Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoevsky

This book is one of the most acclaimed books in literature history, and it’s not hard to see why. The intensity of the writing, the passion and depth of the characters, and the mystery and intrigue of the plot all weave together in an incredible story. The dialogue tends to be long winded with one character carrying on a monologue for multiple pages, but they are animated in an extreme passion displaying an intensity of emotion and desire unmatched in many books. I really, really enjoyed this book.

Crime and Great Men

Fyodor Dostoevsky shows incredible insight into the minds of potential criminals in this book. The crime he describes is extremely premeditated. Raskolnikov, the main character of the book, suffers hours of agonizing concentration over his murder before actually carrying it out. He considers every detail in earnest knowing that to be caught by anyone would be disastrous. No detail is left out: his house’s occupants actions and exact locations, how to transport the weapon, the victim’s household members location, how many people are in the nearby tenant apartments to his victim, where she hides her money, etc etc etc. There can be no question about his intention given his thorough approach.

And yet, Dostoevsky explains how Raskolnikov feels as if he is “carried” along the flow of inevitability once things are set into motion. Any setback and roadblock that comes up, such as his not being able to access his weapon that he planned to use, is contemplated and dealt with by Raskolnikov, and yet he continues to tell himself that there is some pre-ordained current propelling him towards his crime. His hours spent mulling over how to kill another human being without being caught are wished away by the excuse of his momentum being carried up in the sea of the determined future.

His motives are questioned repeatedly. He takes the woman’s belongings and money and trinkets as he intended, but hides them away from everyone in a secret place under a rock and intends to never use them to his benefit. He then tries to convince himself that he did it for his own glory or to rid the world of her as she was some parasite by charging for her services as a lender/pawn shop operator.

Midway through this compelling story, Dostoevsky puts forward incredible ethical quandary that has always been of special interest to libertarians. While speaking with the lawyer charged with investigating the murder, the lawyer presents Raskolnikov with an article he published stating that “ethics” is different in the public vs private spheres. Napoleon, for example, could kill and trample thousands of people with impunity and was even praised for it! How could it be that the State could have a different set of ethics than everyone else? How could his murder of the woman be “bad” and Napoleon’s murders be “good”?

Raskolnikov had explained this contradiction away in his article by saying that there were “superior” men who could violate the laws of ethics at will. How do we know who these superior men are, the lawyer inquired? Raskolnikov says they will just be known, because their actions are not resisted by the public and are instead met with parades and victory parties. This is the premise of democracy at work: if the majority condemns something, then it’s bad. While if the majority praised something, then it’s good.

This implies that the whims of public opinion determine ethics, something that libertarians vociferously denounce. Ethics is an objective science and must be equally applied to all human beings. We consider Raskolnikov’s quandary to be a problem wherein the moral edict “killing is wrong” should be applied as equally to private criminals as to the State, instead of Raskolnikov thinking that his killing would somehow put him into the same category of State rulers as superior men. There is no way in ethics to discriminate between a superior and a non superior human being.

At the end of the book, Raskolnikov’s punishment of imprisonment in Siberia does nothing to shake this ideological premise for him. He thinks his sentence was wrong, that what he did was no crime at all. He says:

“Why does my action strike them as so horrible? Is it because it was a crime? What is meant by a crime? My consience is at rest. Of course, it was a legal crime, of course, the law was broken and blood was shed. Well, punish me for the letter of the law and that’s enough. Of course, in that case many of the benefactors of mankind who snatched power for themselves instead of inheriting it ought to have been punished at their first steps. But those men succeeded and so they were right, and I didn’t, and so I had no right to have taken that step.”

This beautifully illustrates the subjective ethics that the State employs to cover it’s crimes: those who snatch political power and succeed are “right”. If enough people subjectively believe that something is not a crime, then well by golly it must not be a crime. Consider slavery: it was considered ethical only until enough people believed that it was not ethical. If ethics is objective, it doesn’t matter how many people believe that slavery is ethical: it is wrong regardless of time, place, perpetrator, legality, public opinion, or any other consideration.

This is a hard pill to swallow for people, as many actions carried out by the state and currently supported by public opinion become unethical when held up to the standards demanded by objective ethics. If stealing is wrong, and I “may not” take another person’s income without their permission, then the government forcing people to turn over their income without their permission is also stealing and is therefore wrong.

Raskolnikov eventually gets very ill and almost is driven insane by the logical contradiction he cannot solve as outlined above. Property theory and objective ethics as espoused by Murray Rothbard in “The Ethics of Liberty” and other libertarian thinkers would have offered Raskolnikov respite from his mental anguish. All violations of property are ethically wrong whether they are carried by so-called great men or by ordinary people.

