Once we understand the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and property and that these rights are God-given gifts to each individual, we have established the understanding of crime. A crime is a trespass against the unalienable rights of another individual. In fact, this was the original, constitutional definition of crime.
In a course I took on American common law, I learned that the original law dictionary of the United States defined crime as “a deliberate and willful trespass against the life, liberty or property of another, in which there is a demonstrable loss of life, liberty or property.” When I tried to look up this definition in an internet version of this law book, this page defining crime was missing. Whether this was accidental or deliberate, I don’t know, but it’s sad that we’ve lost sight of this idea in our society.
Here’s why crime should be defined in this way. First, a crime must involve a victim. To call something a crime where there is no victim is an abuse of power. There are many victimless “crimes” in modern society and when a crime has no victim, it really means it’s only a crime because some human being decided it should be a crime. Without this concept, the idea of crime loses its moral foundation.
Next, this definition of crime defines who a victim is. To be a victim means that some aspect of your life, liberty or property has been lost and that loss must be demonstrable. I have to be able to show what was lost. The injury can’t be subjective. I can’t claim someone is guilty of a crime because it hurt my feelings. That’s why trying to make “hate speech” a crime is ridiculous. I can’t demonstrate someone hurt my feelings. It may not be polite behavior to say hurtful things to each other, but people do it all the time and it’s not a criminal activity.
Third, to establish a crime was committed, it must be demonstrated that the trespass was "deliberate and willful." This means the person had intent to trespass against my rights. Something that accidentally or unintentionally causes a loss is not a crime. A small child who picks up a loaded gun, not recognizing its dangerous nature, and kills someone with it is not a criminal.
One can seek recompense for harm caused by negligence or neglect, but this action falls under civil, not criminal law. Civil law is law that is designed to keep the peace by arbitrating disagreements between citizens where no crime has been committed. We’ll discuss the role of civil law in a free society later.
Crime versus Sin
There is a strong relationship between the idea of crime and the idea of sin, however, all sins are not crimes. Sin has been defined as "falling short" or "missing the mark." The idea of sin suggests that we fall short of God's perfection. So, not everything that one might consider a sin fits the definition of crime.
Doing things that cause harm to our own life, health, liberty, and property could be considered sins, but they aren’t crimes, and we shouldn’t treat them as such. For example, people damage their health by overeating and becoming obese, they lose their liberty when they use drugs and become addicted and they can gamble away their life savings, but none of these things are crimes because there is no victim. A person is falling short of their own potential, but they are not causing harm to others.
This is an important distinction to make because many well-intentioned people have tried to use the law to enforce private moral standards on other people. Prohibition was one of these attempts. When an amendment to the Constitution was passed to allow the government to forbid the sale of alcohol, the production and sale of alcohol went underground. It turned otherwise law-abiding citizens into “criminals.”
A similar thing has happened with the prohibition of marijuana or passing laws prohibiting private sexual behavior between consenting adults. One might argue that the drug pusher is trying to sell harmful products to people, especially if they’re pushing their drugs on children, but the drug user is not a criminal and shouldn’t be punished.
The same thing could be said for laws that prohibit sexual acts between consenting adults. One may see these acts as sins, but where there is no victim, there is no crime. But, rape, child molestation and sexual relations with minors can all be considered crimes because there is a victim.
If I get drunk or stoned in my own home, I may be sinning, but I’m not acting in a criminal manner. On the other hand, if I get drunk and beat my wife and children, I have committed a crime. If I get stoned, drive a car and get into an accident where others are injured or killed, that could be considered a crime if it can be proven that I do so with deliberate intention. But, even if it is determined that I didn’t deliberately and willfully seek to harm others, I can be held liable for damages under civil law.
Having clarified that, let's re-examine each of the rights we listed earlier and see how each right is related to this definition of crime.
Crimes Against Life
Murder is an obvious trespass against the right to life, but as we previously indicated, anything that causes damage or injury to a person's body is also a trespass against life because their capacity to experience life fully has been diminished. Thus, assaulting another person and causing demonstrable, physical injury to their body, such as causing them to go blind in one eye, is also a crime.
By this definition, deliberately doing something to cause them to become sick would also be a crime. So, if I’m deliberately selling something I know to be harmful to human health, I am committing a crime. I am also committing a crime if I deliberately poison people’s water, food or air and make them sick. This is important to understand because it relates to environmental issues and business practices. If I knowingly manufacture a product I know to be defective and potentially harmful to other people’s lives, that’s a crime. If I’m deliberately dumping toxic waste into the environment and making other people sick, that’s also a crime.
When there is no proof that the action was deliberate and willful, it does not mean that I can’t use civil law against businesses that are polluting or producing harmful products. It just means the actions are considered negligent, not criminal.
