The City of London Corporation is the municipal governing body of the City of London, the historic centre of London and the location of much of the UK’s financial sector. The corporation claims to be the world’s oldest continuously elected local government body.
Every day on my way to work, which happens to be within the City of London corporation’s jurisdiction, I walk past government signs telling me that dropping cigarette butts is a criminal offence.
According to the City of London website:
“Six million cigarette butts are dropped on the City’s streets every year and we spend £3.8 million cleaning it up, it’s no small problem. Dropping cigarettes butts is littering and it is a criminal offence to drop litter in the street. No ifs. No butts. Anyone caught dropping smoking related litter may receive an £80 Fixed Penalty Notice and could be fined up to £2,500 in the magistrates’ court together with a criminal record.”
“No ifs. No Butts” is the slogan that adorns the street signs. Only the government, and the one in fifty of us who are sociopaths, would even think of making a play on words whilst threatening to steal money from someone. A sociopath might do it because they have no sense of right or wrong. Local government workers do it because they believe they are acting justly and virtuously. They probably think that by introducing humour in this way they are being especially charitable to those poor misguided folk who smoke. It probably makes them feel good about themselves. which there is a particular strong need to when in reality you are threatening innocent people with theft and violence.
Dropping a cigarette butt on the street is not a criminal act by any rational definition. It is an action that does not prevent anyone else from using their person or property as they wish. Therefore, no government authority or any group of people, whatever they call themselves, have the moral right to use force against people who do so. The only ethically justifiable use of force is in defence of person and property. In other words using force only in defence of person or property is the only way to allow the use of force in society in a way consistent with a universal ethical principle.
Ethical principles that aren’t universal are not principles at all, and therefore are not fit for purpose; they’re only fit for benefiting one group of people at the forced expense of another. Which is a corruption of the purpose of ethics.
It is not our capacity to combine our empathic abilities with the power of our reasoning minds to form rational ethical principles that determines what is a crime and what isn’t in today’s societies. Sadly, it is the arbitrary will of individuals in government power expressed through The Law that does so. Under a system of coercive centralised government and by investing such power in a group of people we make it possible for any act to be decreed a ‘crime’. Almost inevitably, over the decades and centuries, more and more actions become defined as ‘criminal’. Each new batch of politicians introduces new laws and government powers in order to get elected or re-elected by giving voting special interest groups the coercive control and unjust privileges over others they demand.
Because almost everyone believes that The Law is the only way to achieve social order, we assume that more laws must mean more order, and therefore a better world in general. Whilst it is true that no society can function without the moral right for individuals to use force to protect their person and property, it is not true that the more force we use the better off we all are. This is because most social order is the result of human spontaneous order, the opposite of forced/planned order, and therefore the less free individuals are to act, the less spontaneous order there can be. The less spontaneous order there is, then the less wealth creation and human progress there is because both result from it and only from it. Capitalism, production by the masses for the masses, is humanity’s most precious form of spontaneous order. It has enabled much of humanity to raise itself out of poverty in a remarkably short period of time. It still continues to do so today in parts of the world where it wasn’t able to flourish until recently, such as China, India and Brazil. Billions have emerged from poverty in the last few decades alone simply as a result of being much more free to own and exchange a much greater share of resources.
The use of force in society is like chemotherapy to treat cancer. Just the right amount must be used. If the dose is too low (i.e. no moral right to use force to protect oneself and one’s property), then the treatment is ineffective against the tumour (violence and theft). Whereas at excessive doses, the toxicity will be intolerable to the patient (i.e. society starts to decline because individuals don’t have enough freedom to engage in peaceful exchange in order to create enough wealth to sustain it, and the remaining wealth becomes highly concentrated with the ruling elite).
Like a fictional wizard by the name of Dumbledore once said “…we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”
It might be easy to solve the problem of people dropping cigarette butts on the street by taking money from them by force, but, ethically, it’s not right. It is an act of aggression against innocent people masquerading as an act of social good. Violence disguised as virtue poses a significant threat to the fabric of society because it slips under our moral defences unnoticed and unquestioned.
The peaceful solution to the problem would be to acquire the funding necessary to pay for cleaning the streets through voluntary exchange. This is how the owners of shopping centres solve the problem of litter (not cigarette butts particularly because smoking is banned in enclosed public spaces in the UK). Shopping centre owners don’t bill individual customers for the litter they drop, even though they are perfectly free to make this a condition of entry. Thankfully, they don’t do that not only because it would be practically impossible to enforce and annoying for customers, but also because it’s much easier to just factor the cost of hiring people to clean litter into the rent they charge their retail tenants.
The use of force against people who drop cigarette butts cannot even be justified by arguing that the City of London corporation (and more broadly speaking the State) is the property owner (of the streets) and therefore entitled to use force to protect its property. The State as an institution cannot legitimately acquire title to any property simply because it doesn’t have any money of its own to exchange for it. The money it has at any given moment was taken by force from others through taxation. If I buy a house with stolen money, then the contract for the sale is invalid because I did not have the right to dispose of the property which the owner innocently accepted in exchange for his property.
Legal functions, such as Compulsory Purchase Orders, enable the State to acquire property or land without the consent of the owner by way of forcing them to ‘sell’ it to the State.
Albert Einstein once claimed that “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
The same can be said of ownership of land and property in societies where legal functions such as CPO’s exist. It is a persistent illusion because the State has the power to take anyone’s land or property at any time, as long as it can demonstrate a “compelling case in the public interest”. In other words, the only reason the current crop of people representing the State do not take your land or property is merely because they happen to not want it – and not because it would be wrong and a crime against you.
As Ayn Rand once explained:
“The idea that ‘the public interest’ supersedes private interests and rights can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others.”
In today’s societies this idea is pervasive; it skulks in the dark recesses of the rhetoric and propaganda that spews forth from the mouths of politicians. It is a constant threat to the health of our societies that hides in plain sight.
Ayn Rand also once said that “the difference between a welfare state and a totalitarian state is a matter of time”. Only time will tell if she is correct. If she is, then it’s quite possible that the difference between a society that considers everyone who drops cigarette butts to be criminals and a society that considers everyone who criticises government officials to be criminals is also a matter of time.
In truth it is not the act of dropping cigarette butts that is criminal. It is local government forcing people to hand over money for doing so that is the real crime. It is not coincidental nor surprising that the group of people who have the power to define what actions are criminal create laws that enable themselves to commit acts of crime in order to prevent others from committing actions they simply do not like.