Anthony Wheeler

Humble Executive.  Literary Artist.  Altruistic Libertarian.

                                                                  Victim-less Vices
 

Why do laws exist that prohibit behavior that harms no one, other than the one perhaps performing the prohibited behavior?  While it’s perfectly reasonable to condemn such behavior from the pulpit, or denounce it in editorials, and write novels that show how self-destructive such behavior can be, why do we insist on using the violent power of the state to prevent it?  The cost of doing so is horrendous, in terms of prison time (non-productive, cost to incarcerate); full-time agents working against it; the undermining people’s respect for the law; intra-community violence (drug violence, murdered prostitutes). 

On the one hand, people feel like they have to tell others how to live, what to do, and what to avoid, using the power of the government to enforce their moral standards.  For those advocating a Genuinely Free Society, this stands as a basic point of departure between those people who demand moral conformance through the power of the government, and those who wish to remain unfettered by the moral laws of others.  In a Genuinely Free Society, the individual remains responsible for themselves.  They don’t seek or accept the forceful intrusion upon their lives.  Let the moral citizens care for their own ethical lives, says the individualist; let them mind their own business.

On the other hand, there are social engineers who speak of the ‘Great Society’, or seek some social construct that meets an ideal, one based on the nuclear family, say, or one that limits certain activities to the healthy and wise.  But all such referrals to a healthy ‘society’ must be done with the explicit understanding that such collective nomenclature is simply shorthand for quantities of individuals that actually feel, think and act, as opposed to the collective abstractions:

I believe that this view which regards social collectivities such as ‘society’ or the ‘state,’ or any particular social institution or phenomenon, as in any sense more objective than the intelligible actions of the individuals is sheer illusion.

            Friedrich Hayek
, Individualism and Economic Order

For those who worry about the decline of society that might arise from human vices, they should consider that society—and culture in general—is far hardier than many believe.  Yes, the human soul can be crushed by oppressive regimes, or starved by brutal natural conditions, but given a minimum of structure and simple freedom, people will overcome their situation and make something of themselves.  This is because:

The stability of our personal lives rests upon a consensus of perception and memory that in fact has no guarantee.  We are solipsists who in uneasy conjunction with other solipsists construct a society and a shared world.

          John Updike
, Odd Jobs

This shared world, to the extent it exists, will endure the sharp blades of actuality in the same way a wave remains unchanged by a thrust sword.  The true dangers to the human spirit are posed by an aggressive state (National Socialism for example, or Stalinism, or Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”), an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, or a super volcano like the one brewing under Yellowstone.  Human civilization will not founder because of gay marriage, promiscuity, drugs, long hair, rock music, strip malls, pornography, day-time TV, poor education, mind-altering drugs, illegal aliens, Democrats, Harley Davidsons, soap operas, Republicans, reality TV, or any one of a thousand cultural activities, icons, personalities, fads or trends.  None of these indicate society’s decay, but in fact speak largely to its creative resilience, flexibility and hardiness.  Social critics have decried every age, complained about the degenerate youth, lack of respect for this institution or that custom, hailed the coming apocalypse, expressed disgust with just about everything. 

According to the social critics, the world has been in decline since the Golden Age of Athens (and even then, Plato and Aristophanes, among others, were highly critical of the ‘perfect’ civilization – in fact, that same polis executed one of the most exceptional men in human intellectual history).  History is filled with countless expressions of imminent destruction and dire warnings of catastrophic cultural failure.  If they’re right, we must be approaching the lower reaches of Dante’s famous Inferno. 

Does it really matter what some people believe is happening with society as a whole?  ‘Society’ is simply an abstraction used to support one perspective or another.  The term is dangerously misleading, and largely meaningless.  Any individual living within a reasonably civilized nation outside a war zone (and sometimes within) can cultivate themselves—or choose not to.  Within any given age and society, those people capable of living an autonomous life—generally a small minority—will do so.  The rest is just statistics.  On the other hand:

Does the cry in the tragic play muffle, even blot out, the cry in the street? (I confess to finding this an obsessive, almost maddening question.)  Coleridge thought so: “Poetry excites us to artificial feelings—makes us callous to real ones.”

            George Steiner, Real Presences

Most people who pay attention to such cries, the same people who watch the daily news and read the editorials, get indignant once in awhile, perhaps a bit angry, then go about their business.  Tomorrow there will be another cry in a different street as the news cycle turns another new day, and nothing will have changed.

