Home The Abutment Pillar Classical Liberty Vices Are Not Crimes - X.
Vices Are Not Crimes - X.
Written by Lysander Spooner   
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Vices Are Not Crimes
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X
A government that shall punish all vices impartially is so obviously an impossibility that nobody was ever found, or ever will be found, foolish enough to propose it. The most that any one proposes is, that government shall punish some one, or at most a few, of what he esteems the grossest of them. But this discrimination is an utterly absurd, illogical, and tyrannical one. What right has any body of men to say, "The vices of other men we will punish; but our own vices nobody shall punish. We will restrain other men from seeking their own happiness according to their own notions of it; but nobody shall restrain us from seeking our own happiness according to our own notions of it. We will restrain other men from acquiring any experimental knowledge of what is conducive or necessary to their own happiness; but nobody shall restrain us from acquiring an experimental knowledge of what is conducive or necessary to our own happiness"?

Nobody but knaves or blockheads ever thinks of making such absurd assumptions as these. And yet, evidently, it is only upon such assumptions that anybody can claim the right to punish the vices of others, and at the same time claim exemption from punishment for his own.

XI
Such a thing as a government formed by voluntary association would never have been thought of if the object proposed had been the punishment of all vices impartially; because nobody wants such an institution, or would voluntarily submit to it. But a government formed by voluntary association for the punishment of all crimes is a reasonable matter; because everybody wants protection for himself against all crimes by others, and also acknowledges the justice of his own punishment, if he commits a crime.

XII
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 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 defense 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 defense of everyone 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 neighbor's 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.

It will do for a pope or a king — who claims to have received direct authority from Heaven to rule over his fellowmen — to claim the right, as the vicegerent of God, to punish men for their vices; but it is a sheer and utter absurdity for any government, claiming to derive its power wholly from the grant of the governed, to claim any such power; because everybody knows that the governed never would grant it. For them to grant it would be an absurdity, because it would be granting away their own right to seek their own happiness; since to grant away their right to judge of what will be for their happiness is to grant away all their right to pursue their own happiness.

XIII
We can now see how simple, easy, and reasonable a matter a government is for the punishment of crimes, as compared with one for the punishment of vices. Crimes are few, and easily distinguished from all other acts; and mankind are generally agreed as to what acts are crimes. Whereas vices are innumerable; and no two persons are agreed, except in comparatively few cases, as to what are vices.

Furthermore, everybody wishes to be protected, in his person and property, against the aggressions of other men. But nobody wishes to be protected, either in his person or property, against himself; because it is contrary to the fundamental laws of human nature itself that any one should wish to harm 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.

This is what every one wants, and has a right to, as a human being. And though we all make many mistakes, and necessarily must make them, from the imperfection of our knowledge, yet these mistakes are no argument against the right; because they all tend to give us the very knowledge we need, and are in pursuit of, and can get in no other way.

The object aimed at in the punishment of crimes, therefore, is not only wholly different from, but it is directly opposed to, that aimed at in the punishment of vices.

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.

These two objects, then, are directly opposed to each other. They are as directly opposed to each other as are light and darkness, or as truth and falsehood, or as liberty and slavery. They are utterly incompatible with each other; and to suppose the two to be embraced in one and the same government is an absurdity, an impossibility. It is to suppose the objects of a government to be to commit crimes, and to prevent crimes — to destroy individual liberty, and to secure individual liberty.

XIV
Finally, on this point of individual liberty, every man must necessarily judge and determine for himself as to what is conducive and necessary to, and what is destructive of, his own well-being; because, if he omits to perform this task for himself, nobody else can perform it for him. And nobody else will even attempt to perform it for him, except in very few cases. Popes, and priests, and kings will assume to perform it for him, in certain cases, if permitted to do so. But they will, in general, perform it only in so far as they can minister to their own vices and crimes by doing it. They will, in general, perform it only in so far as they can make him their fool and their slave.

Parents, with better motives, no doubt, than the others, too often attempt the same work. But in so far as they practice coercion, or restrain a child from anything not really and seriously dangerous to himself, they do him a harm, rather than a good. It is a law of Nature that to get knowledge, and to incorporate that knowledge into his own being, each individual must get it for himself. Nobody, not even his parents, can tell him the nature of fire, so that he will really know it. He must himself experiment with it, and be burnt by it, before he can know it.

Nature knows, a thousand times better than any parent, what she designs each individual for, what knowledge he requires, and how he must get it. She knows that her own processes for communicating that knowledge are not only the best, but the only ones that can be effectual.

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.

In so far as parents can really aid their children in the latter's search after happiness, by simply giving them the results of their (the parents') own reason and experience, it is all very well, and is a natural and appropriate duty. But to practice coercion in matters of which the children are reasonably competent to judge for themselves is only an attempt to keep them in ignorance.

And this is as much a tyranny, and as much a violation of the children's right to acquire knowledge for themselves, and such knowledge as they desire, as is the same coercion when practiced upon older persons. Such coercion, practiced upon children, is a denial of their right to develop the faculties that Nature has given them, and to be what Nature designs them to be. It is a denial of their right to themselves, and to the use of their own powers. It is a denial of their right to acquire the most valuable of all knowledge, to wit, the knowledge that Nature, the great teacher, stands ready to impart to them.

The 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.

Those who hold opinions opposite to these are those whose false and vicious theologies, or whose own vicious general ideas, have taught them that the human race are naturally given to evil, rather than good; to the false, rather than the true; that mankind do not naturally turn their eyes to the light; that they love darkness rather than light; and that they find their happiness only in those things that tend to their misery.



 
 

 

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