Can the state enforce virtuous behavior?

Author:Higgs, Robert

For thousands of years, states (or equivalent ruling organizations and elites) certainly have acted as if they can enforce virtuous behavior--always, of course, according to the particular conception of virtue they happen to cherish. Thus, most U.S. states still prohibit possession of, use of, and commerce in many narcotics and other substances deemed bad for people. Governments have often forbidden free markets in sexual services, gambling, and even doing business of any kind 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, between adults and persons under a stipulated age of legal consent, sometimes as old as twenty-one 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 laughingstock notwithstanding severe penalties provided for convicted violators. Although prostitution has been outlawed far and wide, for example, it has been carried on just as pervasively. Likewise for gambling. Indeed, hi 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 forbidden 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 not only fail to achieve their ostensible aims but actually create conditions and incentives that wreak great harm on the society that their "virtue laws" are supposedly protecting or improving. So, for example, the state forbids dealing in various narcotics, which does not stop such dealing but instead 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...

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