On Victimless Crime
Pramudya A Oktavinanda
One of my favorite legal issues is the existence of victimless crime, usually defined as non-forceful actions whose participants are not complaining for their participation and no direct injuries are inflicted to non-participants of such actions.
Victimless crimes are traditionally associated with actions performed by consenting adults which harm the society’s moral foundations but not the society directly. These include drugs use, prostitution or non-marital sex and gambling, to name a few.
Some economists would argue that rather than criminalizing the above acts, it would be better to instead legalize them. Not only that those acts can provide additional income to the government in the form of tax, it can also minimize the costs of legal enforcement. A good example would be the war on drugs which has caused a significant costs in the form of money and lives.
Contrary to the above opinion, I, on the other hand, argue that victimless crime does not exist. If we are calculating the general welfare of the society, the costs imposed to each member of the society, even if they don’t directly affect other members, would still matter.
There are costs involved associated with drugs usage, health costs of the user. There are also costs associated with prostitution, costs related to sexually transmitted disease and possible costs to marriage relationship because yes, marriage too is a form of investment between the parties.
And how about gambling? It is a form of property transfer which may easily fall into an inefficient form of resources allocation. Why? Because the game is usually designed to ensure that the bookie will always win.
A simple example: most gamblers’ chance of winning is very slim in many types of games, while the winning chance of the bookie depends on the probability of the gamblers losing the game, i.e. 1 – whatever the probability of the gambler to win. If the gambler only has a chance of 1 percent or 0.01, the bookie will have 99 percent chance to win the game. A really easy way to gain money.
Sure, we always have the usual argument: those adults have already given their consent and they must take the responsibility for themselves. And it is also true that the regulations are not always consistent.
Take the cigarette industry as an example. The business is legal and they pay a considerable amount of taxes to the government each year in order to maintain the business.
So why don’t we do the same for other type of “victimless crimes”? Let us view this not from moral point of view, but from economics point of view. Usually most people forget that when we legalize certain acts, it does not necessarily mean that the enforcement costs will disappear into thin air.
You still need to spend money to ensure that the “legalized” business will comply with the rules set out by the government.
As an example. If you criminalize drugs sale, you will need to allocate funds to enforce the law and punish the violators. If you legalize drugs sale, you will spend funds to also supervise the business, ensuring that these “business men” will play in accordance with the rules on drug sale. And if they don’t? You will simply penalize them again.
How about income from tax? Well, you don’t need to legalize an act in order to gain additional income via tax, you can simply change the rule so that instead spending times in the prison, the criminals are required to pay all of their profits to the government. The effect will be similar to a tax and the government will receive money too.
How about prostitution? Legalizing the prostitution might reduce the costs of supervision because legalizing the business is usually associated with its localization. This will reduce the possibility of sexual diseases transmission and improve the protection of the sex workers.
But it is also not without additional costs. Localization may also increase the costs of the prostitution business. The procurer will need to pay taxes and the building lease fee, not to mention that there will be additional costs for moving the business place. With increasing costs, the service fee will also increase.
Who will guarantee that it will not create incentives for a black market with cheaper services for consumers who don’t have enough money to go to the valid prostitution area? This will again impose another costs for legal enforcement, i.e., eradicating the illegal prostitution outside the legalized area.
Through these examples, I would like to show that thinking about victimless crime is not as easy as imposing tax and reducing legal enforcement costs. Instead, for every action, there would be economic consequences and if we want to make a proper policy, we need to carefully calculate the costs and benefits of such policy.