David R. Henderson  

Response to a Regular Reader about Illegal Prostitution

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In response to my post criticizing Jimmy Carter for his advocacy of keeping prostitution illegal, Stanley Greer wrote me the following (and gave me permission to reprint.)

David Henderson criticizes Jimmy Carter for saying prostitutes sell themselves. He insists they sell their "services."

This is silly. When a couple marry one another, they have no reasonable expectation of exclusivity with regard to the provision of genuine services such as cooking, cleaning, home repair, chauffeuring, etc. They do have a very reasonable expectation of exclusivity with regard to sex. People who get married while professing they don't plan to be faithful themselves or expect faithfulness from their spouse are regarded by normal people as bizarre. That's why libertarians who think "open marriages" should be legally sanctioned rarely argue in favor of them. They know they won't get anywhere, so they don't bother.

When you have sexual relations with another person, you give that person yourself, not a "service."

The fact that Dave Henderson can't see the difference between paying someone to fix your front door and paying someone to have sex with you illustrates why libertarians have so much trouble selling their position to ordinary Americans. Whether they favor legalized prostitution for pragmatic reasons or not, ordinary Americans have no trouble at all seeing a big moral difference between a door repair and sex.

Here is my response.

In his second paragraph, the one beginning with "This is silly," I pretty much agree with everything that Mr. Greer writes, other than the statement "This is silly." I was discussing prostitution. He is discussing love and marriage. So, no, I do not see a loving husband or wife as giving "services" to the other when they have sex. I did not think it was necessary to distinguish between, on the one hand, sexual services that are sold and, on the other hand, sexual relations between two married people. I thought that the distinction would be obvious to most readers. But to remind Mr. Greer and other readers, my discussion was solely about prostitution, not about marriage.

I disagree with his third paragraph. When a prostitute has sexual relations with a client he (she) is providing a service.

Now to his last paragraph. I do see the difference between paying someone to fix your front door and paying someone to have sex with you. Again, I did not think that it was necessary to state that there is a difference because I had thought that the difference was obvious. I have paid someone to fix various doors in my house and I have never paid anyone for sex. And the reason has to do with the fact that I do find the two profoundly different.

Mr. Greer argues that "Whether they favor legalized prostitution for pragmatic reasons or not, ordinary Americans have no trouble at all seeing a big moral difference between a door repair and sex." In this sense, I am like most ordinary Americans, assuming that he's right about the views of most ordinary Americans: I too see a huge moral difference between paying for a door repair and paying for sex.

Also, I do think that pragmatic reasons alone can tilt one in favor of allowing prostitution.

If I understand Mr. Greer correctly, though, he seems to think that if there were no pragmatic reasons for banning prostitution, it should be banned because of its questionable morality. Here, I disagree. Even if there were no pragmatic reasons for allowing prostitution, I think it should be allowed. I think it is wrong for people to throw other people in cages for being a prostitute or being a customer of a prostitute. In other words, it is not my view on the morality of prostitution that causes me to differ from Mr. Greer and many others. It is my view on the morality of coercively interfering with people engaged in peaceful pursuits.

I do agree with Mr. Greer, though, that "libertarians have so much trouble selling their position to ordinary Americans." We disagree, though, about why. I don't think it's mainly because we disagree about the morality of prostitution. I think it is because we disagree about whether one should be able to enforce his morality on others at the point of a gun.

Sadly, we libertarians have had trouble "selling" our views on this to others. Increasingly, I observe many people around me strongly disapproving of the purchase of a good or an activity and thinking that that is enough grounds for advocating that people be thrown in jail for selling or buying a good, or engaging in the activity. In my state of California, for example, it is now illegal for someone under 21 to buy cigarettes or for someone to sell cigarettes to someone under 21. Under 21! It is illegal in my city of Pacific Grove for supermarkets to package their wares in plastic bags. It is illegal in many states of the union, although, fortunately, fewer than a few years ago, for someone to work in a unionized firm and not pay union dues. There is no shortage of people willing to force other people to do their bidding. THAT is where we libertarians have had trouble.

