The Trouble with Legislating Morality

This post was edited for factual, logical, and grammar errors on 3/9/12.  Every effort was made to keep the overall point the same.

There is a fine line between creating strong and sensible laws and creating legislating to dictate one’s moral behavior.  The theory is that if you present people with a serious consequence for their misbehavior it will discourage them from taking said action is plausable; however, sometimes the Government takes that theory too far by infringing on our rights and ignoring the inadvertent consequences of said legislation.  We can examine a few cases:


In the 1920′s the consumption of alcohol was judged to be immoral so the Government created legislation outlawing the distribution, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages.  Since demand remained high for alcohol the law inadvertently created a secondary market in which only criminals would take advantage of – and they did.  As a result of the illegality of alcohol sales several things happened: violent crime increased, legitimate businesses lost revenue or went out of business, criminal organizations became rich, crime bosses became famous, and normal men who wanted a casual drink became criminals to do so.  Looking back on it now most of us realize prohibition was a horrible idea and the legislation did absolutely nothing to change the moral compass of the nation.

Drug Use

Today we see the same effect regarding laws outlawing drug use.  Although the law is aimed at keeping people off addictive and harmful substances those same laws have inadvertently created a secondary black market identical to the days of prohibition.  Criminals capitalize on drug sales and distribution to become rich off the proceeds.  Additionally, non-violent drug users who are sent to jail often become hardened criminals and even gang members after their stint in prison has ended.  Our prisons are overcrowded – over half of individuals in prison today are there for a drug related crime.  Despite our tough drug laws the US incarceration remains rate is the highest in the world.

To contrast the American strategy, Portugal recently decriminalized all drugs.  It has been a resounding success.  Drug use actually dropped, the number of violent crimes fell, and so did the overall incarceration rate.  We see a similar effect in Holland where marijuana is legal. 

Today the US Government spends about 15 billion dollars a year on the drug war – and it’s obviously failing.  There are more drug users than ever before, more people in prison for drug related crimes than ever before, and drug profiteering is at an all time high.  With all the evidence (and experience with prohibition) it would seem obvious to end this drug war – seems like someone in charge must be making money off of it. Why do we still believe that legislation behavior works?

Gun Control

Everyone agrees that harming another innocent human being is the worst of crimes, but it may be a giant jump in logic to assume creating further legislation to restrict the way law abiding citizens obtain guns will help.  Yet we have allowed the Government to once again intervene in the way we live our lives – what’s even worse is some people want more intervention.  In theory, the tougher the laws the less likely a criminal or child will have the ability to access a weapon.  Again, this is false.

When you make weapons illegal or create non-sensible laws around weapon control it only serves to prevent those who intend on following the law from obtaining weapons – not criminals. (Hint: Criminals break the law)  By outlawing or restricting weapons you effectively disarm the public and without effecting criminal organizations.  In addition another black market is created in which only criminals will profit.

The data shows no evidence that legislation alone prevents firearm related violence. Rather other factors such as education and cultural norms dictate behavior – not because the Government said you can or cannot do something.

The change in behavior doesn’t come from the legislation – it comes from the people.  The moral behavior of on developed nation isn’t been caused the strict gun or drug laws, but rather because the population has collectively agreed to do the right thing. 

If you want to correct a moral flaw the answer is not to make a law that infringes on the liberty of the people, the answer is to change the hearts and minds of the people. 

Legislating Morality Just Doesn’t Work

There are many dangers associated with legislating morality.  Worst of all this type of legislation usually involves on group imposing their will on another – and making everyone pay for it – whether they agree or not.  

 When the Government creates a business by legislating morality no one wins.  On one given day legislators decree that one man cannot marry another despite their love for one another. The next day the Government further restricts gun laws preventing private and law abiding citizens from being able to protect themselves.  In both cases personal freedom is infringed upon to impose some sense of morality another person has declared law.  What one believes is right is a personal decision and nothing more.  It is important to take care to never blur the lines between liberty and sensible laws intended for the nation.

