The Libertarian Response to Vices

Looking back on my run for State Representative, my most rewarding experience was being invited to speak about libertarianism to a class of gifted students at a local high school.  I started by handing out the Worlds Smallest Political Quiz and gave a brief overview of what libertarianism is all about.  Then I opened the floor for questions, and no one can accuse the students of pulling any punches.  We discussed many different topics, but I clearly remember that one of the main subjects that kept coming back was drugs.  Several students challenged my support of legalizing drugs, telling me that drugs are bad, they destroy families and communities, etc.  How could I support the use of deadly drugs that cause so much harm?

I distinctly remember defending my position along empirical grounds.  I explained that while "drugs are bad" the effects from prohibition are the main cause of the problems associated with drug use.  I made a parallel to alcohol prohibition, explaining that our experiment with outlawing booze resulted in increased alcoholism, deadlier and lower quality alcohol (moonshine), higher prices attracting criminal mobsters, an increase in violence as those mobsters fought the police and each other for territory, and the corruption of the police.

However, one thing I don't remember explaining is the moral argument, the "who am I to judge" argument.  I'm not sure if I was bold enough to propose that drug use is a vice and not a crime.  Perhaps the students were familiar with the phrase, "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend your right to say it".  But if they were, many of them didn't draw the parallel between offensive language and offensive behavior.

Lysander Spooner defined vices as "those acts by which a man harms himself or his property… 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."  Today we live in a world where many vices are outlawed, and the price for breaking these laws include fines, imprisonment, and even death.  Libertarianism is often portrayed as an extreme ideology, where the libertarian position of being opposed to drug prohibition is seen to imply favoring drug use.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

This blog will show that endorsing a vice and using government violence to combat a vice are two extreme positions on a spectrum that includes other options, including tolerance and the use of ostracism.  We will see that libertarians adopt these median options as the proper response to various vices, and consequently show that libertarianism is actually the moderate position compared to irresponsible promotion of self-destructive behavior on the one hand, and the use of aggressive violence by government agents on the other.

The spectrum of possible responses to other people's vices

Starting from the far left of my "Responses to Vices Spectrum", we can think of a few scenarios where someone would be inclined to endorse, support, and approve of another person's vices.  One scenario would be when a person himself suffers from the vice that he endorses.  People that are considered addicted to a drug or a behavior like gambling often surround themselves with people that share the same vice.  This mutually reinforcing support network allows them to both normalize their destructive behavior because "everyone else is doing it", while also creating an example that allows them to legitimize their behavior, "Yes I just got my second DUI, but at least I haven't gotten a fourth one like Bob.  Now he really has problems."

On the flip side, there are countless examples of promoting vices where the person or organization making the endorsement does so for self-interested reasons.  The pimp that convinces a confused girl to sell herself for money and the drug pusher that encourages a teenager to sample his products to ensure a new customer are examples of endorsing illegal vices.  However, let us not forget that, thankfully, many vices are not illegal.  One can't watch more than a few minutes of television without being bombarded with countless endorsements of vices, whether outright commercials or strategic product placement.  The abuse of alcohol, cigarettes, and pharmaceutical drugs cause far more social damage than many illegal drugs, especially compared to marijuana.  Even the over indulgence of junk food and soda would rate higher on a social damage scale in terms of health costs, yet commercials promoting endless consumption of these products populate our billboards and rank as our favorite super bowl commercials.

Even when you don't have a specific product to sell we see vices glamorized in American culture, including promiscuity and gambling.  But don't think private greed is the only source of this endorsement, as the government also has its hands in the dirty pot when encouraging the poor and mathematically ignorant into spending their few precious dollars on state-sponsored lotteries.

Moving rightward on my spectrum, the next logical option for responding to a vice is tolerance.  In this case, an individual may not personally approve of the behavior, may even actively try to persuade others against the particular vice, but nonetheless they tolerate those that engage in the vice and keep a place for them in their lives.  These scenarios could include the permanent designated driver that responsibly handles alcohol and drives his booze-hound friends from bar to bar, the person that goes to Vegas and takes in a few shows while a friend loses his life savings, or a religious fundamentalist that believes homosexuality to be a sin but maintains a loving relationship with an openly gay family member.

As we move from tolerance to intolerance, the next non-aggressive response to a vice is ostracism.  In this case the person believes the vice to be so dangerous that they don't want anything to do with the vice, nor with those that engage in it.  According to Wikipedia, the word ostracism comes from the Greeks and described a procedure where a citizen would be expelled from Athens for ten years.  Ostracism could be practiced for the benefit of the ostracized, where a parent realizes they have been enabling destructive behavior by condoning a hopelessly alcoholic or drug-abusing child, and decide to "cut them off" from the family until they get their lives back on track.  On the other hand, the parent could ostracize the "prodigal son" not for his own well-being, but for the sake of sparing the negative influence from the other children.

