Teaching people where to pee – the conundrum of victimless crimes


Vivienne Vermaak | Investigative Journalist | Contributing Author | Free Market Foundation | mail me |

We don’t like people urinating in public. At the same time, most liberal-minded people wouldn’t want somebody jailed for it or might feel uncomfortable seeing someone being flogged in public for the offence. Still, it is a bad habit; unhygienic and the nudity a bit of a shock on an empty stomach. We want a sense of order, don’t we?

If we don’t stop people urinating in public, defecating might be next! Can you imagine everyone taking a dump on the steps to parliament? Or in the middle of the office? The concern is that, if we don’t take precautionary measures against minor acts, we are headed for another plague or the collapse of civilisation and who is in the mood for that? Someone has to do something, right? But whom? And what?

These are the questions that have been plaguing humans since we first started living together. We make decisions about what constitutes unwanted behaviour and call them ‘crimes’ when we think they are bad enough. We then accept that the crimes be punished in various forms: imprisonment, fines, physical harm, compensation or public shaming.

Crime vs offence

In liberal societies, a distinction is often drawn between crimes that clearly involve a victim (for instance; murder, rape, robbery) and an offence in which no one is harmed or the harm is self-inflicted (gambling, loitering, prostitution, traffic offences.)

The differentiation is important, especially in a country like South Africa where violent offences are rampant and we simply cannot afford to spend police money protecting people from themselves when law enforcement has to protect us from killers and thieves.

So what is the ‘something’ you can do about the prostitute, the homeless or the public piddler? You don’t want to use violence, so you put some kind of pressure on them to stop doing it or do it somewhere else.

The type of persuasion necessary to change behaviour might include education campaigns on a national level, enforcement of municipal fines or ground-level activations and petitions. You don’t want to do it yourself, so the ‘someone’ you call might be the police, social services, your private security company or hope the local busybody will take it upon themselves to become vocal about it in the press. This article is in itself an attempt to encourage people to think about crime differently.

Liberal individuals and institutions believe it is beneficial to all if we make a distinction between victimless crimes and serious crimes. By discussing it like we are doing here, people can decide how they feel about it and whether it is something they might take into consideration when casting a vote for a particular party. Doing it like this is a form of non-manipulative engagement based on the foundations of tolerance and freedom of choice.

Coercive non-violent tactics

Governments and corporations have long been known to engage in more coercive non-violent tactics in the forms of propaganda, advertising or ‘nudging.’

The formidable effects of nudging could be seen during the COVID-19 crisis, where governments like the UK’s purposefully used powerful campaigns to theatrically ramp up fear levels, to convince and push people to vaccinate. It is called ‘libertarian paternalism’ by some and dishonest or evil by others, but it is still not holding a gun to someone’s head, is it? And if it was a crime, who were the victims? The COVID-19 nudge unit was controversial but it lifted the veil on the complexities of behavioural economics, decision-making, behavioural policy and social psychology.

In its more innocuous form, nudging can shift mountains and markets and people experience it as having a free choice. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport famously used the principle when trying to solve the problem of patrons urinating on the floor or missing the urinal. It made the bathroom smelly, and unhygienic and cost time and effort in terms of cleaning. So what did they do? They etched an image of a housefly near the drain hole of the urinal. Overnight, nobody missed the urinal anymore – men started aiming for the fly. Problem solved and nobody felt as if they were forced to do anything.

Making your voice heard

As the world becomes increasingly westernised in culture and more densely populated, violence is becoming less popular as a form of behaviour modification in everyday life.

While violence can be very effective in the short term, it becomes unproductive and messy in the long term and the toll it takes on human dignity is too high. Yet, most people still want ‘order’ and stability. Moreover, they want the government to give it to them, so we transfer the sole proprietorship of violence and incarceration to the government to do the dirty work on our behalf.

To make it even more complicated, we also want “freedom”. What do to? We don’t want the town square urinator to be drawn and quartered and lose his job, but someone must do something. And that someone is you. And me. If we are interested in lives with choice and liberty, we have to learn to have the difficult conversations ourselves. Where possible, communities must learn to guide local behaviours in a non-aggressive way that imposes the will of the community without the blunt and terrifying weapons of a police force.

It is really up to us what type of world we live in. Make your voice heard. If making eye contact with an offending neighbour is too difficult, support your local ratepayer’s groups or CPF structures. Get involved. We vote because that simple act makes it someone else’ problem. We hand over the responsibility and duty to someone else when we vote. It is not a bad system, but we also surrender certain freedoms by asking so much of a government.

In conclusion

Living in a group is a never-ending push and pull of wants, needs and imposing of wills. If the only thing you are prepared to do is vote, take some time to pick people or a position that you think will benefit you as an individual and the society as a whole into the future.

Election time means everybody walks past the big tree in the town square. Everybody lifts their leg against the tree and waters the conversation. This is the time and place to do it. Make your mark. Every drop counts.



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