Enacting a Genuinely Free Society would constitute real change, and completely undermine organized crime, thereby removing the economic basis for violent gangs.  Most organized crime and full-time street gangs make money on crimes without victims: recreational drugs, prostitution and gambling.  In most instances, every transaction leaves both parties satisfied, generating no overt complaints.  One party has something to sell (drugs, sex) or a service to offer (card game, roulette) while the other party wishes to purchase or play.  The individual transaction increases wealth, in the same way the farmer and the cobbler benefit when they trade three chickens for a pair of shoes. 

Alternatively, crimes against people and property (rape, murder, burglary, fraud) create an angry, and potentially violent, victim (or victim’s relatives).  Such transactions are far more dangerous for the perpetrator, both during the event and long after, as it leaves an aggrieved party: nobody wants to be raped (not even rapists); nobody wants to be murdered (not even killers); and everyone hates to be robbed (even burglars).  Making a living performing such activities is dangerous, and rarely makes for a lengthy career.  As a college student, I was robbed at gunpoint while working in a gas station.  Two weeks later, an armed gas station attendant shot the same man to death.  All for a very small amount of cash.

Crime against people and property is difficult to perpetuate, and therefore, less likely to attract organized crime or street gangs.  In fact, most of the violence associated with organized crime and street gangs are territorially based, not economic.  Such violence would become unnecessary should the prohibitions against victimless crimes be abolished.

If these illicit activities became fully legal, as they would in a Genuinely Free Society, those providing the products and services would operate as legitimate businesses, liable to the same regulations and tax law as any other free enterprise.  Not only would this provide general benefits to society as a whole, in terms of increased tax revenue and safer streets, it would transform a majority of citizens into fully lawful ones, as opposed to the large percentage today that ignore or avoid the laws as written. 

Drugs

At tremendous cost, the US has waged a violent and disruptive war against illegal drugs, and failed.  They will continue to fail, as paradoxically, the more successful law enforcement interdicts imported drugs and disrupts local distribution, the more valuable the commodity becomes, driving prices ever higher, and thereby creating greater incentive to continue providing the substances that are in such high demand.

The underground economy created by the worldwide drug trade was estimated at $320 billion in 2003, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, some 0.9% of global GDP.  The market in the Americas alone was estimated at $151 billion.   Ten years later:

According to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and European crime-fighting agency Europol, the annual global drugs trade is worth around $435 billion a year, with the annual cocaine trade worth $84 billion.

Those numbers are staggering, and represent a 36% growth in the global drug trade in ten years, despite major efforts to curb the industry.  These facts alone should warrant a major change in drug policy, given the demonstrated desire to consume them, and the lack of success in curbing that desire.

Instead, the US is estimated to have spent upwards of $40 billion waging this fruitless war, all of it funded by taxes, a large portion of which paid for, ironically, by the same people partaking in the illegal substances. 

In addition to the financial cost, it’s estimated that as many as 5700 people were killed in the US in drug-related violence over a five year period (Bill Conroy, 3/10/12, quoting Narco News).  In other countries, the death toll is far worse:

The number of homicides in Mexico peaked in 2011 and then declined for three years. But the latest statistics show the trend reversed in 2015.  Estimating how many homicides are related to drug violence is an imprecise science, but leading newspapers in Mexico estimate that since 2006, organized crime-style homicides account for 40% to 50%. 

            Mariano Castillo
, CNN, 2/15/16

Based on those estimates, over 22,000 people were killed in Mexico in 2011 by organized crime.  Drug-related murder rates are even higher in some places, such as Honduras.  Worldwide, the number of human lives destroyed in the war on drugs is literally incalculable, in that we simply don’t know.  What we do know is that the wealth, corruption and violence related to the international drug trade has destabilized many regions in the world, undermined the rule of law, and distorted local economies. 

Another major cost to society in the war on drugs is the number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses:

According to the Bureau of Prisons, there are 207,847 people incarcerated in federal prisons.  Roughly half (48.6 percent) are in for drug offenses. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are 1,358,875 people in state prisons.  Of them, 16 percent have a drug crime as their most serious offense.

That means that in the US, about 318,000 people are currently in prison on drug-related charges, the equivalent of a city the size of Lexington, KY.  

Not only does it cost the taxpayer to keep these people locked up (an estimated $9bil/year) but also prevents those individuals from contributing productively to society.  That loss would roughly equate to the wages they forego sitting in prison.  If they earned average annual salaries, that would equal another $14bil/year in cost to society.