At last we arrive at the option available to the State, the use of aggressive violence against someone because of their vices.  Remember, we are not talking about a response to crimes, where the committer of theft, rape, assault, or murder is the aggressor and a government or private security company is acting in the defense.  No, this is the unfortunately common response used today that when someone doesn't approve of the behavior of another, including a mutually beneficial voluntary arrangement between two or more other people, and they respond by passing a law.  Even if the penalty is merely a small fine, we must remember the price of non-compliance and escalation with the State.  To resist a fine can mean imprisonment, and to resist imprisonment can mean death.  As law enforcement officers, formerly known as peace officers, become increasingly militarized, it should become more and more clear how crazy it is to employ state violence against those that "imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property."

Unfortunately, the use of violence by government to respond against men and their vices has a long history in America.  As I found in Murray Rothbard's Conceived in Liberty, many of the pre-revolutionary colonies were much more oppressive than the British, where the price for exposing too much skin or missing church included fines, whipping, and locking people up.  While we no longer outlaw those specific infractions, we have not evolved much past our Puritan ancestors.  Instead, we have replaced every religious law with a thousand or ten-thousand regulatory laws.  Selling raw milk, more than 16 oz. of soda, or a toilet that uses more than 1.6 gallons per flush can land you in the crosshairs of the State.  Books like Paul Craig Robert's The Tyranny of Good Intentions and Harvey Silverglate's Three Felonies A Day are two of my favorites that expose the outrageous extent to which we have criminalized people's vices, and the danger that we have put ourselves in now that the precedent has been set.

Now that we have defined the four major categories of how a person can respond to another's vice, we can explore how a libertarian might respond to some of the hot-button issues facing America today that are so often misrepresented in the public.

Drug Use

Undoubtedly, drug use is a vice and not a crime.  On the one hand we have those that abuse drugs, both the pharmaceutical and illegal variety, which harms no one but themselves.  On the other hand, we have the pushers of drugs qua drug pusher, where they are guilty of nothing but voluntarily offering a product which the person is free to accept or reject.  After quickly reviewing the empirical arguments for repealing prohibition (I highly recommend Mark Thornton's The Economics of Prohibition, available at mises.org for free) we can turn to the libertarian solutions to this vice in a world that has rejected the government-violence response.

First, let's remember that a world where drug possession and selling is not illegal would look very different from the one we have today.  Many illegal drugs come from naturally growing plants and have no patents or intellectual property rights associated with them.  Absent this artificial monopoly, we would see the prices for these drugs plummet.  Absent enormous profits, we would see the violence and corruption associated with drugs disappear.  Criminal gangs would not be interested in selling marijuana for the same reason they are not engaged in selling wheat or rice, as their strategic advantage only applies in the trade of illegal products with the accompanying need to evade or bribe government agents.

However, we would still be left with the problem of the abuser of drugs.  The poor soul who cannot take responsibility for his actions and finds himself making one mistake after another due to his short time-preference and inability to resist the highs and lows of drugs would still exist.  What to do with him?  First off, we have already done a great service to this person by reclassifying him from a criminal to a person in need of help.  If he already has a drug addiction problem, the last thing that would help is throwing him in a cage with violent criminals.

Under the category of tolerance, we can predict that for-profit and charitable rehabilitation centers would cater to drug abusers and their families.  These institutions would compete by offering the lowest costs and the highest quality service, trying to win the business and donations of others by advertising the best recovery rates.

Finally, considering that mandatory minimum sentencing for drug "crimes" have exploded our prison population beyond capacity, forcing jails to release truly dangerous criminals while keeping millions of non-violent drug offenders performing slave labor, I hope the libertarian solution is looking less radical and more sane.


Racism, or any kind of unjust discrimination for that matter, is a practice that most people find disgusting, and many would probably end a friendship with someone who suddenly revealed themselves as some kind of hateful racist or bigot.  Yet the libertarian views this as a moral issue, not a legal issue.  The right to associate implies the right to not associate.  So far at least, it is not a crime to choose friends or lovers based on race or some other superficial characteristic, yet it is a crime calling forth the violence of the state to choose private employees and customers based on being a member of a government recognized minority group.