Wealth and Power

Another important theme brought up by Dostoevsky in this book is the premise that those who are rich can exploit the poor by throwing money at them. Raskolnikov’s sister is proposed to by a rich man named Pyotr who basically says that the wife he chooses needs to be poor so that she will be forever thankful to him for pulling her up out of the misery of poverty. When a poor family who Raskolnikov helped who’s father had just died, Pyotr sat counting his mountains of wealth in front of one of the daughters of that family and then slipped a 100 ruble note into her dress in secret to only confront her in front of a group of people, calling her a thief.

Yet another character named Svidrigailov tries to buy his sister’s hand in marriage as well, throwing mountains of money at her and attempting to shower money on her family and friends as a show of affection. Raskolnikov refuses his help and money on several occasions, realizing it was all just a plot to buy his sister into marriage with him. In fact, all of the characters in the book fall into one of two categories: Very Rich or Very Poor.

These characters illustrate the main arguments of Marxism: that the capitalist/bourgeoisie/rich class of people in society abuse the poor classes because they have economic power over them. The rich can afford to get someone to surrender themselves and give up their free will in a sort of twisted, voluntary slavery that would not be possible without the disparity of wealth between rich/poor. As libertarians, we respect and acknowledge this argument. However, we also recognize the social benefit that the rich play in society; mainly, that they provide the saved capital for investment into new businesses, products and innovation that would otherwise not be explored. These two issues seem initially to be at odds with each other, but let’s explore them more fully.

First, the issue is not of wealth per se but of how that wealth has been acquired. There are only two ways to acquire wealth in society: by peaceful means via voluntary exchange where all parties agree to the exchange, or by crime and the force of coercion. Frederic Bastiat termed coercion employed by government entities as “legal plunder”. Let’s explore each of the characters in Crime and Punishment to see which means they employ.

Pyotr Petrovitch is a government employee who gained his wealth by the coercion of the public sector. Most of his holding mentioned in the book are government bonds. He clearly has no qualms about carrying out deceptive methods of backstabbing and slander, as seen above. He even tries to justify his wealth at the beginning of the book by citing Adam Smith and how the more money he makes, the better off everyone else is. This statement, however, reveals his economic illiteracy. Only voluntary action in a free market which serves customers who have the choice to buy or not to buy can increase the wealth in society. Governments can only take wealth as it currently exists and give it to themselves or others; they cannot generate and increase wealth in society.

In this way, his wealth was gained illicitly and the power over poor people that he exhibits is inherently unjust. Libertarians would say that people of his means could not have attained wealth in that way in a free society. If he were to generate it by serving customers, he would have to compete with many other entrepreneurs also offering goods and services. His profits and wealth would most certainly be lower in such an environment, and being uber-rich, especially given his propensity for deception, would be unlikely.

While Pyotr was involved in “public crime”, Svidrigailov, on the other hand, exhibits “private crime” in his relationships. His wealth was gained by marrying into rich families and then, allegedly, murdering his betrothed before moving on to another victim. His wealth was gained illicitly and is considered fraudulent by any objective standard. We cannot consider this to be any sort of wealth generation activity pursued by serving customers; it is theft.

In fact, the only entrepreneurial characters in this book are the land lords, Sonia (a love interest of Raskolnikov who is hinted at engaging in prostitution to keep her family fed), Razumihin (a friend of Raskolnikov’s who helps him when he’s sick and speaks of opening a book publishing company), and the pawn shop owner killed by Raskolnikov. All of these characters are in the “Very Poor” category of the book, and rightfully so. The amount of wealth gained in a purely market economy is much smaller than what can be attained by force.

Most people consider the “Very Rich” in America to be a product of capitalism; nothing could be further from the truth. Most of these moguls are products of crony capitalism, a system by which governments partner with businesses to pass laws in order to give those businesses special privileges, subsidies, tax credits, and other laws which benefit them and destroy their competitors. These laws create monopolies and centralize wealth in the hands of the few. The rich play an important role in a free market society, but becoming rich in a free market would be considerably more difficult without the power of the government constantly destroying the very fabric of the market economy.

In other words, wealth disparity in capitalism under a truly free market would still exist, but this disparity would be substantially and dramatically less. Capitalism tends to disperse wealth across the general public instead accumulating to the elite few, which is precisely why the elite few seek to destroy the fundamentals of capitalism in their every action.


In the beginning of Part 5, Chapter 1, lies a very strange sub-story of Crime and Punishment. It’s a bit out of place and appears to be a written summary of Dostoevsky’s anxiety over a certain set of ideological ideas that were beginning to take hold of young people in Russia at the time; ideas which were to eventually evolve into the blood baths and mass killings of Lenin and Stalin. In this chapter, Pyotr is roommates with a young man named Andrei. Pyotr continues to engage the boy in order to learn about the ideas of communism and nihilism; ideas which he was to surmise were gaining power and hold in society. After ascertaining that the young man is a fool and a “commonplace simpleton”, he continues to engage Andrei given his concern that the ideas themselves had power behind them.

