Victimless crime

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A victimless crime is the name given to acts penalized by a government in which the crime did not involve any form of aggression. A classical example of a victimless crime is the consumption or trade of drugs. Although a person may be a "drug abuse victim" in the same sense that a person can be an "earthquake victim," neither the drug abuse nor the earthquake are considered by libertarians to be morally impugnable acts or events, because neither fraud nor initiation of force were involved.

Many other members of society may be harmed in one way or another as an indirect result of the drug abuse. For example, a child may be neglected by a mother who pays so much attention to acquiring and using drugs that she is not available to take care of her baby as well as she otherwise might have. The drug abuse was still not a direct and inevitable cause of the neglect; many drug-using parents can and do care for their children adequately, and many parents who abstain from drugs neglect their children. Murray Rothbard pointed out that prostitution and insider trading are also victimless crimes and described the police who enforce these laws as "thugs."[1]

Laws against victimless crimes essentially treat certain behaviors as public goods and others as negative externalities. In some respects it is a similar concept as, for example, spending government funds to erect a monument, or to forbid a landowner from letting his lawn grow too high. The idea is that the people would suffer if government did not intervene, because private actors would not have taken the optimal action on their own. The government regards the situation as a market failure whose correction requires the use of armed force.

But people's preferences may differ. Why should one person's wishes be forced upon another? Lew Rockwell writes, "I may be delighted to see factories belching smoke because I love industry. But that does not mean I should be taxed for the privilege of viewing them. Similarly, I may be offended that most men don't have beards, but that doesn't mean that the clean-shaven ought to be taxed to compensate me for my displeasure."[2] The criminalization of victimless crimes was viewed by the writers of Cato's Letters as an unnecessary intervention lending itself to government corruption:[3]

Let people alone, and they will take care of themselves, and do it best; and if they do not, a sufficient punishment will follow their neglect, without the magistrate's interposition and penalties. It is plain, that such busy care and officious intrusion into the personal affairs, or private actions, thoughts, and imaginations of men, has in it more craft than kindness; and is only a device to mislead people, and pick their pockets, under the false pretence of the publick and their private good. To quarrel with any man for his opinions, humours, or the fashion of his clothes, is an offence taken without being given.