The fallacies of "victimless crime" and "idiot tax"

© January 2010 Paul Cooijmans

"Victimless crime"

The term "victimless crime" is sometimes used by who claim that certain types of crime really have no victims, and therefore should be legalized, allowed, let unpunished, altogether. Common examples of these forms of behaviour are prostitution and the trade in and use of recreational drugs. The arguments in favour of legalization usually amount to "If the involved parties voluntarily take part in the behaviour at their own risk, there is no crime", and "If in practice a prohibition can not be maintained, it is better to abolish it".

"Idiot tax"

"Idiot tax" is a term for a number of unethical but formally legal trade practices which are in reality more or less subtle forms of con. Instances thereof are unwanted expensive mobile phone text message services, call television games, lotteries, and deceptive sales techniques. People who are stupid enough to let themselves be conned, it is argued by the defenders of "idiot tax", deserve to lose their money.

Arguments against "victimless crime" and "idiot tax"

The fallacy in these arguments is in its essence revealed by the following: If one allows people to make money in unethical ways, one is allowing unethical people to make money.

More concretely, the arguments against "victimless crime" and "idiot tax" are:

  1. The fundamental argument: If something is unethical, it ought not to be profitable.
  2. The pragmatic argument: Those who feel attracted to making money in unethical ways are inherently not good people, but tend to be unethical, and if they are allowed to thus make their fortunes they will, unethical as they are, use their money for ill purposes; they will buy themselves power, influence, and status, and infiltrate mainstream business, politics, entertainment, sports, science, education, and the judicial system, perverting each of those, so that there is a victim after all: society itself. The truth is that the phenomena of "victimless crime" and "idiot tax" are money-making tools for organized crime - be it legalized or not - , and play a role in the interweaving of the underworld with the bona fide part of society. They are among the engines behind the decline of civilization.

To the argument "If in practice a prohibition can not be maintained, it is better to abolish it", the reply is "To allow unethical deeds for that reason would mean to give in to terror and hand the world over to the bad. Pragmatism must not go so far as to allow unethical behaviour".

To the argument "People who are stupid enough to let themselves be conned deserve to lose their money", the reply is "That may be true but even then does not contradict or make ineffective the fundamental (1) and pragmatic (2) arguments above, and therefore is no reason to allow those behaviours." In case this not at once clear to the reader: The possible fact that stupid people deserve to lose money - wherewith one may or may not agree - would not make it any less unethical to con them, nor would it change the fact that those who feel attracted to making money by deceiving stupid people are the lowest of the lowest and beneath contempt.

Other arguments in favour of "victimless crime" and "idiot tax" discussed

An argument sometimes heard from defenders of "victimless crime" and "idiot tax" is, "To begrudge people to make money in these unethical ways is simply a matter of jealousy and spite." The reply to this is, "No, it is on the contrary a matter of righteousness (see the fundamental argument) and pragmatism (see the pragmatic argument). It is to prevent bad people from gaining power in society. In addition, to accuse people who have a good sense of righteousness of jealousy and spite is an insult."

What one also often sees is the argument that legalization of a hitherto criminalized behaviour will somehow remove that behaviour from the criminal scene and thus make it right. These people apparently think that when, for instance, recreational drugs are legalized, good decent citizens will suddenly become interested in being drug dealers, rather than the filth that fills that niche now. But in reality, such behaviours by their nature attract the less than ethical. A good person will not want to have anything to do with selling recreational drugs, even when it is legal, because of the great harm it does to some users. Legalizing an unethical behaviour does not necessarily change the class of individuals that feel attracted to engage in that behaviour. For if one allows people to make money in unethical ways, one is allowing unethical people to make money. Legalization of an unethical behaviour does not turn it into an ethical behaviour, just as criminalizing an ethical behaviour does not turn it into an unethical behaviour.

An example is the fabled allowing - gedogen - of "soft" drugs in the Netherlands during the past several decades. Long boasted upon as successful and studied by many countries, it has become clear in recent years that this policy has created a large scene of organized criminals who control the production of and trade in "cannabis", which they have genetically enhanced such that it has become a hard drug. These organizations make billions, intimidate thousands of people in residential areas into using their attics for growing drugs, pollute the environment with illegal waste dumping, and shoot anyone who gets in their way without warning. Politicians are now beginning to admit that the famous policy of allowing - gedoogbeleid - has failed woefully and will have to terminated.

An advantage of legalization is said to be that it becomes possible to control and tax the behaviour, but whether that really makes a difference is doubtful, considering the many currently legal forms of unethical behaviour that allow some to make much money without violating any law. Legalization in this ineffective form does not change the fundamental and pragmatic problems of "victimless crime", but merely turns that crime into "idiot tax", so that one is no longer allowed to call the culprits "criminals". Another excellent example is tobacco, a completely legal recreational drug. Anti-smoking organizations have repeatedly shown the tobacco industry to be deeply unethical, for instance in its use of additions to make cigarettes more addictive, and in its exercising influence on politicians, this influence being possible thanks to the huge amounts of money the industry makes with its unethical practices. Clearly, the fact that production of and trade in tobacco are legal does not result in ethical people engaging in those activities.

Final remarks

For clarity it is noted that some of the arguments in favour of "victimless crime" and "idiot tax" are valid libertarian principles. For instance, it is true that people must be free to engage in stupid behaviour that may harm them if they so choose. But that in no way contradicts or makes invalid the arguments against "victimless crime" and "idiot tax" presented above. Protecting people from their own stupidity, recklessness, or lack of impulse control is not among those arguments.

The example of recreational drug trade above is merely illustrative; this article is about unethical behaviour in general, not about specific forms of it. Exactly which forms of behaviour are unethical is a question that lies outside the scope of the article, as does the question as to why any particular unethical behaviour is unethical.

What remains is how exactly people can be prevented from making money in unethical ways (and therewith how society can be prevented from being perverted by who acquired wealth and influence that way). Prohibition and legalization are two ways to address the problem, but both fail in their current weak implementations. If you prohibit you create a "victimless crime", if you legalize you create an "idiot tax", the effect on society being largely the same in both cases.

Penalties for offenders need to be such that repeating is not an option. Penalties for offenders need to be such that repeating is not an option.

To be effective, either prohibition or legalization has to be taken further. Prohibition needs to be strict, with zero tolerance, and penalties for offenders such that repeating is not an option. Legalization of an unethical behaviour requires taxation of the money made therewith, so high that the behaviour will not be profitable. If carried out thus, the approaches may be equally successful.