The Case for Small Government

A Libertarian Perspective on Economic and Social Policy

April 07, 2006

Prostitution

Prostitution is legal in many countries, and in much of Nevada. In legal prostitution markets, government can collect tax revenue. In legal prostitution markets, violence is rare because participants resolve their disputes with lawyers rather than violence. In legal prostitution markets, HIV and other HIdiseases are less likely to spread. Legal brothels test their prostitutes and compete on this basis; government regulation is possible as well.

So why is prostitution prohibited in most of the U.S. and some other countries? Advocates might argue prohibition reduces the incidence of prostitution, but this claim is implausible. The Yellow Pages in every major city contain large sections devoted to “escort” services, and no one doubts that many supply prostitution. Police make many arrests for prostitution, but these produce little jail time or other serious penalty.

The more likely reason the U.S. and some other societies ban prostitution is deference to religious or moral views. Even those who share these views should recognize that promoting them via government bans is costly.

30 Comments:

At 9:05 PM, Blogger LP Mike Sylvester said...

I have always thought prostitution should be legal...

I thought that even when I was a Republican...

Mike Sylvester

 
At 10:51 PM, Blogger James said...

I've always found the statist views on this issue bizarre. If some people were to drive a van downtown, pretend to be soliciting the services of prostitutes, lure them into the van, bind their hands behind their backs, drive them to a large compound and lock them in cages, they'd get outraged. Unless those people are being paid by the government to do so, in which case people applaud such behavior.

 
At 7:26 AM, Blogger Mike Huben said...

I've always found property owner's views bizarre. If someone was to simply shoot people for walking across land, we'd be outraged. Unless it's a property owner screaming "trespass". Then it's supposed to be OK.

Very simply, James, we assign different powers, rights and duties to different people at different times. And often for good reasons.

The most basic argument about prostitution that Miron blithely ignores is the social question of how family relationships are created, sustained, and valued. Prostitution is generally considered to interfere with the mainstream positions on this issue.

Libertarian positions on this tend to reflect the opinions of young, single men: a minority well known to be more privileged, impulsive, and risk-taking than other segments of society.

The problems might be more easily addressed by making prostitution legal for women, and making procurement (being a john) illegal and heavily punished.

In any event, illegal or regulated, prostitution requires government controls for a variety of purposes.

 
At 11:35 AM, Anonymous STARGEEZER said...

MIKE,
INDIVIDUALS ENGAGED IN A MUTUALLY AGREED UPON ACTIVITY (SEX IN THIS CASE) NEVER REQUIRES GOVERNMENT CONTROLS. THEY ARE JUST THE PRICE WE PAY FOR RELINQUISHING PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY TO A GROUP OF PEOPLE WHO CAN TELL US HOW TO CONDUCT OUR LIVES.

STARGEEZER

 
At 1:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike Huben said: "The most basic argument about prostitution that Miron blithely ignores is the social question of how family relationships are created, sustained, and valued."

The point is that government should not have anything to do with how relationships, family or otherwise, are "created, sustained and valued".

"Prostitution is generally considered to interfere with the mainstream positions on this issue." I am not sure what this means, but if you'd like to live under a government that enforces mainstream positions, there are lots of countries to choose from. I don't think the U.S. is one of them, and that makes me glad.

 
At 4:58 PM, Blogger James said...

mh says, "I've always found property owner's views bizarre. If someone was to simply shoot people for walking across land, we'd be outraged. Unless it's a property owner screaming "trespass". Then it's supposed to be OK."

Your attempt at an analogy doesn't work. Most statists do favor the government practice described in my earlier post. Hardly any property owners, including libertarians, take a "right to shoot on sight" view of property rights. Is this what you think libertarians believe? Or are you knowingly mischaracterizing the beliefs of nearly all libertarians when it supports your view?

"Very simply, James, we assign different powers, rights and duties to different people at different times."

I'm unsure why you mention this. Given that libertarianism clearly differs with the many forms of statism on the issue of what reasons might justify these different powers, rights and duties, I'm sure you realize that all libertarians already know this. Are you trying to reason from an is to an ought?

Or are you trying to claim that libertarians are guilty of their own form of particularism? If so, you're off the mark. In the libertarian view, any person may obtain the special right to control particular pieces of property through voluntary exchange, production, or homesteading of unowned resources. It doesn't matter who the person is; the acceptable routes to the right of control are the same. I don't see this as particularistic at all, but in any case it's less particularistic than a view that adds in the stipulation that there are some ways of obtaining a right of control that are acceptable for people in a particular class and only people in that class.

"And often for good reasons."

Being on the government payroll doesn't strike me as a good reason for anyone to have the right to lock a prostitute in a casg. You seem to think being on the payroll of a government should be a necessary precondition to have some special powers, rights and duties. If this is an assumption, you are presupposing your statist conclusion. If this is a conclusion, why do you believe it?

"Libertarian positions on this tend to reflect the opinions of young, single men: a minority well known to be more privileged, impulsive, and risk-taking than other segments of society."

Exactly what is this anthropological conjecture supposed to show? When considering statist views on transfer payments, do you think it important to consider that those views tend to reflect the opinions of high school dropout single mothers?

 
At 6:30 PM, Blogger Mike Huben said...

Stargeezer, when you learn where the caps lock key is, then you can also try to be less dogmatic. Pretty much everybody agrees that government defines some government controls on sex, if only on what prisoners may do. And there are plenty of epidemological and other social reasons for controls on sex, which will have important effects even though not 100% effective.

Anonymous, relationships are not formed in a vacuum. The value placed on a relationship is strongly influenced by the availability of alternatives, such as prostitution. It is also affected by early learning experiences. Opportunities for relationships and the economics of relationships are also strongly affected by the availability of prostitution. This in turn strongly affects the environment for child rearing. It's odd to me that the stupidest religious know-nothing understands this causality, but supposedly sophisticated libertarians seem blind to it.

Let me put it another way. Some people want well-functioning markets. In order to have those, they need to outlaw other people's freedom to non-violently commit fraud. Some people want well-functioning family structures for raising children. In order to have those, they need to outlaw other people's freedom to non-violently undermine the institution of marriage.

 
At 10:18 PM, Blogger Publius said...

Prostitution is not legal because it is immoral. Unless you all forgot this is a country based on Judeo-Christian values. Yes, Jesus would break bread with a prostitute and yes Jesus prevented a prostitute from being stoned but that did not mean that the Bible is approving of those women’s professions. If the government became involved in prostitution would it make the practice safer? Most likely, but the same could be said if the government allowed bestiality, legalized drugs, approved euthanasia, and approved assisted suicide, but all these activities are immoral. Just because the government can regulate something does not make it ok, in fact when the government regulates anything it usually makes it worse.

 
At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Stargeezer said...

Sorry MH, didn’t realize you were an English major. I don’t agree with your “Pretty much everybody” but rather think government is cowing to a morality dictated by a religious minority.
If the value placed on a relationship by the individuals in that relationship is such that the availability of prostitution affects them adversely then it is probably not much of a relationship to begin with.
I’m not quite sure why I’m argueing with you, though. You are obviously not speaking from experience. Living in Nevada and driving past the brothels every day I can find no ills in the social life of the community from their presence here. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to approach this subject anthropologically and examine a culture that has legal prostitution before making blanket statements about how everyone else should conduct their life?

Stargeezer

 
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