One of the more insidious side effects of the illegal drug trade is the need, and the means, to acquire firearms.  Because the law does not protect drug dealers (and in fact, threatens them), they must protect themselves and their markets.  To do so they acquire weapons.  Because they make so much money in illegal drug trafficking, they can afford to purchase them.  Guns and ammo become necessary business expenses.  And finally, given that those in the drug trade are already criminals, it doesn’t require much incentive to use them, and utilize violence to conduct, and protect, their business. 

Drug violence is terrible enough, but when innocent people get caught in the crossfire, that should be considered utterly unacceptable. 

Consider the alternative: legalizing all drugs.  Once that happens, the need for guns goes away, along with the means to purchase them.  The drug business becomes like any other, and those who conduct the business no more likely to obtain firearms, let alone use them, as anyone else.  Imagine the typical teenage gangsta: without drug revenue, how will he be able to afford $500 for a pistol?  That’s a lot of hours working a McDonalds.  He has already sold his Beretta to a municipal gun buy-back programs in order to eat for the next month.  Now he has to find a job…

The cost of the war on drugs, both domestically and internationally, is so high, both financially and in human lives, it would require extraordinary justification to maintain it. 

It’s true that tens of millions of Americans consume illegal substances.  But this is a mark in favor of legalization, not prohibition.  Every one of those Americans asserts their overarching desires despite the law.  In general, they don’t think what they do is wrong, or immoral, and if pressed, would insist that others simply mind their own business.  In a Genuinely Free Society, they would be free to consume what they want, in the privacy of their home, un-harassed by the law.  Sources for the drugs would be legal as well.

It’s also true that hundreds of thousands of drug users overindulge, and render themselves ill with addiction.  As they fail, they become a burden, to themselves, their family and community.  They spend all their money, lose their jobs, then the house, and become destitute. 

At this point, in a Genuinely Free Society, it becomes an opportunity for friends, family and community to help the person regain their footing: intervention, rehab, general support, until the person gets right. 

Sometimes they never do, as they relapse and the cycle starts over again.  Ultimately, the individual is responsible for themselves, and must decide to help themselves out of such situations.  Sometimes they find it too hard, and can’t make it.  In itself, this is unfortunate, yet hardly justification for waging a war on drugs to prevent the occasional act of self-destruction.

Today, we treat drug users with utter hypocrisy: wealthy drug users go to a fab drug rehab facility, while the poor go to jail.  Double standards apply, creating a structural disconnect in society. 

As for drug-related deaths, specifically accidental overdoses, legalizing drugs would greatly improve this aspect of the culture.  Legal drugs would be properly marked, dosed and listed with dangerous combinations to avoid.  It might even be appropriate to require prospective drug users to attend drug seminars to become qualified to purchase certain drugs.  Instead of a driver’s license, they would have to test to get a ‘drug’ permit.  This approach would greatly reduce accidental overdoses.

In terms of prevention, education would be key.  Make it clear the consequences of drug use.  For instance, the commercial, “This is your brain on drugs,” with eggs frying in a pan.  Treat newly legalized drugs like any socially common drugs, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. 

On the other hand, it’s quite possible that a person’s quality of life can be improved through the occasional (or even daily) use of recreational drugs – marijuana for instance.  I have met several individuals who think so.  In a Genuinely Free Society, individuals would decide for themselves what is best, and take full responsibility when it comes to ingesting/injecting anything.  As discussed in the first chapter, it’s impossible for a third party to assert with certainty what is good, best, or worse for anyone else.  Using the law to assert a particular moral code, or to protect a person from their own foolishness, leads to greater harm, both to countless people killed or imprisoned, and to society as a whole.

Favoring the legalization of drugs does not imply approval.  When advocating a particular political philosophy, one must maintain a clear distinction between the political parameters they present, and the personal choices that they make.  In the case of drugs, I don’t even partake in those approved by society—caffeine, nicotine, alcohol—let alone anything stronger.  But that is a personal choice of mine, one based on the addictive and destructive aspects of the first two (caffeine, nicotine) and the fading appeal of the third (alcohol).  But I am not a monk: I have smoked lots of cigarettes, consumed plenty of coffee and Pepsi, and partied like anyone else.  As people mature, they change, and they learn what works for them, and what to avoid.  This happens to all of us, and I wouldn’t suggest that anyone adopt my life lessons, anymore than I would be willing to adopt theirs.

