October 24, 2008

The moral inefficiency of prostitution bans.

This article on the Guardian's 'comment is free' site made interesting reading. The article got me thinking about the constant argument between those who want prostitution banned outright and those who want it regulated. As a libertarian I personally don't have any interest in interfering with what other people choose to do with their bodies or what people choose to pay for, as long as no coercion is involved and no third party is harmed. I do find it amusing how many feminists think that a womans 'right to choose' is founded on self ownership but that principle somehow no longer applies when said ownership is used to offer sex for money rather than to abort foetuses.

I also think that the need for physical intimacy is universal, and found among the disabled as well as the able-bodied, the physically repulsive as well as the beautiful and the socially inept as well as the charming. There are many many people who live lives of intense physical and psychological loneliness and who are for whatever reason unable to form satisfactory relationships. To wish to deny such people whatever brief respite and fleeting comfort that they may find with a sex worker out of some misguided sense of moral righteousness seems pig-headed and obnoxious to me. Furthermore I think legalisation leaves the women in question far less vulnerable to exploitation than they would be otherwise.

Thats MY opinion. I appreciate however, that not everyone agrees. So for the purposes of this argument I am going to look at the other side. 'Lana,' the sex worker in the article is not a drug addicted abused teenager in the grip of a violent pimp. She is a university educated single mother, who has decided that prostitution is a preferable source of income to the available alternatives such as secretarial work, mainly because it provides independence, superior income and more time with her children. Her clients are by her account not abusive but generally polite middle aged businessmen. Nevertheless lets accept for the sake of argument that its EVIL. Quite what form that evil takes, I'm not sure. Perhaps the transaction leaves deep psychological damage in both client and prostitute that will take years to reveal itself. Perhaps she is corrupting the morals of her entire community and leading them onto the path to licentiousness and decadence. Perhaps if enough Lanas ply their sinful trade in central London Yahweh, Allah or Jehovah will come from the sky and do a Sodom and Gomorrah job on the whole city. Whatever. I don't care. We'll just take it as read that its EVIL.

But is it the most EVIL thing imaginable? It stands to reason that if Lanas entirely voluntary and noncoercive transactions with her clients are evil then what happens to women who are brought to this country to be exploited and live in near slave like conditions under brutal pimps is far far more evil.

Anyone who would try to ban prostitution would have to be pretty optimistic about the power of government to do stuff generally. A desire to stamp out the world's oldest profession is nothing if not ambitious!

By banning Lana from plying her sinful trade you either force her underground or make her give up and go back to her lower paying profession. Either way you forfeit tax revenue. Less tax means you can do less stuff. Stuff such as going after and prosecuting the sex traffickers who are commiting far worse acts.

Any way you look at it, from the point of view of reducing the total amount of evil going after Lana is inefficient

APPENDIX
Of course there are many ways you could spend the higher tax take produced by the legality of prostitution to reduce the total amount of EVIL. Alternately you could invest the money in GOOD (cancer research, third world aid, bibles in hotel rooms, organic vegetable subsidies... whatever floats your moral boat) and thus improve the GOOD/EVIL ratio. The point is that by declaring prostitution illegal you are essentially saying that it is SO evil that regardless of how highly it is taxed the GOOD thus generated can never outweigh the EVIL produced.

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