Crimes Against Liberty
To attempt to control the constructive choices of another person by violence or threats of violence is also a crime. This means that enslaving another person, kidnapping them or forcing them to engage in activities they have not voluntarily and willingly consented to would be a crime against someone’s liberty.
In addition to the obvious crime of slavery, crimes against liberty include kidnap, rape, sexually molesting children, and forcing another person to do something under threat of violent punishment if they do not comply. This would include forcing people into involuntary associations (such as marriage or a church) and contracts (such as business deals) under threat of punishment if they do not comply.
It would also be a crime to violently prevent someone from exercising their rights of conscience, such as peacefully worshipping God in their own way or expressing their personal opinions or beliefs. Censorship or trying to silence another person through any violent means is, therefore, a crime.
Crimes Against Property
As previously explained, when a person engages in honest work and acquires property or possessions as a result of that honest work, they have a right to decide how that property is to be used. So, any act which deliberately and willfully damages, destroys or takes their property is a crime. Taking someone’s property is the crime we call theft or stealing. The crime of vandalism is damaging or destroying someone’s property. Arson is another crime.
One can also steal someone’s property through extortion or forgery. One can steal through engaging in dishonest transactions where one deliberately misrepresents a product or service, takes your money, but fails to deliver what was promised. Crimes done by deception, however, are usually processed under civil, rather than criminal law.
Modern society also recognizes something called intellectual property. The ability of a person who invents something new to take out a patent so they can enjoy the profits from the sale of their invention is one example. Artists, writers, moviemakers and so forth are protected by copyright laws, which allow them to receive money from the benefit of their labor. There are similar protections in place now for software developers.
The right of property is a sticky issue in some respects. Society must have some standards for what defines property, how property is exchanged or transferred and other rules that make commerce, industry and even the right of property possible. We’ll address some of these later. For now, I think it’s easy to see that robbery, arson, vandalism and other similar trespasses against property qualify as crimes.
Common Law and the Golden Rule
This idea of crime we have just referenced is sometimes referred to as the “common law.” The common law is the law that is common to just about everyone. People, in general, recognize that these things are crimes when they are the victim of them. We have a sense of moral indignation when someone trespasses against our life, liberty or property or the life, liberty or property of someone we care about. We also recognize it’s wrong when it’s done to someone we care about. We say, “That’s just not right!”
Because we recognize these things are wrong when they are done to us, it should be logical and self-evident that it’s wrong when we do them to others. In fact, people have a conscience that tells them so. They can sear this conscience by failing to listen to it as they repeatedly ignore the unalienable rights of others. They can also learn to justify these things being done to those they deem as their enemies, allowing bitterness and hatred to choke out their sense of what is just and fair. But they will still recognize that they don’t like being treated this way.
Thus, the idea of common law is rooted in also known as the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is expressed in the New Testament as follows.
"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12, King James Version.)
"And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Luke 6:31, King James Version.)
The Golden Rule isn’t just Christian, however. It is found in most of the world’s religions in one form or another. It is found in Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udana-Varga 5:18). Confucius taught it thusly, “What I do not wish men to do to me, I also wish not to do to men." (Analects 15:23) and "Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence." (Mencius VII.A.4).
Jesus himself was referring to a passage in the Old Testament when he cited the Golden Rule. “...thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." (Leviticus 19:18). Native Americas saw the principle as extending to our relationship with all living things, not just other human beings, "All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One." (Black Elk)
As the examples above illustrate, the Golden Rule can be stated in the positive or in the negative. The positive expression is “treat other people the way you would like them to treat you,” or “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” The negative expression is, “don't treat other people in a way you wouldn’t want them to treat you” or “don't do anything to someone else that you would not want them to do to you.” It’s this negative application of the Golden Rule that allows our understanding of what constitutes a crime. The Founding Fathers recognized this as the natural law, “the law of nature and of nature’s God.”
The Golden Rule and Conscience
As I just suggested, the nearly universal nature of the Golden Rule is the result of something God has also given to every human being—a conscience. Our conscience is the still, small voice found in our heart that tells us what is right and what is wrong. Conscience arises from compassion, which suggests the idea of “common passion” or “common feelings.” Because we feel hurt, angry and sad when someone trespasses against our unalienable rights, our compassion should tell us that other people have similar feelings when we trespass against their rights.
The youngest child screams out in pain when someone hurts them. They fear threats to their life and health. They express grief and anger when something they created is destroyed or taken from them, or when they are forced to comply with things they don’t want to do. Even criminals value their own lives and liberty and seek to protect their own property. This is the reason we can state without reservation that our rights are unalienable. They are part of our nature and it is a part of our nature to feel injured when someone trespasses against them.
Understanding the nature of crime sets the stage for understanding justice. And, just like the idea of common law is based in the golden rule, the concept of justice is based on the law of the harvest, which is what we’ll discuss next.
Click here to read the previous chapter in this book.