On the empirical side, Peter Schiff has made excellent arguments calling for the repeal of racial discrimination laws.  From the perspective of a customer and a Jewish American, Schiff has claimed that he'd rather a business be free to discriminate against him so that he can in turn identify the racist / bigoted employer and cease doing business with him.  This is an example of the ostracism approach to racists.  Today we have no idea which business owners are racist or not, but allow them to expose themselves and we'll be able to ostracize the racist and even lead boycotts against him.  The consequence will be that racist store owners will be put out of business, while non-racist businessmen will gain market share.  As Walter Block has said, the only color a smart businessman sees is green, and if racist behavior causes him to lose money, this could in itself cause him to change his tune without the need to bring in the violence of the state.

Peter Schiff has also made the case for repealing racial discrimination laws from the perspective of an employer, as he has made a compelling case that these laws can create racist behavior in a person who would not be racist absent these laws.  Anyone who has hired or supervised an employee can testify that not every employee works out.  Sometimes people lie on their resumes, slack on the job, or reasons having nothing to do with the particular employee require a business man to let someone go.  Knowing that hiring any employee carries the risk of firing them in the future, the non-racist employer will rationally respond to the fact that there are some people who have the potential to sue them under racial / minority discrimination laws.  Hence, the employer may choose the white straight male over a more qualified member of a minority because the former cannot sue him, while the latter has that option available.  Even if the lawsuit is totally without merit, the time and cost of fighting and winning such a lawsuit can certainly influence the business decision that would be about pure dollars and cents absent these laws.

Thus, by rejecting the government-violence response to the vice of racism, we may not end racism overnight, but at least we will unleash market incentives to punish racist employers with ostracism and refusing to do business with them, while abandoning the perverse incentives that may cause a non-racist employer to engage in racist behavior that exist today.


The Libertarian Party platform states,
"Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration."
At the risk of opening up a controversial can of worms, I'd like to explore this hot-button issue, as it is often the single issue that people vote on.  The 1988 Libertarian Party Presidential Candidate Ron Paul is Pro-Life, endorsing laws that would define life at conception and outlawing abortion.  Many other libertarians are Pro-Choice, including 2012 Libertarian Party Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson, supporting a woman's right to choose.

Having libertarian representatives on opposite sides of this polarizing issue may seem schizophrenic, but there is a libertarian position that doesn't have a simple label and requires a little explaining.  One can be Pro-Life in their capacity to influence and persuade those around them, including the choice they would personally make in the position of choosing life or death for the fetus developing in the womb of the mother.  At the same time, this person can be Pro-Choice in that they reject using the government-violence response of locking up women who make this questionable choice and the doctors who offer this service.

As all libertarian positions logically flow from our principles of Self-Ownership and Non-Aggression, it is not surprising to find Murray Rothbard frame the issue in this manner in For a New Liberty (free pdf):
"If we are to treat the fetus as having the same rights as humans, then let us ask: What human has the right to remain, unbidden, as an unwanted parasite within some other human being's body?  This is the nub of the issue: the absolute right of every person and hence every woman, to the ownership of her own body."
Thus, we are separating the moral issue from the legal issue.  Just as I might oppose what someone does to their body when it comes to the drugs they ingest, I might be extremely opposed to the choice a woman makes to abort her baby.  However, as a libertarian I will not endorse the use of government violence as the proper response to this decision.  I can try to persuade the woman out of the decision, I can donate money to an organization that pays women to keep their babies and finds good homes for them, I could even use the ostracism response and decide to not associate with abortion doctors and the women who make this choice, but what I won't do is lock them up in a cage or endorse a government agency to do so in my name.

"The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools " -Herbert Spencer
I hope that my "Responses to Vices Spectrum" can be a useful aid when explaining the libertarian options that are aligned with the non-aggression principle.  Libertarians are portrayed in the media as having extreme positions, as our policy recommendations do not fit into the left / right narrative where there are two and only two choices presented, where often both choices are two versions of the government-violence response.

Just because we libertarians don't want to initiate violence against others for their vices, including stealing their money, locking them in a cage, and killing them, mainstream opinion seems to imply that we seek a world where 12 year olds are addicted to heroin working for a dollar a day in a coal mine for racist employers.  This is not the case.  We want peace and prosperity for ourselves and our children, we just believe there is a better way to deal with social issues then the extreme position of government violence.  The cost of freedom is personal responsibility, and we believe that allowing people to learn from their mistakes is not only the best way to promote personal growth, but that non-aggressive methods of responding to the vices of others is morally superior than trying to combine two wrongs and somehow arriving at a right.
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