And, unfortunately, there's no easy way around that problem. The life arrangers are out in full force. I would just ask Mr. Greer that he not be one of them. And then he can believe, as much as he wants, that prostitutes give themselves to those they have sex with.


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COMMENTS (30 to date)
Joe writes:

I also wish people who opposed the legalization of prostitution would be more explicit in talking about what specifically is wrong with prostitution.

Like of course it carries strong negative emotional connotations, but honestly, apart from the religious argument (God told us its bad therefore its bad) I've never seen or heard an argument that explicitly said why prostitution is bad.

Is it because you "pretend" to like someone? I do that as a shoe salesman every day.

Is it because the woman somehow becomes an object in the mind of a consumer?

Working at Nordstrom, I can assure you there are a percentage of customers who consider me a shoe getting machine.

Is it something about sex specifically? Nobody on the main stream seems to want or advocate for banning porn.

I'm truly at a loss as to why most normally secular Americans seem to be for banning prostitution.


Besides, if it were legal, a wiz-bang marketing campaign and classy trappings would have probably made prostitution less "seedy" to the public at large. Think what Victoria secret did for buying lingerie.

James writes:

Libertarianism is unpopular because people fail to properly assess empirical evidence. They overestimate the probability that the state will implement the specific interventions they want and they underestimate the probability of the types of interventions they don't want.

jon writes:

Libertarianism is unpopular because people fail to properly assess empirical evidence.
Libertarianism is unpopular because it espouses unpopular views. For example, selling of our public lands to the highest bidder; getting rid of Social Security and Medicare; having open borders ...

Ally writes:

"Libertarianism is unpopular because it espouses unpopular views."

This is tautological and simply moves the question from one of 'why is libertarianism unpopular?' to one of'why are libertarian views unpopular?'.

john hare writes:

I believe libertarian views are unpopular mostly because, deep down, most people believe papa can fix it from the throne. There is widespread belief that prostitution, drugs, guns, alcohol, foreign competition, and all other perceived ills can be eliminated by fiat from on high. On these issues and many others, I have heard people say they want them illegal because they don't want that in their neighborhood. Centuries of evidence have little impact on those that want papa to fix the perceived problem, especially when they cite common sense in absence of study, thought, and historical knowledge.

Add in pier pressure from those around them that are thought to want papa to fix it, and there develops a militaristic sheep effect. Baaaaad, baaaaad, baaaaad.

Tim Worstall writes:

Marriage and prostitution is the wrong argument.

In law, and in the general run of matters, we're all just fine with two consenting adults having sex with each other. Even if one or both are married to other people and have taken those vows of exclusivity we generally (outside certain more fundamentalist churches perhaps) don't think that such activity should be illegal however much we may disapprove of the morality or the behaviour.

That money changes hands along with whatever fluids, instead of love, affection, or even dinner and a movie, doesn't change whether the activity should be legal or not.

It's still two consenting adults deciding to have sex with each other.

If it's not adults or not consenting then we've a word for that: rape.

Johan writes:

I figure Jason Brennan's book "Markets without limits" would be a good read for the poster who sent you this remark. (Short introduction: http://www.cato-unbound.org/2015/11/02/jason-brennan-peter-jaworski/you-may-do-it-free-you-may-do-it-money, I have it's fine linking)

And, as Mr Worstall points out, the prositution vs marriage retort is a no-go; it's simply a contract between two people not to have sex with other people (for various reasons, historically to not be cuckolded and pay for the upbringing of someones else child etc of course). Whether money exchanges hands or not is upon breaching the contract is beside the point.

It's more akin to writing a contract with your door-changing man to only have him change your door in the future, if you breach that contract by instead having someone else change your door, it would not matter whether this someone else was paid or not for it.

James writes:

Jon,

But why are those views unpopular? People seem to think that e.g. the government will do what they (people) want with parks, social security, etc. Otherwise, why would they be opposed to privatization?

jon writes:

But why are those views unpopular? People seem to think that e.g. the government will do what they (people) want with parks ... Otherwise, why would they be opposed to privatization?
You (and by you, I mean libertarians) want to sell of our public lands to the highest bidder. You are right that the government could choose to do something we (and by we, I mean the people) don't want with these public lands, but at least they would still be public lands. If the government sold these lands, they would be lost forever.