Legalization drugs wouldn’t preclude private employers from demanding abstinence.  For example, airline pilots, nuclear weapons specialists, and thoracic surgeons, may be required by their employers to submit periodically to drug testing, and prohibited from partaking particular substances.  Within a Genuinely Free Society, this would be a private affair between employer and employee, and certainly apposite in some cases.

In a Genuinely Free Society, it would be perfectly acceptable for people to promote particular lifestyles, or to preach against activities they deem harmful, or advocate cultural events, or peacefully protest against what they don’t like.  Minds can be changed, behavior modified, and lessons taught.  Take smoking, for example.  The percentage of adults smoking in the US had decline dramatically.  According to Wikipedia:

In November 2015, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention noted in their report, “The percentage of U.S. adults who smoke cigarettes declined from 20.9 percent in 2005 to 16.8 percent in 2014. Cigarette smoking was significantly lower in 2014 (16.8 percent) than in 2013 (17.8 percent).”

In 1965, 42.4% of adults smoked, down to 16.8% in 2014.  The current rate is below 15%, and steadily declining.  The drop in recent decades can be attributed to education, widespread understanding of the hazards of smoking, and a cultural shift away from the practice.  This is the proper way to deal with destructive personal habits that people insist on indulging.

Legalizing drugs would greatly reduce global financial costs and the loss of life, while returning direct economic gains, and potentially improvements in the quality of life.  It can’t happen soon enough.

Prostitution

Men have paid for sexual favors long before modern man even existed.  In the earliest times, males who could offer females something of value (food, animal skins, baubles) received sexual favors in return.  And this is all quite natural.

Robert Wright, in The Moral Animal, provides one of the keys for understanding the general human behavior that dominates most of our lives.  He argues that evolutionary-driven genetic influences pervade human activity in subtle and not so subtle ways.  Assuming that…

  • evolution actually takes place (that is, current biological forms have descended from previous ones, and that all life shares a common genetic structure)


  • that human behavior is influenced by genetics.  Take the human smile, for instance: its form and meaning is universal across all cultures and all peoples:


The smile appears on the infant’s face between two and four months of age and immediately triggers a more abundant share of parental love and affection….Melvin J. Konner, an anthropologist, has recently completed a study of the smile and other forms of infant behavior in the !Kung San…of Kalahari.  As he began his daily observations he was “ready for anything,” since the !Kung youngsters are raised under very different conditions from those prevailing in Western cultures…Yet their smile is identical in form, appears at the same age as in American children, and appears to serve exactly the same functions.  Still more convincing is the evidence that blind and even deaf-blind children develop the smile in the absence of any known psychological conditioning that favors it.

          E. O. Wilson
, On Human Nature

  • that all organisms strive to reproduce themselves


  • that the behavior of individual organisms impacts their relative success or failure, resulting in more successful behavioral strategies being passed along


  • And we accept humans as part of nature


…then we can conclude that men and women tend to pursue behavioral strategies that enhance their chances for reproductive success.

Passions for life and sex are built into us, hardwired, pre-programmed.  Between them, they go a long way toward arranging for many offspring with slightly differing genetic characteristics, the essential first step for natural selection to work.  So we are the mostly unconscious tools of natural selection, indeed its willing instruments.  As deeply as we can go in assessing our own feelings, we do not recognize any underlying purpose.  All that is added later.  All the social and political and theological justifications are attempts to rationalize, after the fact, human feelings that are at the same time utterly obvious and profoundly mysterious.  

            Carl Sagan/Ann Dryan
, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

In a primitive state, women require resources to feed and protect their children.  They favor men who posses wealth and status, as they are more likely to effectively support her children.  She, in turn, will provide such men her intimate company.  She never has a doubt whose child she bears: it’s always hers.

Have we forgotten that the president is the alpha male of the tribe, and the alpha male gets the youngest and the most nubile females with or without foreplay?  It’s like that with chimps, gibbons, and even presidents of the United States.  What the alpha male wants the alpha male gets.  It was Evelyn Lincoln, JFK’s secretary, who reported having to beat women off with sticks.  Does it count as sexual harassment if women are harassing the president for sex?
     Let’s be honest about this.  Why do guys want to be president?  It’s not for the rubber-chicken dinners.
     Anyone who has ever watched women falling all over one another to date fat middle-aged moguls should have no doubt about the desirability of the president’s penis…
     …“Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” said Henry Kissinger.  And he wasn’t even as cute as Bill Clinton.  

            Erica Jong
, What Do Women Want?

