette smoke is "far more cancerous than even primary cigarette smoke" and that "each time the space shuttle goes up, .25 percent of the ozone layer is destroyed."

This credulousness, together with the book's lack of footnotes, will lead the alert and unsympathetic reader to question the many unsourced figures that McWilliams offers in his attempt to estimate the practical costs of the war on consensual crimes. This is a shame, because hidden among all the bad one-liners and biblical exegesis is a solid and comprehensive book on the injustice and impracticality of laws against consensual crime. McWilliams's heart is definitely in the right place. Any reader will feel the passion that drives him as he calls for a halt to the injustice of imprisoning, stealing from, and destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals who have caused no harm to anyone but themselves.

All the good arguments against the criminalization of consensual acts are here, somewhere: how these crusades prop up and empower organized crime; eat away at our constitutional rights to property and freedom from search and seizure; come nowhere close to achieving their aims; corrupt legitimate law enforcement; promote irresponsibility; and in general are merely sops to ignorance, fear, hatred, and envy. No other book out there pulls together all these arguments in the depth and detail that McWilliams offers.

But there is no principle behind his evidence, history, and arguments powerful enough to dissuade those who simply feel that indulging in consensual crimes is wrong. And Christianity, which he wastes so much space tilting at, is not the sole source of this feeling.

The one principle that might be powerful enough to overcome such opposition—a commitment to government that is limited to protecting our rights to liberty and property from abuse by others—is explicitly rejected by McWilliams. "I'm not going to argue the pros and cons of private ownership, free enterprise, capitalism, and the free market system," he writes. "What is indisputably true is that this is the economic system we have." Since we allegedly have this system, and since laws against consensual acts generally involve violations of property rights and free markets, we should reject such laws.

Unfortunately, we don't have this system yet; it still needs to be defended, persuasively, to the mass audience that has made McWilliams's self-help books best sellers. Maybe that could be his next 800-page tome. With Ain't Nobody's Business, McWilliams proves he has in him a snappy and informative 200-to-300-page book on the fiscal, moral, and constitutional horrors of laws against consensual crime. Too bad he wrote this one instead.

Brian Doherty is the assistant editor of Regulation magazine.