Can The State Enforce Virtuous Behavior? – OpEd


For thousands of years, states (or equivalent ruling organizations and elites) certainly have acted as if they could enforce virtuous behavior—always of course according to the particular conception of virtue they happened to cherish. And many continue to do so today. Thus, most U.S. states still prohibit possession of, use of, and commerce in a long list of narcotics and other substances deemed bad for people. Governments have often forbidden free markets in sexual services, gambling, and even doing business on Sunday. They have made various sorts of speech unlawful, along with all sorts of communication in schools and in the labor market. They have outlawed many kinds of interactions, from marriage on down a long list, between adults and persons under a stipulated age of legal consent, sometimes as old of 21 years. So, governments clearly purport to enforce virtuous behavior—or, at least, the avoidance of vicious behavior—among those subject to their rule.

But do they succeed? They obviously do not succeed fully, and in many cases they fall so far short of success that their “virtue laws” are a laughing stock notwithstanding severe penalties provided for convicted violators. Although prostitution has been outlawed far and wide, for example, it has been practiced just as pervasively. Likewise for gambling. Indeed, in many cases, as in states with state-sponsored lotteries, the state has not forbidden gambling as such, but only private gambling that competes with the state’s own gambling enterprises, thereby making a mockery of the idea that it seeks to discourage a vice. An entire sector of the underground economy is involved in supplying the active demands of people who wish to use drugs, patronize prostitutes, gamble, or otherwise engage in “vicious” behavior the state has outlawed. So, at best, the state’s attempt to enforce virtuous behavior is a flop everywhere the state makes such an attempt.

But to call it a flop does not go nearly far enough, because states that purport to enforce virtuous behavior actually create conditions in which they not only fail to achieve their ostensible aims, but actually create conditions and incentives that wreak great harm on the society their “virtue laws” supposedly will protect or improve. So, for example, the state forbids dealing in various narcotics, which does not stop such dealing but drives it into the black market, where suppliers and demanders have no access to the ordinary court system and therefore, not infrequently, use violence to settle their disputes. By making drugs illegal, states ensure that quality-control measures will be poorly developed and implemented in the markets where people buy drugs, with the result that many people are cheated by low-quality products, poisoned by adulterated products, and even killed by products whose strength and purity the purchasers cannot readily assure. When the state drives prostitution into the black market, health conditions among the prostitutes cannot be kept up as well, and the prostitutes may spread harmful and even deadly diseases as a result. Making various commercial transactions illegal also creates an incentive for corruption of the cops, prosecutors, and judges charged with enforcing the “virtue laws.” Hence, during Prohibition, bootleggers and crooked cops went together like peanut butter and jelly, and today many police play an integral role in protecting drug dealers, bulking up their incomes by accepting bribes and by stealing drugs, cash, and other valuable items from people they claim have engaged in drug trafficking. In some countries the drug lords and the lawful government leaders are so closely connected that they are almost one and the same.

So, to answer the question I posed at the outset: no, the state cannot successfully enforce virtuous behavior—people will strive to do what they strongly prefer to do—but it certainly can create conditions that foster vastly more harm than would occur if the state simply left people alone in regard to their vices. Every society seems to harbor obnoxious busy bodies and arrogant moral crusaders, and wherever these people gain state support for their favored programs of suppressing vices, the outcome is horrendous. States can do many things, especially such things as committing mass murder, mass extortion, and mass theft and carrying out the relentless bamboozlement of their subjects, but among the many things that states cannot do successfully is the enforcement of virtuous behavior. Trying to make people refrain from doing what they wish to do, especially from taking actions that have no true victims other than those who voluntarily assume the risks, is a fool’s errand, and it is also a type of state coercion that has caused untold needless suffering through the ages and continues to do so today.

Long ago, in 1875, Lysander Spooner wrote a classic essay, “Vices Are Not Crimes.” It would be a godsend if people today were to read it and take its message to heart.


This article was published at The Beacon.

Robert Higgs

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation.

2 thoughts on “Can The State Enforce Virtuous Behavior? – OpEd

  • March 21, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    All laws, rules and regulations, even commandments, are intended to do two things: regulate behavior and justify punishment. All laws, whether prohibiting gambling or murder, speeding or robbery, jaywalking or trafficking in narcotics, are artifacts of someone’s decision as to what behaviours is “wrong” and “virtuous,” or “right” and “sinful.”

    The premise of this article, therefore, is based on a decision by the writer to judge for himself what is a harmless “vice” or a “serious crime.” In so doing, the author makes the very same decisions as any legislature or potentate or supposed God. Whoever creates and enforces the law decides what is “virtuous” and what is not.

    If in some parts of society “honor killings” are “virtuous” and in others they are considered “murder,” how does the author intend to judge that? Shall we merely leave these people alone with their “vices?” What, then, do we do with all the other miscreants who break every other law that are acceptable in some societies and not in others?

  • March 24, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    What spooner wrote way back might have convinced the author but now I find most of the laws that prohibit behavior that might harm the innocents as acceptable ones, who is right it is author or me?


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