Evidence proves time and time again that just because an issue may seem morally beneficial for society it does not necessarily benefit society for Government to make a law prohibiting that activity.  I plead with all the readers of this blog – next time you think something is wrong – PLEASE do not request that the Government creates another law, paid for by tax payer dollars, that will attempt to legislate our behavior.  We can’t afford it.


12 thoughts on “The Trouble with Legislating Morality

  1. amelie

    Just to play devil’s advocate, I wonder 2 things:

    1. Why do so many criminals end up being able to buy guns in stores that are supposedly following the law?

    2. How many times have you heard that someone “defended” their home or person, successfully, versus the number of times an innocent person was killed by their own gun or kids through gunplay and an accidental shooting?

    We’d need statistics to back up what we’re saying, of course.

    1. Atticus Finch Post author

      1. This is the point. Can’t legislate morality. No matter how many laws criminals will find guns. Its the law abiding citizens that don’t get them.

      2. I can site serval cases. There was a recent story on CNN about a women who shot two men who were invading her home. She was alone with her new born. That was about a month ago. I’d bet that most of these stories go unreported.

      I can check out some stats and see what I dig up…

    2. Atticus Finch Post author

      Also, I’d like to see how many violent incidents involving guns happened with weapons that were legally obtained by individuals that were legally allowed to carry the gun. Probably very few. Most violent acts were probably performed by criminals. (More evidence ligislating morality doesn’t work) 🙂

  2. amelie

    Again, I think evidence (provided by ME as well, not just you) is necessary to make this debate worthwhile. It is not possible to measure how many murders and shootings were *prevented* by laws currently in place, and how many more would be prevented were the laws even more strict. Some people would argue that the laws are not strict enough.

    Your example is fair, but that’s just one single incident. I can tell you about many smokers who never got lung cancer. Does that prove that smoking does not cause cancer?

    I will look for statistics as well; again, studies and statistics are what we need to make either of our arguments valid! 🙂

  3. jon

    I agree on government not restricting behavior (drugs, sex, alcohol) — not sure on the guns. I think stats may be hard to bring to bear in this case since countries differ so much in terms of underlying crime-related factors — but…

    I think the U.S. has the world’s 2nd highest murder rate – with the exception of Russia.

    Murders per 100,000.
    1. Russia Federation 18.07
    2. United States 6.32
    3. Malaysia 2.73
    Taiwan 1.17
    Spain 1.08
    Japan 0.58

    (I think these are from 1998. I found 2000 stats, and see that U.S. and Spain murder rates both declined, but relative rates look similar). But

    In Moscow alone, some 400,000 people legally keep 470,000 weapons.

    Japan: prohibits guns for citizens with exception of shotguns.

    In Spain:
    *Gun owners must be licensed and undergo strict medical and psychological tests. No one is permitted to own more than six hunting rifles and one handgun.
    *Firearms must be registered and inspected annually.
    *Machine guns and submachine guns are banned, as are imitation pistols.

    I’ll bet that stats can be used to support or refute effectiveness of gun laws – these above suggest to me that strict gun laws will reduce murder rates – but these countries have such different factors, aside from gun laws, at play.

    On the other side of the equation, I’ve seen stats showing U.S. states where murder rates declined along with REDUCTION in gun control. But those are hard to interpret too because murder rates in the U.S. have dramatically declined everywhere over the past 20 years (including in states that maintained strict gun laws).

    I don’t know.

    1. Atticus Finch Post author

      Jon, you don’t know how right you are. I am in process of writing an article on the very subject, hopefully to be finished tomorrow. There are so many factors to consider when discussing this issue, many of which you touched on. The statistics almost prove inconclusive, but after looking at what seems like about 100 data sets I think I’ve come to a few good conclusions.

      I hope to have that post finished and ready to post by tomorrow.

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    1. Atticus

      One may argue that on a state to state basis it doesn’t make much difference because transporting guns across state lines is so easy.

      So tough gun laws in New York make little difference when people can bring them in so easily from New Jersey – or so the argument goes.

      On a bigger picture I think changing the culture and attitude is the issue. Why are we killing people in the first place? Change the way people think and treat each other and you change the world.

      Prohibition of anything rarely works, especially when access is still easily attainable.

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