Should ownership ever be a crime?

I’m ’bout to get philosophical on your asses (allĀ  three of them.)

Should it ever be illegal to own something? Generally things are illegal because they violate rights. Killing is illegal because it violates someone’s right to life. Theft is illegal because it violates someone’s right to property, etc.

Does Ownership Violate Rights?

But how does owning anything violate anyone else’s rights? Ownership laws are intended to prevent rights violations. For example, gun ownership is made illegal not because there’s anything problematic about owning a gun in and of itself, but because you have to possess a gun to shoot someone with it.

Child pornography is illegal because a child has to be harmed to make it and because people think that owning child porn is likely to cause someone to hurt a child. It’s the gateway porn.

But shooting people (outside of war and self-defense, and adultery in Texas) is already illegal, and molesting children is already illegal. Why do we need laws outlawing gun ownership and child pornography ownership?

Cost vs. Benefit of Ownership Laws

Any law is an abridgment of freedom. The curtailing of freedom is the intended consequence. But every law also comes with unintended consequences. Most people accept that laws that protect rights are worth the freedom we give up and the unintended consequences to enact and enforce. But what about laws that don’t protect rights? What about laws that just criminalize actions that could, but might not, lead to actions that violate rights?

The major unintended consequence of ownership laws is how far-reaching their freedom curtailing is. When ownership laws are enacted, they seek to prohibit a certain kind of ownership with a fairly narrow intent of preventing a certain type of action.

Unintended Consequences

But as the laws are applied, much more freedom is curtailed than intended.

For example, child pornography laws have been used, repeatedly, to prosecute minors for sending naked pictures of themselves to each other. Child pornography cases have been used to prosecute people whose computers have been infected with malware. Gun laws have been used to prosecute people for whom no other charges would stick. Gun laws have been also been used to justify raids of homes police shouldn’t have ever been in. Everywhere you look you can find cases where ownership laws curtain more freedoms than intended.

Not only that, but even well-applied gun laws keep law-abiding citizens from being able to protect themselves. And well-applied child pornography laws still punish speech.

A Better Way

What if owning guns and pornography and anything else you wanted to own were legal? What if all the resources that currently go into finding and prosecuting people who own the wrong things went into finding and prosecuting people who did the wrong things?

Maybe there’d be less random gun violence if law-abiding citizens and the lawless could be equally armed.

Maybe people who like to look at child pornography could do it openly, then parents could easily tell if any potential teacher or babysitter had a predeliction for pedophilia.

So why do we have possession laws when action laws should be enough?

The truth is, possession is an easy win for law enforcement. It’s much easier to catch someone with the wrong thing at the time than it is to prove that they did the wrong thing in the past. But to let law enforcement take the easy way out we’re giving up valuable freedoms. Not only that, but we’re allowing them to put resources that should be going into fighting rights-violations go to possession cases.

I’ve only given two examples, and both I think illustrate my point. But can anyone think of counterexamples, items that merely possessing cause rights violations? Or can anyone think of reasons why making something illegal to own would be worth the sacrifice of rights and resources?


  1. Colleen

    I believe one could make the argument that owning something like a nuclear or volatile biological weapon should be illegal. The mere ownership of these could lead to horrible consequences if the person does not properly handle or store them. There is also no self-defense reasons for owning these. For example, if someone breaks into my home, a gun will harm only that person, where as a nuke will kill not only the intruder, but many innocent people.
    That is not to say that all ownership of these things should be illegal/prohibited. If I own enough land to ensure that no one else will be hurt, then no rights are violated. Also, if all my neighbors agree to my ownership of the nuke, no rights are violated.
    As a whole, a agree with you. My possession of things like child pornography, drugs, guns etc do not harm anyone. And with child porn in particular, if the mere possession of it is illegal, then watching a video of someone being murdered should be illegal. If murders find that people like to watch it, then it will lead to more murders for the production of these movies.

  2. Cathy

    The nuke question is an interesting one. It’s an example where most people would agree the benefit of keeping people safe from nukes matters more than the rights violation of outlawing private ownership. I get the argument, and I know it has merit, but I’m not totally convinced it’s a good trade off.

    There are videos of people getting murdered, called snuff films. And to my knowledge they haven’t had a measurable impact on murder rates. Murder and child molestation suck, but I don’t think violating people’s right to free speech will prevent any murder or abuse, so it’s not worth the rights forfeiture. To me, anyway.

  3. Colleen

    I knew they existed, I just forgot what they were called, but that was my point. They do not make people kill just like child porn does not make people molest children. I believe the argument could even be made that these types of things provide a good outlet for people that may have the inclination to molest children.
    As for the nuke argument, I do not think that the government should outlaw them, seeing as I do not agree with the institution of government. I understand how my use of the word ‘illegal’ led you to think that I agreed with a government banning them for private ownership. I believe it could be handled by private courts, HOAs etc. A private court could, and should, put an injunction against my neighbor if he is in possession of a nuke. There is no self-defense reasons for his ownership of this weapon. If something has a high probability of destroying (not just harming) me and my property, he should not be allowed to have it.

  4. Tom

    Colleen: A self-defence reason is not required for property ownership. A person’s property is their own and that is a right we must not interfere with, whatever form that takes. Any private court that violated property rights would not be successful in a voluntaryist society.

  5. Nathan Larson

    I grow a little frustrated with libertarians who pussyfoot around the topic of pedophilia rather than following the self-ownership and non-aggression principles to their logical conclusions. You have to go radical, or your arguments aren’t as convincing.

    “Maybe people who like to look at child pornography could do it openly, then parents could easily tell if any potential teacher or babysitter had a predeliction for pedophilia.”

    Statists might argue, the parents have no way of knowing what porn a potential teacher of babysitter anonymously surfs unless the state bans it and then goes after the downloaders and gives them criminal records. Do you have a counter-argument?

    I think we should take your logic a step further and say, We have laws against coercive sex; therefore, why do we need to criminalize any kind of non-coercive sex? If we were to apply that principle, then evidence of a person’s sexual preference for a certain demographic considered “vulnerable” to sexual coercion would be irrelevant in the absence of solid evidence of coercive tendencies. A person proven guilty of a sexual assault will end up with a criminal record (whether imposed by the government or a private sector blacklisting service) that will warn others to beware; that will suffice to protect society if the police or private detectives are efficient enough. We run into major epistemological problems when we try to guess which people who haven’t committed aggression are likely to do so.

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