A victimless crime is an activity that the government has decreed criminal even though there is no identifiable victim. A victimless crime is an activity that is performed by one or more consenting people, that causes no harm, injury or violation to anyone outside of the people performing the activity.
One example of a victimless crime is smoking marijuana at home by yourself. You are acting as an individual and no one else is harmed by your activity. Another example is prostitution. When two consenting adults engage in a sexual act in exchange for money, no one is harmed and no one’s rights are violated. Nevertheless, the government has labeled these activities as crimes.
Traffic “crimes” for the most part are victimless crimes. Consider criminal speeding. Who is the victim if you are speeding? What about exhibition of speed, like when you accidentally chirp your tires? Who is the victim there? Keep in mind, there are laws that actually cover traffic crimes with a victim, like leaving the scene of an accident.
A real crime has an identifiable victim and is an activity performed by one or more people that causes harm, injury or violation to someone not voluntarily participating in the activity.
In contrast to the victimless crime examples above, if I jab a syringe of heroin into the back of my neighbor without asking him first, I have caused him harm without his consent; he was not a voluntary participant in the heroin injection. I have therefore committed a crime in every sense because I violated his right to be free from unwanted contact. Similarly, while prostitution involves the voluntary trade of sex for money, rape involves one person forcing involuntary sex upon another and therefore rape is a real crime.
A good universal rule to use when distinguishing between a victimless crime and real crime is “Was the activity completely voluntary?” For example, let’s say I go to Home Depot, pick up a box of screws and walk out the door without paying. That activity was not completely voluntary. My side was voluntary – I voluntarily took the box of screws. Home Depot’s side was not voluntary – Home Depot expects people to pay for items before removing them from the store and did not consent to me removing the box of screws from the store without paying. I therefore committed a real crime.
Now let’s say the government just passed a “Nails Not Screws” law that outlawed the use of screws because the hammer lobby was concerned about a decline in business. I then go to Home Depot, provide the obligatory secret handshake, and hand over $10 for my box of black-market screws and leave. Under the “Was the activity completely voluntary” standard, I have committed no real crime. I voluntarily gave Home Depot $10, and Home Depot voluntarily gave me a box of screws. No one was harmed or violated. In fact, Home Depot and I both have a net increase in happiness because I got the screws I wanted and Home Depot got the $10 it wanted. Unfortunately, due to the government’s arbitrary law, both Home Depot and I have committed a “crime,” albeit a victimless crime.