GUILTY…? Lysander Spooner’s Vices Are Not Crimes

Lysander who? What a name!

Isn’t it strange? I’m doing all this research on different things—some of it related to drug addiction, the drug trade, criminilization etc—and I read something written by this Lysander Spooner fella.

What’s both interesting and disconcerting is that it’s written in 1875, yet brings up some great questions and obvious ideas about freedom that we may not think of spontaneously in 2007, so intoxicated with the theoretical rights of the State to decide what is right and wrong, legal and criminal.

But first off, a few wordy thoughts from me:

This is difficult to explain, or to not generalize, or not miss something out, so forgive my mistakes and add what you will, but…

…looking at both death and health costs from the use of tobacco and alcohol, the State’s decision to make certain drugs legal and others illegal appears to be only be slightly related to health or even public safety.

What then are the criteria for the legalities of a substance? I’m not sure, but excessive amounts of altered states (and one could justifiably argue degradation) from substance use are not tolerable within a State—regardless of whether the experience is done in controlled settings or even for spiritual reasons.

In arguably the most religious democractic country in the world, the US, substances to alter one’s perspective or way of seeing the world for spiritual reasons are illegal.

They are illegal even though anti-depressants etc. have never been more prescribed.

They are illegal even though for millenia substances for mood alteration—peyote and ayahuasca for example—have been a profound aspect of indigenous spiritual traditions.

In short and in ways I can’t decipher, I wonder if arbitrary decisions on the legality of certain substances is an unconscious or even conscious breaking of the “modern world” from the indigenous spirit.

Take that last sentence with a pound of salt…I’m just trying to understand something


Happiness in the modern world (where possible) is pursued, at least in part, and in a way exacerbated by the influence of certain institutions and their economic theories. The goal of these institutions is to maximize profit by convincing civilians that through the ongoing consumption of “unnecessary” and often unsustainable goods a fulfilling life can be achieved.

Altered ways of understanding the transitory experience of being here are not significantly encouraged by the majority of media institutions, corporations or public relations firms. Nor are they encouraged in the average household.

But ironically, when consumerism and/or life itself has proven insufficient for whatever reasons—some indeed biochemical—the “legal” pharmacy intervenes to eradicate ever increasing amounts to of depression, anxiety or whatever.

In a sense, we take prescribed vices.

Is it possible that drug addicts are simply pushing farther this prescribed or legal numbing?

Is it possible that because these hard drugs have not received the legal exemptions of alcohol, tobacco, antidepressants, users are then forced to take these drugs under extreme duress that almost certainly exacerbate the condition?

Further, is this duress more deeply imposed for reasons society’s leaders can’t un-hypocritically answer?

It’s obviously true that vices can take people into hell, as crystal meth addiction, heroin addiction and cocaine addiction have shown, as have lung cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, countless deaths while driving intoxicated have shown.

Nevertheless, the crime of illicit drugs is, in a significant part, simply the criminalization of the drug, and the unchecked drug purchasing market that results.


Either way, a glance at the 1875 words of Lysander Spooner’s Vices Are Not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty might at least be thought-provoking.

Spooner writes:

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.

And yet more than thirty percent of the incarcerations in the United States are for marijuana related “crimes.”

To most Canadians and many Americans, incarceration for drug use often considered extreme, even in polls.

That increased incarceration isn’t extreme to most elected small c conservative officials—or the conservative Canadian Federal government, for that matter—seems somehow askew from the traditional conservative mandate of seeking a smaller and less powerful state.

For the record, in my opinion, political labels like conservative, liberal, labour, Left Wing, Right Wing etc have become largely meaningless except as a means of understanding an individual’s instinctual or natural leanings.

In other words, the average Joe or Joanne conservative leans towards a belief in, ostensibly, a pull-up-your-socks work ethic, fiscal responsibility and a small state.

However in economic reality (an oxymoron) by most any statistics, the American “conservative” governments since Reagan have built an increasingly massive state and driven the country into massive debt (although, we are all, to varying degrees, responsible for our own massive increase in consumer debt, falling for the push to consume more and more).

In short, conservative voters (like all of us) have been duped by their allegiance.

But back to what I was wondering:

Excluding the unconscious numbing of self through alcohol consumption, could it be argued that the criminalization of altered states, through drugs or spiritual effort—or a combination of the two—are a pronounced characteristic of extreme tyrannical States?

Both communist China and Russia come to mind.

Is this relevant to the current ideological slant of the United States government, and to a lesser degree, the Canadian government?

Spooner goes on to say:

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 practices a vice with any such criminal intent. He practices his vice for his own happiness solely, and not from any malice toward others…

In the midst of this endless variety of opinion, what man, or what body of men, has the right to say, in regard to any particular action, or course of action, “we have tried this experiment, and determined every question involved in it? We have determined it, not only for ourselves, but for all others? And, as to all those who are weaker than we, we will coerce them to act in obedience to our conclusions?

In relation to both personal experience and seeking knowledge, as seen with the InSite supervised injection site and the highly skilled personnel surrounding the experiment—in an area under undeniable duress—what leader, in the name of liberty, has the right to say:

We will suffer no further experiment or inquiry by any one, and, consequently, no further acquisition of knowledge by anybody?”

Who are the men who have the right to say this? Certainly there are none such. The men who really do say it are either shameless impostors and tyrants, who would stop the progress of knowledge, and usurp absolute control over the minds and bodies of their fellow men; and are therefore to be resisted instantly, and to the last extent; or they are themselves too ignorant of their own weaknesses, and of their true relations to other men, to be entitled to any other consideration then sheer pity or contempt.

Not a bad argument.

Unless this clear distinction between vices and crimes be made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property, and the corresponding and coequal rights of another man to the control of his own person and property.

For a government to declare a vice to be a crime, and to punish it as such, is an attempt to falsify the very nature of things. It is as absurd as it would be to declare truth to be falsehood, or falsehood truth.

Hope you found ol’ Lysander thought-provoking? Feel free to comment.

For a link to Lysander and more, press here.

This freedom stuff, sometimes against one’s own judgements and even morality, is so tough to figure out.

Lots of love to you…on the road to learning.

Pete xoxo


5 Responses to “GUILTY…? Lysander Spooner’s Vices Are Not Crimes

  1. philip mccormack says:

    This Lysander unlike his Spartan namesake is a man of moral fortitude. The Spartan was a warrior, a leader, a politician and totally untrustworthy, not unlike George W excepting the warrior.
    There is no doubt that drugs like pure heroin or opium when taken bring about a euphoric state of mind for many hours, and can be taken for decades without harming the addict. Lysander Spooner would have been well aware of this in 1875. From a neurochemical point of view they are the ligands that fit the receptors throughout the body and the brain because of their similarity to the naturally found endorphins. The problem is they do not potentiate the desire to work physically, and this is in conflict with the state, which has no money of its own, and no power without taxation. Maybe ten years with a large number of people using opiates would get ride of the state-just my quirky sense of humour. One thing is for certain if we just followed Lysander’s ideas we would save billions of dollars in taxes; less prisons, less police, less judges, less lawyers, less prosecutors, less sheriffs, less violence and gang warfare, wouldn’t that be a win-win situation. Love and a happy utopia everyone. Philip

  2. [...] This of course, makes the endless push of law enforcement—thus the criminalization of vice—at least worth one’s honest, compassionate contemplation. [...]

  3. [...] 1875, US Constitutional expert Lysander Spooner wrote: Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his [...]

  4. [...] 1875, US Constitutional expert Lysander Spooner wrote: Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his [...]

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