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Decriminalisation arguments

The ever-perceptive Harry Hutton makes a good point:

The West is losing the War on Arson, along with the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, the War on Fare Dodgers, and some other wars I don’t remember right now. Is it time to consider decriminalisation? Making it illegal just drives it underground and gives it a false glamour, like filleting haddock on a wooden surface*. If burning stuff down were legal it could be taxed and controlled, as in Holland. There was a most interesting piece about it in The Economist.

The filleting haddock thing is explained thus:

*Banned by the 1990 Food Safety Act, since when cases of food poisoning have obviously rocketed.

I have never liked the “it gives it a false glamour” argument against banning drugs, for precisely the reason Harry pinpoints, which is that the same thing applies to bank robbery, arson, and so on, and they are falsely glamorous but so what? I prefer the simple “it’s wrong to ban something that isn’t an aggressive attack on the rights of others” argument. Terror is an attack on others’ rights. Fare dodging is stealing, ditto. Haddock filleting on a wooden surface you can avoid, by not doing it, and by avoiding restaurants where they do it, if you really mind it that much.

Personally I think that the old ways of preparing food are less poisonous than the kind that the EU now demands, and I think those figures that Harry Hutton links to back that up, as he implies. But why has reported food poisoning abated since 2001? Have people stopped bothering to report it? Have some of those vulnerable to it died off? My guess is that the restaurants that poisoned their customers have been identified and shunned by those wanting a meal. After a period when new and safer rules were introduced and new and safer food preparation methods mandated, which was obviously extremely dangerous, the worst excesses of the new regime are now starting to be avoided, but obviously not yet as successfully as happened before the new and safer safety regulations were introduced.

If there must be laws against food poisoning, let them be laws against actual food poisoning, rather than against practices which, in the opinion of EU officials who just want to regulate stuff for the pure pleasure of it, might be poisonous, although less poisonous than any imaginable alternative.

The other argument I like to use about alleged crimes without actual victims which ought not to be crimes is the practical point that these are harder for any policemen to find out about. If you commit the crime of filleting a haddock on a wooden surface, and you and your dinner guests happen to prefer haddock filleted thus, why would any of you inform the authorities? Laws against victimless “crimes” are easily broken, by otherwise law abiding persons, and thus lower general respect for the law.

The trouble with that argument is that many real crimes are a source of shame to their victims, and they will not tell the police for that reason. Banks, for instance, do not want the fallibility of their security systems to become too public. Many property thefts are, as our current Government never tires of telling us, our own fault, and we are justly punished for allowing such thefts to be committed. Dare we bother the police with news of our trivial and self-inflicted misfortunes? But that is insufficient reason to make stealing that the victims are ashamed of legal, even if in practise that is pretty much how things are.

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14 comments to Decriminalisation arguments

  • MarkE

    The concentration on regulating methodology is actually harmfull because practitioners will always comply with the letter of the regulation, and this ALWAYS eliminates the exercise of common sense. My patner is a cook and confirms that now all kitchen staff are obsessed with “do we comply with the rules” where once the question was “is this safe”. There are many examples of practises that comply with the rules but, applied without thought, do not avoid the risk of infection.

    Rather than defining the methods to be applied to (say) food production an ideal regulator would define the outcome; I eat a meal without being poisoned. If the outcome is not achieved the provider should defend themselves by citing the ways in which my illness could not be their fault, not by citing the number of boxes they ticked (normal judicial rules also apply to the burden of me proving it was their meal of course).

    On the wider point, if the function of law is to protect individuals from the actions of others, as we must believe as libertarians, then we have to have a problem with the very concept of “victimless crime”; with no victim, who is being protected from whom?

  • Julian Taylor

    I still remain somewhat puzzled by what we actually define ‘decriminalisation’ to mean. Do we mean that we no longer wish the police to investigate or pursue a decriminalised crime or that the courts should remove the offence from the statutes? Would the victim of a decriminalised crime have resort to private prosecution or even the right to civil action against their assailant or the perpetrator of a fraud against them, or is it simply, like some perverted form of Fahrenheit 451, where if we abolish the definition of the crime ergo sum we abolish the crime itself?

