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Monday, June 07, 2004

Battle Pursuit of Happiness - The Challenger - Opening Arguments

Victimless Crimes?

The esteemed chairman has invoked the famous phrase from our nation's Declaration of Independence, the "right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and, rather surprisingly, tied this phrase to such popular vices as prostitution, drugs, and gambling. While it may seem unfair for me to rebut the chairman rather than his Iron Blogger, I am afraid I must fault the chair's logic in drawing such a comparison. First, because the Declaration of Independence has no force of law, and is merely a historic statement, and second, because surely most of the founders, including most of the signers of that document, would have blanched at the notion that "liberty and the pursuit of happiness" conferred an unlimited individual right to vice.

Prior to the creation of the Constitution, the Continental Congress passed a resolution urging the several states to crack down on the habit of what they called gaming--in other words, gambling. In a letter to his daughter written while he was President, Thomas Jefferson referred to the miserable resource of gaming, which corrupts our dispositions, and teaches us a habit of hostility against all mankind." George Washington, in his first inaugural address, said there is "no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained..." Can we have any sane doubt that at the time he wrote that he like his fellow founders have viewed drug addiction, gambling, and prostitution as lacking in virtue, as genuine vices? Indeed, Washington's political opponents tried to spread a rumor that he was a gambler just to prevent him from becoming President, for that alone would have been widely viewed by the Founders as disqualifying a man from public office. Yet as it turns out, Washington not only wasn't a gambler, but did his best to forbid the practice among his troops when he was a general, and never said a good word about it.

Of course, this isn't supposed to be about what the Founders thought, except to note that in the morality of their day, the age-old vices of prostitution, gambling, and heavy drinking (a form of drug use, of course) were all frowned on as great social evils.

The bigger question in these "victimless crimes" is whether they are truly victimless. I must assert strongly that they are not. For rarely do those caught up in these vices live solitary lives as islands unto themselves. There are families and children involved in almost all of these vices. Almost no one wants to see their son or daughter fall into a life of prostitution. Furthermore, prostitutes, as vectors for sexually transmitted diseaes, are a major public health hazard, and what they do affects us all. And, while some women might be happy as prostitutes, most who've seen this industry will tell you that the "happy hooker" is mostly a myth. The average prostitute mostly preys on the weaknesses of lonely men, but then herself is often close to enslaved psychologically by a pimp, who may also intentionally turn her into a drug addict just to keep her dependent upon him. The average prostitute lives a short, miserable life and many don't live past the age of 40. Then there are the communities who are affected, for communities which have prostitutes walking the streets also generally suffer lowered property values; few families want to live in areas where their sons and daughters see women and boys commonly prostituting themselves.

The average drug or gambling addict has a family, and that family often winds up watching helplessly as the addict destroys himself, and he may well destroy the family as he does so. Losing your car, your home, and your family to these vices is hardly uncommon. And once again, there is the issue of how these things affect all our lives: do you want to live in a neighborhood where street walkers and drug addicts are a common sight? What does that do to your property values, or to how you explain things to your children about acceptable and unacceptable behavior?

Libertarians like to say that liberty is frequently curtailed by those who are acting in the interests of children, but frankly this is nonsense. People have a right to form communities that are stable, safe for themselves and their children, and in which their property values won't be destroyed by the bad behavior and bad examples of others. Thus I think almost anyone would agree: even if we were to legalize gambling, prostitution and drugs, we would have to tightly regulate all these practices, keeping them out of residential neighborhoods, and restricted only to a few places where only adults generally go. And even if we were to do something like that, establishing "red light districts" where we looked the other way at these social evils, we would be fooling ourselves if we did not acknowledge that there would be a huge cost in human lives: drugs, gambling, and prostitution all destroy lives, and very few of those who fall prey to these vices are able to isolate their families and communities from that destruction.

Furthermore, there's another truth we should acknowlege: those in the business of profiting from gambling, drug addiction, and prostitution--the owner of the house of gambling, the pimp, the drug pusher--are all in the business of destroying lives for a profit. It may be that this is acceptable in a free society, but let's not kid ourselves about what these people are doing with their businesses.

In summary, then: It is doubtful that most of those who signed the Declaration of Independence would really have endorsed the notion that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" included prostitution, drugs, and gambling among those precious liberties they were all ready to put their lives on the line for. And the notion that these crimes are "victimless" is really rather fatuous: all of them destroy lives, families, and communities. Can we just be honest about that before we talk about whether to simply throw out all laws which discourage these behaviors?

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