Andrei here has a lot to say about “free marriage” and especially about how things ought to be. He constantly chides society for being this way or that, and says that in the future society, things will be different. In the future society, there will be no need of assets and all social norms are rejected. In fact, he goes so far as to say that his community is even more dedicated to communism because they reject more social norms than other communes.

Pyotr in this conversation adopts the role of Socrates, continually asking questions and attempting to point out the logical inconsistencies in the young man’s arguments. When Andrei was saying how he was trying to convince a young woman to join the commune solely for her character, Pyotr asks if he is to take advantage of her “fine character”? Is Andrei here really trying to convince her that the social norm of modesty and marriage is nonsense purely on ideological grounds and not, as it were more likely, to try to use it as an excuse to take advantage of her sexually?

Andrei backpedals to say no, that he would respect her modesty if she wanted it, despite his dismissal of the very idea of modesty as a rejected social norm. He quickly continues on to say that if she did, however, want to betray her modesty that he would be happy to help her do so, belying his true intentions.

In a particularly revealing moment, the young man says that the commune had debated whether any member may enter into another member’s room at any time, which upon libertarian grounds would violate their private property rights unless exclusively approved of by the owner of the room, and that the majority had voted this action to be ethically valid. Here again we see that ethics is decided by the majority subjectively and imposed on the minority; there is no appeal here to objectivity. Surely, some members of the commune would have not supported this position. Where are their objections?

The good thing about this particular social arrangement is that, at least, those who disapprove of those rules can ostensibly leave the commune and go somewhere else. But, the stated goal of most socialist/communist tendencies is to impose their worldview on the entire society, rendering the ownership of one’s self and one’s private property rights obliterated. The premise that anyone may enter another’s room quickly becomes may use any one else’s property, may demand labor from other people, etc.

Moreover, if ethics is indeed to be decided collectively by the majority, what would then stop the State from killing whoever it wants? Indeed, Andrei eschews the principles of “honor” and “nobility” and says that he sees only one character trait: usefulness. Who is to determine who or what is useful? What if the State decides entire cities and races of people are no longer useful and may be disposed of? How do we calculate usefulness and make some objective statement about it? Austrian economists show that value is subjective and that each individual determines for himself what is most useful; when this is decided at a collective level, it is sure to be incorrect because it cannot take into account every individual’s preferences.

Andrei goes on to cite that one of his disgusts is legal marriage. Pyotr counters by saying he doesn’t want to be made a fool of by having to bring up someone else’s children. Andrei then says most members of the commune refuse to have children because children imply a tacit support of the abominable bourgeois practice of having a family.

Something not often talked about when it comes to Marxist/socialism is it’s desire to abolish the social structure of the family. The family represents private wealth: parents work hard to accumulate wealth so that it may be passed down to their progeny. Wealth that is contained in a family means that the wealth doesn’t benefit the social order or collective. It’s trapped there in one family forever.

This is, of course, not how the market works. The parents must have provided a service/good in order to have accumulated wealth, so their wealth has already benefited other people; otherwise, it could not have been earned. Furthermore, wealth doesn’t stay “cooped up” in someone’s hands as their life passes them by. They pay other people for goods/service, employing people and spreading their wealth to all who they hire. Ultimately, it’s not money per se that people seek. They want money solely because it allows them to achieve other ends: vacations, food, beautiful houses, gardens, wait staff, horses, etc. All of which require payment of specie.

The desire to abolish the family unit has a more sinister intent, however. The family unit represents an independent economic unit, one that is self sustaining and sometimes impervious to social influence. Marxism requires that the collective, or “society”, be the final economic unit in which everyone’s needs are met. The family is in direct competition with their economic model. They also see no need for family as the “brotherly love” of the commune should provide all the emotional needs one would have. To make one both physically and emotionally reliant on society, instead of one’s own personal family, would be the ultimate step for Marx towards the universal commune.


Dostoevsky writes in his epilogue that Raskolnikov has a terrible dream. There was a plague let loose on humanity where all people were destroyed except a few chosen. Men attacked by the virus would become mad and furious with moral conviction. Each person thought that he had the truth, and thus no one could agree on what was evil and what was good. They killed each other for senseless reasons. No cooperation was possible. Entire trades were abandoned, because everyone had a different idea and no one could agree. Some would agree to do things together, but no one would keep their word and all cooperation ceased. The result was widespread famine and destruction.

This is a sobering projection of the future, and quite apt given the ideas floating around in 1866. This is pretty much what happened when the ideas of socialism took hold in the early 1900s. The ideas of subjective ethics and “my truth” are popular today on America’s college campus, but these ideas can only lead to the type of chaos and destruction that Dostoevsky predicted. Objective ethics as embodied in the non-aggression principle of private property and libertarianism is what the world desperately needs to resolve it’s conflicts.

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