Men want to mate with attractive women.  They gain access to such women by obtaining wealth and status, and trading it, essentially, for their intimate favors.  Men often doubt the child’s paternity, and may never know for certain.

These fundamental genetic drives manifest themselves in modern society in a variety of demonstrable ways:

  • Rock stars and dictators have no trouble obtaining pliant female companionship, even when they look like Keith Richards or Manuel Noriega.


  • Rich old men, regardless of their physical condition, never lack feminine attention or company.


  • Successful middle-aged men routinely ditch their faithful first wives and abandon their family in order to obtain trophy wives; younger, beautiful women attracted to the man’s relative wealth and status.


  • Middle-aged losers with no money and no prospects spend most of their nights alone.


  • In a recent poll, men and women were asked to rank the ten most important things.  Women ranked money as number one.  Men ranked sex.


A popular song has it right:

          Girls don’t like boys, girls like cars and money
              Boys will laugh at girls when they’re not funny.

                      Good Charlotte
, Girls & Boys

Erica Jong, certainly a literary authority on modern sexuality, summarizes:

Despite the fact that women’s sexual standards have risen as male organs have wilted, it can still be demonstrated that young women like older men with money and that mating is as determined by economic imperatives as it ever was.

            Erica Jong
, What do Women Want?

Many readers will blanch at the harsh, biological reduction of our finest sentiments, exposing, as Wright does, the unappealing underbelly of raw human biological existence.  While these underlying forces drive so much of our desire and behavior, most of the time we remain oblivious to the genuine source or purpose of these drives, and simply carry on anyway:

Understanding the often unconscious nature of genetic control is the first step toward understanding that—in many realms, not just sex—we’re all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer.  The full scope of the logic will take some time to explain, but I don’t think I’m spoiling the end of the movie by noting here that the puppeteer seems to have exactly zero regard for the happiness of the puppets.

              Robert Wright
, The Moral Animal

Men pay for sex one way or another: taking a woman out on a date, buying her dinner, perhaps a movie, hoping the evening will be crowned with a happy ending.  Or longer-term arrangements, where a man with means provides an apartment, clothes, and spending money for his mistress.  And finally marriage, the ultimate price a man can pay for sexual access: everything he owns.

To outlaw short-term cash arrangements is pure hypocrisy.  Consenting adults should be able to engage each other under any terms they desire.  Doing so hurts no one.  Those who object to this behavior can refrain from engaging in it, write letters to the editor, or register their disproval in every legal way.  In any case, they needn’t concern themselves with how adults spend their time in private. 

Prostitution can be a healthy and honorable profession, given a suitable cultural surround.  As it stands, many of the sex workers make a living in dangerous and unhealthy circumstances, with no protection from the law.  Many of them walk the streets, where they can be assaulted and intimidated and sometimes murdered without repercussions to the perpetrator:

Women working in prostitution experience more levels of violence against them than women working in other fields.  In 2004 the homicide rate for female sex workers in the United States was estimated to be 204 per 100,000… This figure is considerably higher than that for the next riskiest occupations in the United States during a similar period (4 per 100,000 for female liquor store workers and 29 per 100,000 for male taxicab drivers).

            Wikipedia


Legalizing a practice that is purely natural for those who engage in it, and completely harmless to those who don’t, would allow the sex workers to get off the street and into respectable establishments, where their safety can be assured (as well as anyone’s) and their health managed in order to protect them from disease, and their clients from spreading it.

Gambling

Why is gambling illegal?  Because some people cannot control themselves, and gamble away their family’s livelihood?  If so, the responsibility for such behavior should lie directly on the individual, and not the state. 

Or is gambling basically immoral, and therefore prohibited?  If the latter, why does the government sponsor lotteries that promise huge winnings at horrible odds?  As a tax form, it’s terribly regressive, as the poor spend a relatively larger part of their meager income on such futile dreams.  As for the winnings, they are never what they announce.  The cash value is always much lower than advertised, and the option to take annual payments doesn’t equate to the winning total.  For example, $100,000/year for the next ten years doesn’t equal $1 million: it’s actually just over $700,000 at 6%.  After all that, the winnings are taxable as normal income, once again reducing the value of the prize.

On the one hand, the lottery is so lopsided against the players it should be considered fraud.  On the other hand, if gambling was generally legalized (as it should be) the state lotteries would soon be out of business, pushed aside by games far more equitable.  Nobody would play, and the prizes would diminish to insignificant levels.

Perhaps that is why gambling remains illegal….