Nathan W writes:

The question is not "is sex a fundamentally different thing when a market transaction on a one-off basis and as part of love and marriage" (obviously it is), but "should people be treated as criminals for engaging in such exchanges".

Does it really matter if we consider it as "selling themselves" or "selling services"? When I give my blood, sweat and tears on a work site, am I not selling myself, in addition to providing services?

I have no interest in the services of prostitutes. However, I have even less interest in enforcing morality on others "at the point of a gun."

However, I think the most relevant consideration is that by forcing the activity into the black market, this endangers the men and women who engage in this trade. The illegality of prostitution is itself probably one of the main causal factors behind the sex slave trade and violence against those on both sides of these transactions.

I have never understood why the mere fact of money changing hands changes anything.

If I go out and have a one-night stand with a woman, most people wouldn't suggest that the government should prohibit this behavior. But if money changes hands, then they feel that the government should intervene. The woman could have the worst reasons in the world for sleeping with me (such as getting back at her cheating boyfriend or husband), and it is fine as long as money doesn't change hands.

Kitty_T writes:

Jon -

We the people don't all want the same thing with respect to public land - some people want all public land opened to immediate and complete resource exploitation to fund government programs. Those people vote, too. And if their representatives open Yellowstone to strip mining, that will be the government enacting the will of "the people." A lot of what some people currently value in public lands could very well be lost forever while in public hands.

If lands are privatized, you would be free to buy some of them to ensure they are preserved for the uses you prefer (including not developing them and/or opening them to the public) without being subject to the whims of others. That seems a much surer way for them to be protected forever against whatever you consider to be "loss."

Khodge writes:

I have been struggling with Steve Landsburg's "Killer Instinct" column (the big question.com). It struck me that there are two instances: The murder and the subsequent theft/abuse.

While "victimless" prostitution may strike libertarians as not a crime, economics is supposed to take the question a step (or many steps) further and account for both revealed preferences (e.g. sin) and unaddressed consequences (disease, disruption of society, &c.). To some extent, libertarianism fails because its adherents are just as fanatic as evangelicals.

Is Coase really pleased if, in fact, having laid all the coins on the table, one person places no value on a life and the other values his own life at $0.22.

ThaomasH writes:

My guess about the difficulty of "selling" Libertarian views is with the choice of which ones they put on the top of the pile for sale.

Prohibiting the sale of groceries in plastic bags is certainly an infringement on liberty and so is the exemption-ridden corporate income tax. The size of the "little triangles" is one measure of the magnitude of the infringement and on this measure the corporate income tax is surely a lot worse than the plastic bag tax (or ban). Mutatis mutandis the minimum wage. Yet I cannot recall the corporate income tax ever being a topic for discussion on a Libertarian blog.

Secondarily, though it may be related, many Libertarians argue mostly on theoretical grounds: departures from market equilibrium will have some cost. Seldom do they indicate the magnitudes of the costs. Since only the most naive proponents of most regulations imagine they have literally zero cost, an argument for the existence of some unquantified non-zero cost leaves them cold.

I agree that one has to pick their battles but to chose those that are both unimportant and unlikely to be won seems like a bad criterion.

JK Brown writes:

All political parties are parties of special interests regardless of their public "philosophy". They all seek to impose their plan for society and reward their supporters.

Socialists do not desire the imposition of socialism, but rather their plan for socialism. That is why as von Mises noted "The worst thing that can happen to a socialist is to have his country ruled by socialists who are not his friends."

The poor libertarian, nee' classical liberal can only argue that such policies are antisocial. Leaving people alone is a hard sell when everyone knows what's best for others. Not to mention the financial rewards for you under your "better" system.

I do remember in her podcast interview at Free Thoughts podcast recently, professor McCloskey quipped as to the fact there were no good libertarian songs. One might presume it is because leaving other people alone just doesn't inspire the emotions of people.

Chris writes:

So far, only one commenter, John Hare, has touched on the big problem with prostitution. People don't want it in their neighborhood.

I was a police officer. The thought of putting people in jail because they engaged in consensual sexual behavior just because they also exchanged money did not excite me nearly as much as putting a wife beater in jail. But the thought of walking out of my home and witnessing two people 75 feet away exchange money and then fluids made me pretty uncomfortable as well.