  • I think that one of the worst mistakes people make in politics is confusing goals with mechanisms. Goals are the outcome we want (e.g. safe restaurants) while mechanisms are the actual acts we take to try to reach that goal (e.g. mandated practices).

    Political entities become tightly associated with the mechanisms they propose and loose the sight of the actual goal. In many cases it is merely that the political entity is to closely tied those who benefit from a particular mechanism (teacher unions). In other cases, the status quo mechanism may have worked in the past and the entity clings to it out of sheer inertia. Eventually, the entity reacts to any questioning of the effectiveness of the mechanism as an implicit attack upon the goal. That is when you see arguments that people advocating drug legalization being accused of advocating drug use, for example.

    I think the best way to keep the debate is to continually return to the goal and repeatedly ask if the proposed mechanism really the best way to reach the goal. Times and conditions change. Just because restaurant inspections and mandated practices worked best in an era when all databases were on paper doesn’t mean those are the best mechanism for the internet age.

  • anomdebus

    I usually understand the “false glamour” argument to refer to how it would affect usage patterns post-decriminalization. If we just assumed that there was a certain percentage of people who will break the law, and drug users are drawn from this population, you would expect an increase in usage proportional to the inverse ratio of criminals to law abiders. If 1 in 4 are potential criminals, then you would expect the drug usage to quadruple. If 1 in 10, you would expect it to increase tenfold.
    On the other hand, if the drug using population is bolstered by glamour seekers, that simple proportionality does not hold.
    I understand this is a very simplistic model, but is not too different than ones I have heard from prohibitionists. I have just made the argument clearer.

    I don’t think it is a very strong argument because there is no way of telling how much of an effect this might have, so there is no way of predicting from it.

  • John_R

    On the wider point, if the function of law is to protect individuals from the actions of others, as we must believe as libertarians, then we have to have a problem with the very concept of “victimless crime”; with no victim, who is being protected from whom?

    I think the victim/victimless distinction is a red herring. The better distinction is consentual/non-consentual. This of course, would mean genuinely informed consent, sans intentional deception. Just because I think adults should be allowed to buy and use any drug they want, doesn’t imply that I approve of slipping someone a “mickey”, driving under the influence, or feeding them to children.

    I doubt many Libertarians have the problem with “victimless” crime that you do. I think that many of us easily make a distinction between violent crimes and crimes of deception with those “crimes” we view as merely legislating morality, such as laws against prostitution, gambling, recreational drug use, and gun control laws. Are there gray areas? more than likely, yes, but that seems to be fundamentally true of this thing we call Life.

  • Sigivald

    Does the 1990 Food Safety Act actually criminalise the filleting of haddock on a wood surface entirely, or solely in commercial food service?

    I’d strongly suspect the latter, but Britain can be a funny place.

  • Bob

    Don’t you people know how to cook a fish? I’ve filleted them on the ground for 35 years, and I’ve never been ill!

  • And why just haddock. Why not other kinds of fish?

  • Julian Taylor


    Apparently its all about something called gaping [LINK]. Read the link it explains that haddock is the worst offender for this, so maybe that’s why?

  • But…but…but…just look at arson! Make it illegal, and it acquires a mystique. I mean, who can honestly say he hasn’t set fire to some great public building? I know I have!

    — John Q. Muhammad-ibn-Allah.

  • DM

    There is a speak-easy in the basement of my local where they exclusively sell wooden surface-filleted fish. It used to be run by users for users, but just recently some rather shadowy characters from the organised criminal underworld have moved in on the action.

    The number of suppliers have dwindled, prices have gone up and quality has dropped. What’s more, there are rumours that the profits have been directed to slush funds to buy off politicians, and terrorism. There is nothing anyone can do about it, of course, as it is outside the law. There has been talk of taking it back from the mafia, but I for one am not keen on the idea of a turf war.

  • The banning itself is an attack on self medicators.

    And why would we be doing that? To get government to protect drug company profits.

  • Actually Shannon I do advocate drug use.

    As Oscar Levant once said to Jonny Carson about pornography: “It helps.”

    The drug prohibitors are protecting us from the superstition called “addiction”.

    Addiction or Self Medication?

    It is not what we know that hurts us. It is what we know that ain’t so.