Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Unique and Solitary Crime

If you ask someone to define the concept of crime, they might give you a definition involving a behavior that violates a law. Technically, that is correct. But what is it that makes our legislators decide one type of behavior is criminal while another isn’t? What is it that all criminal behavior has in common and distinguishes it from non-criminal behavior?

I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of crimes involve one person doing harm or causing injury to another. Most actions that you can think of that involve one person intentionally harming another are illegal. And for most crimes, that harm involves either violence or theft. For the violent crimes—murder, rape, assault—the harm is physical. Someone is injured or killed. For the crimes of theft—robbery, burglary, embezzlement, fraud—the harm involves property. Someone’s property is damaged or destroyed or taken away from them.

But what about the so-called “victimless” crimes? For the most part, they don’t result in anyone being harmed. Does that make them an exception to my definition of crime? Indeed it does. Which means I need a new, broader definition. While most crimes involve one person harming another, virtually all crimes require the involvement of two or more people. Regardless of whether those people are perpetrator and victim or willing participants, it is nearly impossible to commit a crime alone. You can’t gamble or engage in prostitution alone in your home any more than you can commit a murder. As they say, it takes two to tango.

In fact, some behaviors are criminal solely because they involve others. Drinking alcohol is perfectly legal, but driving under the influence isn’t because it endangers others. Speeding is another crime you can commit alone, but it potentially endangers other as well. Whether the harm is actual or potential makes no difference.

It therefore seems to me that it is virtually impossible to commit a crime without involving someone else. I say “virtually” because there is one crime I can think of that you can commit entirely on your own. Can you guess what that crime is? It’s not all that hard to figure out, given the nature of this blog. Possession of marijuana is the only crime that does not require the involvement of another individual. (I consider growing for personal use essentially the same thing, even though the government doesn’t. The same would apply to other “natural” drugs that you can grow and consume yourself without involving others.) If you think about it for a second, you’ll see that it’s true. You could be all alone, in the privacy of your remote mountain cabin, miles from civilization, causing no actual or potential harm to a single other living thing, yet still be committing a crime. Is that crazy or what? (Don’t bother answering, as that was a rhetorical question.)

For the sake of completeness, there is one other “crime” you can commit that could potentially endanger just you and no one else. That would be driving without wearing a seatbelt. Of course you’re not going to go to federal prison for that violation, nor lose your job or be denied a variety of government services. At least not yet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


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Danger Mouse