In a previous article I wrote about how in the scriptures, the only actions which governments led by a righteous people defined as crimes were those in which there is a targeted victim: actions in which the life, liberty, or property of another is violated. These actions include murdering, enslaving, stealing, lying, and abusing [Mosiah 2:13, Mosiah 29:14, Alma 1:17–18, Alma 30:10–11].
Outlawing these behaviors as crimes, and not others where there is no targeted victim, is consistent with a fundamental principle of government as taught by prophets: the Power of Government is Derived from the People.
President Ezra Taft Benson taught: “People are superior to the governments they form. Since God created people with certain inalienable rights, and they, in turn, created government to help secure and safeguard those rights, it follows that the people are superior to the creature they created… Governments should have only limited powers… People who have created their government can give to that government only such powers as they, themselves, have in the first place. Obviously, they cannot give that which they do not possess. By deriving its just powers from the governed, government becomes primarily a mechanism for defense against bodily harm, theft, and involuntary servitude” [The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner].
Elder Dallin H. Oaks said: “The people are the source of governmental power. Along with many religious people, Latter-day Saints affirm that God gave the power to the people, and the people consented to a constitution that delegated certain powers to the government… The sovereign power is in the people” [The Divinely Inspired Constitution].
James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” even understood this principle, for he wrote: “The federal and State governments are in fact but different agents and trustees of the people, constituted with different powers, and designed for different purposes… The ultimate authority, wherever the derivative may be found, resides in the people alone“ [Federalist #46].
In fact, all of our founding fathers agreed upon this principle, for they wrote: “We the people…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” [United States Constitution] and “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” [Declaration of Independence].
Note the use of the words “delegate” and “derive”. As Latter-day Saints, we should have a clear understanding of what this means, since we often apply these words to the priesthood. Can a deacon delegate to someone the power to baptize? Of course not—because he doesn’t have that power himself. If 100 deacons get together and the majority votes that a certain person should receive the power to baptize, does that person now have the power to baptize? Of course not—the power to baptize cannot be derived from 100 deacons because none of them have the power to baptize in the first place. For power and authority to be delegated (or derived), it must first exist in the person or group who is delegating it.
To apply this fundamental principle, President Benson provided a great rule of thumb to determine whether government has the authority to require or prohibit a specific action: “There is one simple test. Do I as an individual have a right to use force upon my neighbor to accomplish this goal? If I do have such a right, then I may delegate that power to my government to exercise on my behalf. If I do not have that right as an individual, then I cannot delegate it to government, and I cannot ask my government to perform the act for me” [The Proper Role of Government].
There are many behaviors prohibited by our government today which it does not have the authority to implement, sometimes called “victimless crimes”.
For example, apply President Benson’s test to drug use. If you found out your next door neighbor sometimes uses a substance known to harm their health, would you feel it morally acceptable to go over, take them by force, and lock them up in your basement? Most people would say no. Of course, if while your neighbor is using drugs they’re abusing someone, or they’re killing someone (abortion), then you would feel it morally acceptable to go over and stop them by force—based on the fact that there’s a victim. However, in these instances you are stopping them from abuse or murder, not simply drug use. If your neighbor is using the drug and minding their own business, then most would feel it immoral to personally stop them by force.
Similar applications could be made to prostitution. To clarify, if one of the individuals involved is married, then force could justifiably be used because such would constitute a breach of contract (marriage), and therefore the spouse is a victim of lying. However, if two unwed individuals decide to engage in this sick and immoral behavior, would you feel okay personally locking them up for a time or forcing them to pay you a fine?
The same principles apply to pornography, gambling, etc. We should remember that just because something is immoral, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be illegal. A crime should only be an action which has a targeted victim: one which threatens the life, liberty, or property of another.
Prosecuting Victimless “Crimes” Impedes using Liberty for Righteous Causes
Because our current government has violated constitutional principles and prohibits certain victimless behaviors that many deem immoral, this has often resulted in limiting the freedom of people to use liberty for righteous causes.
In Missouri, practicing “Mormonism” was previously considered immoral by many of the citizens and government leaders, so many of our ancestors were persecuted, falsely accused of crimes, had property stolen, and were threatened by death if they didn’t leave.
Even after the Mormons fled lands where they were persecuted, such as Missouri and Nauvoo, and settled in an obscure desert out West where they could be alone, the government continued to impede their freedom of religion, based on prosecuting victimless crimes that most of the US population deemed immoral. One example is the 1882 Edmunds Act which outlawed polygamy. Many members of the Church were imprisoned, including Lorenzo Snow (imprisoned almost 11 months, before becoming an apostle).
Another example to consider is the war on drugs. Because our government is so adamant about controlling dangerous substances, there is a barrier of using drugs and devices for medical purposes. There are many drugs and devices that more effectively treat certain conditions which we will not have access to for several years due to US government regulations, even though they are available in other countries now. In fact, patients in the US may never have access to some. People are suffering and dying because of this. Isn’t it better to let doctors and patients have the freedom and authority to decide what treatment is best for a given condition rather than a politically biased body which is driven by special interest groups? This is one example of how the war on drugs is harming and killing innocent people (for specific examples of how blocking medications has done harm and an in-depth discussion, see).
