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Vices Are Not Crimes - XXI.
Written by Lysander Spooner   
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But it will be said, again, that the use of spirituous liquors tends to poverty and thus to make men paupers, and burdensome to the taxpayers — and that this is a sufficient reason why the sale of them should be prohibited.

There are various answers to this argument.

One answer is that if the fact that the use of liquors tends to poverty and pauperism be a sufficient reason for prohibiting the sale of them, it is equally a sufficient reason for prohibiting the use of them; for it is the use, and not the sale, that tends to poverty. The seller is, at most, merely an accomplice of the drinker. And it is a rule of law, as well as of reason, that if the principal in any act is not punishable, the accomplice cannot be.

A second answer to the argument is, that if government has the right, and is bound, to prohibit any one act — that is not criminal — merely because it is supposed to tend to poverty, then, by the same rule, it has the right, and is bound, to prohibit any and every other act — though not criminal — which, in the opinion of the government, tends to poverty.

And, on this principle, the government would not only have the right, but would be bound, to look into every man's private affairs and every person's personal expenditures, and determine as to which of them did, and which of them did not, tend to poverty — and to prohibit and punish all of the former class. A man would have no right to expend a cent of his own property, according to his own pleasure or judgment, unless the legislature should be of the opinion that such expenditure would not tend to poverty.

A third answer to the same argument is that if a man does bring himself to poverty, and even to beggary — either by his virtues or his vices — the government is under no obligation whatever to take care of him, unless it pleases to do so. It may let him perish in the street or depend upon private charity if it so pleases. It can carry out its own free will and discretion in the matter; for it is above all legal responsibility in such a case.

It is not, necessarily, any part of a government's duty to provide for the poor. A government — that is, a legitimate government — is simply a voluntary association of individuals, who unite for such purposes, and only for such purposes, as suits them. If taking care of the poor — whether they be virtuous or vicious — be not one of those purposes, then the government, as a government, has no more right, and is no more bound, to take care of them, than has or is a banking company, or a railroad company.

Whatever moral claims a poor man — whether he be virtuous or vicious — may have upon the charity of his fellowmen, he has no legal claims upon them. He must depend wholly upon their charity, if they so please. He cannot demand, as a legal right, that they either feed or clothe him. And he has no more legal or moral claims upon a government — which is but an association of individuals — than he has upon the same, or any other individuals, in their private capacity.

Inasmuch, then, as a poor man — whether virtuous or vicious — has no more or other claims, legal or moral, upon a government, for food or clothing, than he has upon private persons, a government has no more right than a private person to control or prohibit the expenditures or actions of an individual, on the ground that they tend to bring him to poverty.

Mr. A, as an individual, has clearly no right to prohibit any acts or expenditures of Mr. Z, through fear that such acts or expenditures may tend to bring him (Z) to poverty, and that he (Z) may, in consequence, at some future unknown time, come to him (A) in distress, and ask charity. And if A has no such right as an individual to prohibit any acts or expenditures on the part of Z, then government, which is a mere association of individuals, can have no such right.

Certainly, no man who is compos mentis holds his right to the disposal and use of his own property by any such worthless tenure as that which would authorize any or all of his neighbors — whether calling themselves a government or not — to interfere, and forbid him to make any expenditures, except such as they might think would not tend to poverty, and would not tend to ever bring him to them as a supplicant for their charity.

Whether a man who is compos mentis come to poverty through his virtues or his vices, no man, nor body of men, can have any right to interfere with him, on the ground that their sympathy may some time be appealed to in his behalf; because, if it should be appealed to, they are at perfect liberty to act their own pleasure or discretion as to complying with his solicitations.

As a consequence, the poor are left, to a great extent, to depend upon private charity. In fact, they are often left to suffer sickness, and even death, because neither public nor private charity comes to their aid. How absurd, then, to say that government has a right to control a man's use of his own property, through fear that he may sometime come to poverty and ask charity.

