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Gov't should distinguish between vice and crime

BBC News on March 28 reported “Hundreds of Afghan women jailed for 'moral crimes,'” for “crimes” including running away and extra-marital sex. The story follows a report from Human Rights Watch that casts blame on the government of Hamid Karzai, noting that 10 years after Taliban rule these outrageous “moral crimes” continue to be punished — and brutally so.

As strong believers in individual sovereignty and autonomy, market anarchists argue that the state's principal manner of acting is to make peaceful interactions crimes while protecting the institutional crime of ruling class elites. In an essay titled “Vices Are Not Crimes,” published in 1875, American lawyer and anarchist Lysander Spooner defined crimes simply as “those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.”

Market anarchists still hold roughly to Spooner's formulation and accordingly see the state, which necessarily initiates force against person and property, as simply a glorified criminal enterprise. Under the pretext of protecting people from themselves and from their own vices, the state engages in all kinds of villainy and misconduct.

Further, the predicates of an economically thriving and prosperous society are inextricably bound to those of a more generally free and peaceful society — one in which the discretion of individuals is left unmolested. As both a practical matter and a philosophical one, freedom in economic affairs can't be isolated in any meaningful way from freedom in what might be considered “private affairs.”

Market anarchists appreciate the link between all kinds of freedoms, and are committed to a comprehensive understanding of liberty that accounts for their causal interconnectedness. The entire economic system of the present moment is built upon prohibitions against perfectly peaceful and consensual activities, and not just those such as drug use that some regard as “vices.”

Zoning laws dictate where you're allowed to open a business; building codes determine the kinds of dwellings that you may construct; and professional licensure restricts the choices you have as to how you'll make a living. This list of banned though genuinely peaceful undertakings goes on and on, and all supposedly to protect us from ourselves.

All of these interventions into the economic aspect of human life create scarcities that represent both a windfall for the powerful interests they protect and an accompanying definite and significant diminution in overall human freedom.

Observing that “very small results” had come of “efforts to draw the lines between the virtues and the vices,” Spooner and contemporary market anarchists prefer to consult a more definite boundary. The exercise of coercive authority over the individual, we argue, is all that a free society ought to prohibit. As in Afghanistan, if the business of defining “vice” is left to the state, all free people will before long be branded criminals.

In a stateless society, the full scope of nonviolent, non-invasive action thus remains open to every member of society, unhindered by the meddlesome and arbitrary commands of the state. And from the free interplay of individuals, even granting their vices, a more vibrant and productive society is educed.

David D'Amato is a news analyst for Center for a Stateless Society

Those who lament the moral decline of society would do well to focus their disapproval toward the state, the present day's (and history's) foremost source of injustice and immorality. If Afghanistan is unique at all — and arguably it's not — it is only so in the degree of its monstrousness, not in its barbaric punishment of innocent people.

Anarchists ask that individuals who leave others alone in their legitimate prerogatives themselves be left alone. Were that one simple rule observed, fully and across the board, the state would pass away and crimes like those in Afghanistan would be a memory.

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