I am fortunate to live in an area where that wouldn't happen right in front of my house. I would bet all of us commenting here are as well. But as a police officer, I talked to citizens who complained that witnessing prostitution in front of their house was a daily occurrence. Those people have a legitimate claim when going to their representatives that the prostitution is having a profoundly negative effect on their lives. Without actually establishing a "red light district," (or making it legal in the desert like Nevada does) this is always going to be the biggest problem with legalizing prostitution. Technology is pushing it further indoors and out of the back alleys, but it still happens and homeowners still hate it. If all prostitutes were making the decision to sell their services because it made economic sense, a lot of people would have less objections. But there are a ton of people in the trade that need to support a drug habit that they can't control. Along with that, comes a lack of respect for others' property concerns. So that is how there can be a libertarian that isn't quite sold on legalized prostitution yet.

Dan writes:

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James writes:

Jon,

"You are right that the government could choose to do something we (and by we, I mean the people) don't want with these public lands, but at least they would still be public lands."

So what? If the government is doing bad things with public lands, does it make things any better that the lands are still government owned?

"If the government sold these lands, they would be lost forever."

False. The land would be owned by the purchaser and the government would receive the proceeds of the sale. As to "forever," the government could buy the land back. Why do you regard privately held real estate as "lost?"

Matthew Moore writes:

@JK Brown

There is at least one good libertarian song.

Sons of Liberty, by Frank Turner

Old Dude writes:

I recently learned that there were two houses of prostitution operating for more than 15 years in the same locations in my small town. They were located in the nicest shopping district in town above retail shops along with law offices, interior decorators and family counselors. I have walked by them with my wife and family more than 100 times and never noticed anything at all. I had no interest in any of these services and so never sought them out.

My point is that it's not the sex or the money that is the problem, it's the violence, solicitation or other such behaviors. Maybe one day we will be civilized enough to let other adults engage in activities we don't approve of without resorting to violence.

JK Brown writes:

I recently came across and observation that a century ago in many cities it was illegal to buy an unrelated woman's dinner. The vice squad staked out restaurants to looking for such immoral behavior.

I wish I could remember the source, I saw it in passing and just considered how dating morality had changed. And, of course, that evil capitalism has enabled most women to price their "affections" higher than the average meal cost.

Henri Hein writes:
If the government sold these lands, they would be lost forever.

You don't think that is a little strong? Lost forever? Surely you don't think the land becomes unusable just because it is privately owned.

Henri Hein writes:

I'm not much of a deontologist, but when it comes to vice, or morality statutes, I think most or all of them are precisely backwards. I do not see what could be just about punishing people that engage in peaceful activities, whether commercial or not.

I understand that people don't want to see it in their neighborhoods. That is a different issue. I don't want to live right next to a brothel and I don't want to live right next to a gas station. I don't think either should be outlawed.

In cultures that are more accepting of prostitution, this is, if anything, less of an issue than here. You get fewer street-walkers, and erotic businesses tend to cluster together, so that people uncomfortable with them can move and stay away.

If it really upsets you that much, it also seems to me you should want it to occur in predictable places and times, which requires decriminalization. Being surprised by it should be the last thing you want.

jon writes:

If lands are privatized, you would be free to buy some of them to ensure they are preserved for the uses you prefer
Wow, great news. So I can buy some of the public lands and open it to the public? I'm sure that will work out well.
The US Federal Governments owns nearly 650 million acres of land – almost 30 percent of the land area of the United States.
These are lands that are held for all Americans.
So how much of this 650 million acres do you include in your some of them that we can buy for Americans to continue to enjoy?
http://www.twostepsbeyond.com/apps/uspubliclands/
So what? If the government is doing bad things with public lands, does it make things any better that the lands are still government owned?
Of course it makes things better, because, as the owners of that land, we have the option of stopping the government from "doing bad things" with that land. This is a particularly bad argument coming from a libertarian, because, if you had your way, we would never be able to interfere with private property rights.

jon writes:
If the government sold these lands, they would be lost forever.
You don't think that is a little strong? Lost forever? Surely you don't think the land becomes unusable just because it is privately owned.
You are correct that I surely don't think the land becomes unusable. Am I also, surely, correct in that you were attempting to create a strawman? Surely, you couldn't have thought that a person would somehow think privately held land would become unusable. That would suggest that that person thinks a majority of the land in the US (and in fact the world) is unusable. Surely, you didn't think that.
Henri Hein writes:

Jon:

I was trying to clarify your "lost forever" comment. You do not seem to think this is the case. Since my comment was sufficient to get you to backtrack your statement, it must not have been a strawman.

