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Vices Are Not Crimes - XXII.
Written by Lysander Spooner   
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Still another and all-sufficient answer to the argument that the use of spirituous liquors tends to poverty, is that, as a general rule, it puts the effect before the cause. It assumes that it is the use of the liquors that causes the poverty, instead of its being the poverty that causes the use of the liquors.

Poverty is the natural parent of nearly all the ignorance, vice, crime, and misery there are in the world.[6] Why is it that so large a portion of the laboring people of England are drunken and vicious? Certainly not because they are by nature any worse than other men.

But it is because their extreme and hopeless poverty keeps them in ignorance and servitude, destroys their courage and self-respect, subjects them to such constant insults and wrongs, to such incessant and bitter miseries of every kind, and finally drives them to such despair, that the short respite that drink or other vice affords them is, for the time being, a relief. This is the chief cause of the drunkenness and other vices that prevail among the laboring people of England.

If those laborers of England, who are now drunken and vicious, had had the same chances and surroundings in life as the more fortunate classes have had; if they had been reared in comfortable, and happy, and virtuous homes, instead of squalid, and wretched, and vicious ones; if they had had opportunities to acquire knowledge and property, and make themselves intelligent, comfortable, happy, independent, and respected, and to secure to themselves all the intellectual, social, and domestic enjoyments which honest and justly rewarded industry could enable them to secure — if they could have had all this, instead of being born to a life of hopeless, unrewarded toil, with a certainty of death in the workhouse, they would have been as free from their present vices and weaknesses as those who reproach them now are.

It is of no use to say that drunkenness, or any other vice, only adds to their miseries; for such is human nature — the weakness of human nature, if you please — that men can endure but a certain amount of misery before their hope and courage fail and they yield to almost anything that promises present relief or mitigation — though at the cost of still greater misery in the future. To preach morality or temperance to such wretched persons, instead of relieving their sufferings, or improving their conditions, is only insulting their wretchedness.

Will those who are in the habit of attributing men's poverty to their vices, instead of their vices to their poverty — as if every poor person, or most poor persons, were specially vicious — tell us whether all the poverty within the last year and a half[7] that has been brought so suddenly — as it were in a moment — upon at least 20 millions of the people of the United States, were brought upon them as a natural consequence, either of their drunkenness or of any other of their vices? Was it their drunkenness or any other of their vices, that paralyzed, as by a stroke of lightning, all the industries by which they lived, and which had, but a few days before, been in such prosperous activity?

Was it their vices that turned the adult portion of those 20 millions out of doors without employment, compelled them to consume their little accumulations, if they had any, and then to become beggars — beggars for work, and, failing in this, beggars for bread? Was it their vices that, all at once, and without warning, filled the homes of so many of them with want, misery, sickness, and death? No. Clearly it was neither the drunkenness, nor any other vices, of these laboring people, that brought upon them all this ruin and wretchedness. And if it was not, what was it?

This is the problem that must be answered; for it is one that is repeatedly occurring and constantly before us and that cannot be put aside.

In fact, the poverty of the great body of mankind, the world over, is the great problem of the world. That such extreme and nearly universal poverty exists all over the world, and has existed through all past generations, proves that it originates in causes which the common human nature of those who suffer from it has not hitherto been strong enough to overcome. But these sufferers are at least beginning to see these causes and are becoming resolute to remove them, let it cost what it may.

And those who imagine that they have nothing to do but to go on attributing the poverty of the poor to their vices, and preaching to them against their vices, will ere long wake up to find that the day for all such talk is past. And the question will then be, not what are men's vices, but what are their rights?


Lysander Spooner (1808–1887) is the American individualist anarchist and legal theorist known mainly for setting up a commercial post office in competition with the government and thereby being shut down. But he was also the author of some of the most radical political and economic writings of the 19th century, and continues to have a huge influence on libertarian thinkers today. He was a dedicated opponent of slavery in all its forms — even advocating guerrilla war to stop it — but also a dedicated opponent of the federal invasion of the South and its postwar reconstruction. See Let's Abolish Government, a collection selected personally by Murray Rothbard as Spooner's best work.


[1] To give an insane man a knife or other weapon or thing by which he is likely to injure himself, is a crime.

[2] The statute book of Massachusetts makes ten years the age at which a female child is supposed to have discretion enough to part with virtue. But the same statute book holds that no person, man or woman, of any age, or any degree of wisdom or experience, has discretion to be trusted to buy and drink a glass of spirits on his or her own judgment! What an illustration of the legislative wisdom of Massachusetts!

[3] Cato committed suicide to avoid falling into the hands of Caesar. Who ever suspected that he was insane? Brutus did the same. Colt committed suicide only an hour or so before he was to be hanged. He did it to avoid bringing upon his name and his family the disgrace of having it said that he was hanged. This, whether a wise act or not, was clearly an act within reasonable discretion. Does any one suppose that the person who furnished him with the necessary instrument was a criminal?

[4] An illustration of this fact is found in England, whose government, for a thousand years and more, has been little or nothing else than a band of robbers, who have conspired to monopolize the land, and, as far as possible, all other wealth. These conspirators, calling themselves kings, nobles, and freeholders, have, by force and fraud, taken to themselves all civil and military power; they keep themselves in power solely by force and fraud, and the corrupt use of their wealth; and they employ their power solely in robbing and enslaving the great body of their own people, and in plundering and enslaving other peoples. And the world has been, and now is, full of examples substantially similar. And the governments of our own country do not differ so widely from others in this respect as some of us imagine.

[5] It is to this incentive alone that we are indebted for all the wealth that has ever been created by human labor, and accumulated for the benefit of mankind.

[6] Except those great crimes, which the few, calling themselves governments, practice upon the many, by means of organized, systematic extortion and tyranny. And it is only the poverty, ignorance, and consequent weakness of the many, that enable the combined and organized few to acquire and maintain such arbitrary power over them.

[7] That is, from September 1, 1873, to March 1, 1875.


This translation is published by the Mises Institute and republished here under the Creative Commons License.


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