On several occasions I have been asked how “laissez-faire” capitalism and a “live-and-let-live” mentality can combat crime? The embedded assumption is that a true free-market, capitalist system couldn’t possibly do better at combating crime than a highly regulated, heavily policed system. The reasoning stems from a belief that libertarianism means one can do whatever he wants with no consequence. That belief, however, is false.
Liberty spelled another way is personal responsibility, but even that has limits. Your right to throw your fist ends at my nose or at least my personal space. Liberty means you choose how to live your life and what to do with your property and money, without having to get permission from government first. Seeing as other people have the same right, it does not mean you get to freely harm other persons or their property.
Liberty means government can still enforce laws against violent crime, but it can no longer try to manage every aspect of your lives via laws and enforcement. Put another way, there is real crime and then there is statutory crime. Allow me to explain.
Natural Law of the Liberty Conscious
Real crime is simple and usually generally encompasses four basic components: intent of harm (including negligence) or illicit gain, action of harm or illicit gain, consequence of harm or illicit gain, and absence of choice or perspective. The basic crimes we all know and understand fall under the definition of real crime: murder, rape, assault, theft, fraud, and even trespass. Criminal negligence, like drunk driving, might appear to fall outside of this definition but it actually does not, given the idea of personal responsibility for one’s actions as opposed to intent of harm.
In the boxing ring, two men or women intend to hurt each other; they take action to hurt each other; they in fact do hurt each other; but both have chosen to be in the ring to participate in the sport. Under this scenario, no crime has been committed. Out in the middle of the street, however, when one person attacks another all of the same elements are included except that one of the people, did not choose to participate initially. Therefore, it is a crime.
Obamacare Epitomizes Law by Decree
Statutory crime, on the other hand, is a crime created by government, because a majority of people or their representatives have deemed a certain behavior wrong. Seat-belt laws, smoking laws, drinking laws, and drug laws are all examples of crimes by statute. To understand this better, a statutory law attacks a base element of personal choice (smoking, using drugs, prostitution, or polygamy) in favor of an emotional argument (smoking is bad for you) or a control or power issue. In terms of control, the thinking might be, “we don’t want you to do this because it is immoral so we will force you to change your behavior.”
Refusing to buy medical insurance under Obamacare is a statutory crime. If you don’t buy it, you have to pay a fine, hidden as a “tax.” If you refuse to pay the fine, you get arrested and sent to prison. Yet no one has been harmed by your individual choice not to buy a commercial product.
The health-care system was overburdened by government regulation before the Affordable Care Act, and now it is even more burdened with regulation. Whether it costs the “collective” (society as a whole) money or not is irrelevant from the libertarian perspective, given that the individual is responsible for his own health choices and health care, not the government.
I’ve often said, the problem with health care isn’t that my choices cost you money, it’s that we’ve set up a system whereby you pay for my health care and I pay for yours. The solution is to change that system. Obamacare was a government solution to a government-created problem.
Cronyism and Perverse Incentives
Seat belt laws are also based on commercial profit and individual cost. The idea has been that if everyone is forced to wear a seat-belt, less people die and insurance rates go down (thanks also to mandatory car insurance). Individuals would pay less while companies would also profit more, in theory. While insurance companies have certainly continued to profit, I cannot say with any certainty if we as consumers have truly “saved” any money over the long term.
However, in order to insure those government-mandated profits, those officials have had to expend an enormous amount of money. They have also issued billions of dollars in fines against individuals and conducted millions of traffic stops, since individuals have chosen not to wear a mandatory safety device which actually costs lives as well as saves them.
Furthermore, when government revenues go down, like in a recession, the number of tickets go up, eliminating any doubt that most tickets are revenue generators, not safety measures. By one estimate, governments across the United States can raise up to US$7 billion per year from traffic tickets.
Targeting What Matters
My vision of a limited government includes a strong focus on real crime and zero focus on statutory crime. That goes with the understanding that, when given a choice, some will indeed choose poorly, but most will eventually make wiser choices, thanks to the evidence provided by those who do not.
This would mean a much lower cost to the consumer, because government would not have to fund enormous enforcement agencies to keep people in line with statute. It would also mean far fewer tickets and lower revenue for local governments — revenue that wouldn’t be missed, since the government wouldn’t be nearly as large as it is now.