Alexandre Padilla writes:

I am fairly certain that when courts grant divorces, many divorces are granted on the basis that some expectations weren't fulfilled: irreconcilable differences if often the term used.

As for people who have open marriages or are polyamorists or swingers, whether they are viewed by "normal" people (whatever that means - I don't know what normal people are - people who agree with Mr. Greer are normal and those who don't, are not?) as bizarre doesn't make it illegal and, as a matter of fact, it's not illegal.

As for the distinction between "giving yourself" or "providing a service", it's a matter of degree. When you hire somebody to dance naked in front of you or to give you a lap dance (which is legal) to arouse you, you are renting that person's labor force, which is the product of using his or her body. When you are hire two people to have sex in front of you or not, it's legal too (at least in California and New Hampshire), are they providing a service?

When you get married, you may have reasonable expectation about sex but that doesn't mean you are entitled to it, you still need consent and being married is irrelevant. If you are forcibly having sex with your spouse (i.e., you have sex without your spouse's consent), it's rape and court will agree with your spouse. You are not giving yourself when you have consensual sex, you are granting access to your body (and not necessarily to your mind, heart, or soul for that matter) - your property - temporarily. Similarly, when you get married, you may have expectations about exclusivity but you are not allowed to prevent your spouse to have sex with other people. You are free to divorce her but you can't forcibly prevent that person sex with other people because that's false imprisonment.

Mr. Greer might think there is a huge moral difference (and courts would argue that it's matter of the community's morals) between fixing your door, giving a massage, giving a lap dance, or having sex for money but the reality is that it's just matter of degree of what part of your body you are using to do the job.

Mr. Greer's viewpoint is just another example of meddlesome preferences and people who want to legislate morality or, more exactly, what they think is moral and what they think is immoral.

It's only my opinion but the economic literature tends to show that legislating morality is often inefficient and the costs often associated with the unintended consequences are greater than the benefits (which often are difficult to measure).


John Doe writes:

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jon writes:

I was trying to clarify your "lost forever" comment.
Roughly a third of the US is public land of some sort. Some of that is wilderness, if we sell it of to the highest bidder, and it gets logged or mined or otherwise exploited, it is "lost forever," because you can't put that genie back in the bottle. Some of it is exceptional recreational or scenic land and it will be bought up by the wealthy and remain in private hands, so it is also "lost forever," etc.
Certainly, if there was a massive sell-off of public lands, people like me would band together and try to buy as much of it as possible to keep it public. But the amount we would be able to buy would be much less than 1/3 of the US. You probably think that's great, because you are a probably a libertarian who thinks the idea of public land is some kind of offense to the market. I think that's horrifying. Fortunately for me, I am in the majority and this big sell-off is unlikely to ever happen. But to return to the original point that started this whole discussion, it is the libertarians' support for ideas such as this that is the reason it is a marginal party in American politics.

James writes:

Jon

"Of course it [government ownership of land] makes things better, because, as the owners of that land, we have the option of stopping the government from "doing bad things" with that land. This is a particularly bad argument coming from a libertarian, because, if you had your way, we would never be able to interfere with private property rights."

If the land remains in government hands, you might be able to influence the government to stop using that land in ways you disapprove of. You would have to gather a considerable amount of support to persuade a government to change course. If the land were privately owned, you could buy the land, or pay (or otherwise persuade) the owner to avoid the specific uses you dispprove of.

Neither is impossible, but the likelihood of both is an empirical matter, and its also an empirical question whether government or private parties are likely to use land in ways you disapprove of.

Why do you expect better results from the government? I am asking for evidence.

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