Beto O’Rourke recently tweeted about tightening gun laws and removing weapons of war from our communities. One of the replies read, “They've already outlawed murder bro! Problem solved!”.
This sarcastic comment brings up a serious argument against outlawing weapons. If harming people is already illegal and people are still doing it, why would making weapons illegal stop them? The real problem is people getting injured or killed, banning weapons is just a means to that end.
While there is some truth to this argument, it is not bulletproof. The counter-argument is that making weapons illegal can make it more difficult to acquire weapons, which can indirectly reduce harm.
Arguments on gun control aside, this relates to a larger topic - some rules do not directly prohibit harm, instead they prohibit activities which have a certain potential of harm. Which laws are directly addressing issues and which ones are going at things indirectly?
It turns out most laws are addressing issues indirectly. When you drive faster than the speed limit you are not harming anyone. But you increase the chance you may cause harm to someone else. The speed limit is an example of a law which is indirectly trying to address another issue - people getting in accidents.
Almost all laws are indirect, or victimless. Not just gun laws and speed limits, even things as simple as forms are illegal to not file (e.g. W-4 or Selective Service registration). There are now laws banning plastic straws because they can harmfully affect turtles and other animals. Even though the majority of straws end up in landfills, because a few bad people dump their trash in the ocean, many people are now prohibited from using straws.
The war on drugs is indirectly trying to protect people from harming themselves. Used safely drugs are not necessarily bad. But since they have the potential to cause harm, hundreds of thousands of people in America are locked up in prisons. Even DUI laws are indirectly trying to address accidents - drunk driving does not necessarily harm others.
While many of these laws may seem justified, how far should they go? Even though you may think you know the answer on specific issues, it is hard to create a general rule. Perhaps DUIs and speeding laws are justified but straw laws are going too far. How do you define the line?
The easiest line to define is between direct and indirect laws. Anything that directly harms someone else (theft, battery, murder, even car accidents) would have near unanimous agreement that justice should be served. As soon as you move into the indirect (DUIs, gun laws, speeding, straws) you start getting disagreement.
Indirect laws are not necessarily bad, but it is difficult to create a general rule for determining which indirect laws are good and which ones are not. If you believe that all indirect laws are bad and only direct laws make sense, then you likely believe in the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), which states that you should never take action on another except in defense.
John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859) articulated the harm principle, which argues that:
"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."
The US Libertarian party states as a part of their platform:
"Criminal laws should be limited in their application to violations of the rights of others through force or fraud, or to deliberate actions that place others involuntarily at significant risk of harm. Therefore, we favor the repeal of all laws creating “crimes” without victims."
Not everyone agrees with the NAP. It is a spectrum with the NAP on one side and large amounts of indirect laws on the other. Where do you fall on this spectrum? The further we move from the NAP, the more indirect laws we have. Are these indirect laws net benefiting society or do some go too far?