Lysander Spooner on the idea that laws against “vice” (victimless crimes) are unjust (1875)

Lysander Spooner

Found in The Shorter Works and Pamphlets of Lysander Spooner, Vol. 2 (1862-1884)

The radical American individualist legal theorist and abolitionist Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) argues in a collection of essays on the prohibition of alcohol that all laws against “vice” were unjust, immoral, and counter-productive, and that practising a vice was no crime at all:

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.

It is a maxim of the law that there can be no crime without a criminal intent; that is, without the intent to invade the person or property of another. But no one ever practises a vice with any such criminal intent. He practises his vice for his own happiness solely, and not from any malice toward others.

In an anonymous essay written for a work on the failure of prohibition in 1875, the great American radical legal theorist argues that laws against the sale and consumption of alcohol (and all other so-called vices) were unjust, illegal, and unconstitutional. He distinguished between “vices”, which may or may not harm the individual who engages in them, and “crimes”, which harms another person’s person or property. Thus, in his mind, only “crimes” should be the concern of the “constabulary”. Unfortunately for those Christians who wanted to campaign for the voluntary giving up of alcohol, the “Washingtonians”, those politicians and police forces from the national capital, were interfering in their campaign by resorting to forcible prohibition, with the inevitable sad results. The editor of the book was a homeopath and Christian, “Diocletian” Lewis. “Lysander” Spooner was a deist and a radical abolitionist. Politics sometimes makes for strange bedfellows.