Dr. Mary Ruwart is an At-Large Representative on the Libertarian National Committee, an active member of the Texas LP, and a leading expert in libertarian communication. In this column she offers short answers to real questions about libertarianism. To submit questions to Dr. Ruwart, see end of column.
How can I argue against victimless crime laws without sounding like I approve of those acts?
Question: I recently was discussing the legalization of drugs and prostitution with someone. This person said he thought I took this position because I wanted to engage in these activities myself! How do I argue for legalizing prostitution and drugs — without making people think I approve of, and participate in, these behaviors?
My Short Answer: : I suggest something along the following lines.
Libertarians recognize that outlawing vices can cause worse damage than the vices themselves. For example, the War on Drugs causes more deaths and damaged lives than the use of illegal drugs.
Because we spend about 50% of our police, prison, and court resources on drug use, our justice system has less to spend on tracking down murderers and rapists. Indeed, because of mandatory minimums for drugs, violent criminals often get a shortened sentence in order to jail drug users. About 80% of those in prison for drug-related crimes are for non-violent marijuana possession.
Drug abuse is a medical problem, just like alcoholism. Unless a person is a direct physical threat to others (such as driving under the influence), putting them in prison is counter-productive.
Similarly, prostitution, like drug use, may be a vice, but treating it like a crime only makes the situation worse. Amsterdam, where both marijuana use and prostitution is legal, has much less sexually-transmitted disease and drug use/abuse than in the U.S. For example, only about half as many Amsterdam high school students use marijuana compared to the U.S. John Stossel, in his book Give Me A Break!, notes that the Dutch minister of health said that legalization has “succeeded in making pot boring” for students. If we care about our children enough to get the pushers out of the schools, perhaps we need to follow Amsterdam’s example.
(For more details and references for these and similar arguments, see Chapter 15 in my book, Healing Our World. The earlier edition can be read and downloaded free at my website, Ruwart.com . The new and updated versions can be purchased from the Advocates).
Learn More: Liberator Online editor James W. Harris suggests the following articles for further reading on this topic:
* Vices Are Not Crimes: A Vindication Of Moral Liberty by Lysander Spooner. The 19th century abolitionist and constitutional lawyer Spooner — author of perhaps the most subversive essay in American history, No Treason — here argues that vices should not be treated as crimes. As always, Spooner’s prose is scintillating and his reasoning is relentlessly logical.
Excerpt: “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. Vices 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.”
* Every Crime Needs a Victim by Laurence M. Vance. This excellent article updates the essential insights of Spooner (above) with modern-day examples.
Excerpt: “Prostitution isn’t just the world’s oldest profession, it’s also the world’s oldest victimless crime. But if adultery or fornication should not be crimes, then why should prostitution be one? They are all consensual acts between two or more parties. Forced prostitution, of course, is a crime because it has a victim. And prostitutes who trespass by plying their trade without permission on private property are themselves committing a crime. But sex between two consenting adults without dinner and a movie should not be the business of government or anyone else. Again, if an individual is genuinely concerned about what he sees as the plight of prostitutes, then he should resort to persuasion or provide an employment alternative instead of looking to the government to outlaw immoral activity.
“The state’s war on drugs, like its war on poverty and its war on terrorism, is a failure, unless you consider turning hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding people into criminals a success. Out of the 847,863 arrests for marijuana in 2008, 754,224 were for possession alone. According to the Sentencing Project, over half of the federal prison population is the result of drug charges. Twenty percent of the state prison population and 25 percent of the local jail population is due to drug charges. There are currently about half a million drug offenders in prison or jail, an increase of 1,100 percent since 1980. Not only has the unconstitutional drug war had virtually no impact on the use or availability of most drugs in the United States, it has destroyed civil liberties and financial privacy.”
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Got questions? Dr. Ruwart has answers! If you’d like answers to YOUR “tough questions” on libertarian issues, email Dr. Ruwart at: ruwart@theAdvocates.org
Due to volume, Dr. Ruwart can’t personally acknowledge all emails. But we’ll run the best questions and answers in upcoming issues.
Dr. Ruwart’s previous Liberator Online answers are archived in searchable form.
Dr. Ruwart’s outstanding book Healing Our World is available from the Advocates.