Still a fourth answer to the argument is that the great and only incentive which each individual man has to labor, and to create wealth, is that he may dispose of it according to his own pleasure or discretion, and for the promotion of his own happiness, and the happiness of those whom he loves.[5]

Although a man may often, from inexperience or want of judgment, expend some portion of the products of his labor injudiciously, and so as not to promote his highest welfare, yet he learns wisdom in this, as in all other matters, by experience — by his mistakes as well as by his successes. And this is the only way in which he can learn wisdom.

When he becomes convinced that he has made one foolish expenditure, he learns thereby not to make another like it. And he must be permitted to try his own experiments, and to try them to his own satisfaction, in this as in all other matters; for otherwise he has no motive to labor, or to create wealth at all.

Any man who is a man would rather be a savage and be free, creating or procuring only such little wealth as he could control and consume from day to day, than to be a civilized man, knowing how to create and accumulate wealth indefinitely, and yet not permitted to use or dispose of it, except under the supervision, direction, and dictation of a set of meddlesome, superserviceable fools and tyrants, who, with no more knowledge than himself, and perhaps with not half so much, should assume to control him on the ground that he had not the right or the capacity to determine for himself as to what he would do with the proceeds of his own labor.

A fifth answer to the argument is that if it be the duty of government to watch over the expenditures of any one person — who is compos mentis and not criminal — to see what ones tend to poverty, and what do not, and to prohibit and punish the former, then, by the same rule, it is bound to watch over the expenditures of all other persons, and prohibit and punish all that, in its judgment, tend to poverty.

If such a principle were carried out impartially, the result would be that all mankind would be so occupied in watching each other's expenditures, and in testifying against, trying, and punishing such as tended to poverty, that they would have no time left to create wealth at all. Everybody capable of productive labor would either be in prison, or be acting as judge, juror, witness, or jailer.

It would be impossible to create courts enough to try, or to build prisons enough to hold, the offenders. All productive labor would cease; and the fools that were so intent on preventing poverty would not only all come to poverty, imprisonment, and starvation themselves, but would bring everybody else to poverty, imprisonment, and starvation.

If it be said that a man may, at least, be rightfully compelled to support his family, and, consequently, to abstain from all expenditures that, in the opinion of the government, tend to disable him to perform that duty, various answers might be given. But this one is sufficient, viz.: that no man, unless a fool or a slave, would acknowledge any family to be his, if that acknowledgment were to be made an excuse, by the government, for depriving him, either of his personal liberty, or the control of his property.

When a man is allowed his natural liberty, and the control of his property, his family is usually, almost universally, the great and paramount object of his pride and affection; and he will, not only voluntarily, but as his highest pleasure, employ his best powers of mind and body not merely to provide for them the ordinary necessaries and comforts of life but to lavish upon them all the luxuries and elegancies that his labor can procure.

A man enters into no moral or legal obligation with his wife or children to do anything for them, except what he can do consistently with his own personal freedom, and his natural right to control his own property at his own discretion.

If a government can step in and say to a man who is compos mentis and who is doing his duty to his family, as he sees his duty, and according to his best judgment, however imperfect that may be, "We (the government) suspect that you are not employing your labor to the best advantage for your family; we suspect that your expenditures, and your disposal of your property, are not so judicious as they might be, for the interest of your family; and therefore we (the government) will take you and your property under our special surveillance, and prescribe to you what you may and may not do with yourself and your property; and your family shall hereafter look to us (the government), and not to you, for support" — if a government can do this, all a man's pride, ambition, and affection, relative to this family, would be crushed so far as it would be possible for human tyranny to crush them; and he would either never have a family (whom he would publicly acknowledge to be his), or he would risk both his property and his life in overthrowing such an insulting, outrageous, and insufferable tyranny.

And any woman who would wish her husband — he being compos mentis — to submit to such an unnatural insult and wrong, is utterly undeserving of his affection, or of anything but his disgust and contempt. And he would probably very soon cause her to understand that, if she chose to rely on the government, for the support of herself and her children, rather than on him, she must rely on the government alone.