Another example is education. There are many barriers to parents who wish to take more responsibility in their God-given right by home schooling their kids. This is something the current US administration has recently taken steps to make even more difficult, as they are seeking to deport home-schooled families which are here legally. This is generally done in the name of “what’s best for the kids”; many of those implementing these barriers probably have good intentions and simply think home schooling is bad for our society. Ironically, parents have to go through great lengths if they want to incorporate God and Christianity into their children’s education, while the government demands they be sent to a government school system in which drugs, swearing, and sex are prominent while prayer and biblical teachings are outlawed. Who do you think God intended to give authority to educate children: their parents or government?
These are only some examples in which the government hinders righteousness by prosecuting victimless crimes. Once government takes power to enforce any type of victimless crime, it becomes a slippery slope which quickly impedes the Plan of Salvation.
Keeping Victimless Crimes Out of Our Community: Shun Thy Neighbor
Discussion of why victimless “crimes” should be abolished often leads people to become concerned. While they may agree that it would be immoral for them to personally use force stop a victimless crime from occurring, they mistakenly think that a majority of people can impose their will on a minority. However, such violates others’ right to liberty, and undermines a fundamental principle of government: The power of government is derived from the people. Not protecting others’ right to liberty contradicts the plan of salvation. Agency is a key part of that plan. During the pre-mortal war in heaven, we rejected Satan’s plan of forcing everyone to act a certain way to return to God. We understood that agency would entail people making bad decisions—but we still fought for their right to liberty, even if it meant some would make mistakes and act immorally.
One of the major concerns of abolishing victimless crimes is that people don’t want themselves and their kids to be exposed to those kinds of behavior. However, there is a way to discourage and keep these immoral behaviors out of our communities without violating anyone’s right to liberty. I really like the phrase that JC Bollers and Jeremy Ashton have used to describe this principle: Shun Thy Neighbor.
With your right to liberty, you can refuse to interact in certain ways with individuals who exhibit certain behaviors that you disapprove of. For example, if the majority of people in society don’t want prostitution, instead of charging prostitutes as criminals, they can simply refuse to provide services to that individual. If the grocery store owner refuses to sell food to prostitutes, the gas station owner refuses to sell them gas, the department store refuses to sell them clothes, neighbors refuse to invite them to parties, etc, then the prostitute either learns to give up prostitution, or moves out of that society. If the majority of people in a given community shun their immoral behavior, it will keep that behavior out the community without violating the rights of the immoral person.
To clarify, shunning doesn’t necessarily mean that you completely ignore the person with the behavior. You can let them know that you care about them and want what’s best for them, but explain to them that you can’t support them acting in a certain way because it’s destructive to society. You tell them that if they change their behavior, then you will help them, conduct business with them, and befriend them.
Abolishing Victimless Crimes: Other Laws Must Change First
Victimless crimes cannot be abolished overnight; there has to be order in rolling back these laws. We must restore free enterprise to our country.
Right now, there are laws and regulations that force people to enter certain contracts. For example, employers aren’t free to hire or fire whoever they want: sometimes they are forced to hire a certain percentage of individuals or they have to pay fines, higher taxes, lawsuit damages, etc. We need to restore to employers the right to hire and fire whoever they want for whatever reason. For example, such would let them refuse to hire druggies. Can you imagine the lawsuits that would happen today if an employer refused to hire someone (or chose to fire them) on the basis that they are using legal substances that the employer disagrees with such as birth control or alcohol? If other substances were no longer criminalized, what would stop further lawsuits which violate rights for other drugs or “non-criminal” behaviors? Another example of regulations we must abolish are those which force companies to offer certain goods. In recent years, pharmacies such as Walmart have been forced to carry and sell certain drugs they don’t necessarily want to, such as abortion pills [here and here]. How can immoral behaviors be discouraged if individuals and private organizations (such as companies) are forced to support them, sell them, etc?
We also must rid ourselves of all forms of socialism. If we were to suddenly “legalize” all vice “crimes” (such as drugs, prostitution, and gambling), but not get rid of socialist programs such as government welfare, healthcare, and unemployment benefits, then we would be shooting ourselves in the foot because we would be forcing ourselves to support these practices by subsidizing the lives of those who engage in these activities. Private organizations and charities are better equipped to deal with these situations, as they would have the freedom to only help those who are honestly working to change their lives. Plus, if you disagree with how a private organization is dealing with these immoral behaviors, you can choose not to give your money to them and give it to an organization you agree with instead. If the government is running it and you disagree, then you go to prison if you refuse to support it through taxes.
So, we must first get rid of socialism and certain regulations which impede free market exchanges, and then move towards fully restoring personal liberties.
Agency is an essential part of the Plan of Salvation. In our pre-mortal life, we all fought to cast out Satan on the basis that he wanted to deprive us of liberty. Part of agency is that people will make bad choices. To protect liberty, and therefore support the Plan of Salvation, we should only use force (government) when someone violates the life, liberty, or property of another. Even though someone may act immorally, if they aren’t violating the rights of others, we should use discouragement and persuasion (such as shunning your neighbor) instead of force. The rule of thumb is that if we wouldn’t feel okay personally forcing something upon our neighbors, then we cannot give the authority to government to do such. This is founded in the principle that the power of government is derived from the people, the basis of our own US Constitution.