Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bumping Uglies: The Law Vs Circumstance

Charles Johnson’s Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know It evoked some criticism from a liberal friend of mine. In particular, Johnson’s take on the prohibition of drugs and prostitution...
There are, to start out, the trades that the state has made entirely illegal: selling drugs outside of a state-authorized pharmacy, prostitution outside of the occasional state-authorized brothel “ranch,” or running small-time gambling operations outside of a state-authorized corporate casino. These trades are often practiced by women and men facing desperate poverty; the state’s efforts add the danger of fines, forfeitures, and lost years in prison.
... was not well received. In my friend's words:
In the case of legalized prostitution, it has been shown that sexually transmitted diseases have increased wherever it is practiced, and that sex trafficking has increased tremendously in these countries. In fact, they become hubs for sex traffickers, since it becomes virtually impossible to tell whether or not a prostitute is "willing" or coerced. And with regard to drugs, its not as though they are selling chairs or DVDs. Drugs can and do have a negative impact on the user, producing violent rages, murders, and all other manner of insane behavior. This is not to say it occurs among all users, but I don't think I need to pull up stories on how certain drugs have led to violence. It is not a source of sustainable income in either case. To say that the poor should have access to selling drugs and prostituting themselves out is to continue to perpetuate the class system and to further entrench them in poverty. Prostitution will always bring with it unknown dangers, even if it were legalized. A mother of two children who would have to bring a John home would be exposing them to a host of dangers. And I failed to see how these avenues in any way would led to a path out of poverty.
So is it the case that there are extra-unforeseen consequences libertarians are not paying attention to? That is, are libertarians ignoring social and longterm costs in their opposition to prohibitions of all kinds and have conservatives and mainstream liberals been correct all along? I think there is a good deal of truth to that. The vision of the individual as an atomistic entity which through his own folly causes harm only to himself is a false paradigm endemic to libertarian theory and rhetoric. But I don’t think that a more thorough understanding of the issue concedes the main argument against prohibition.

Value Neutral Idealism?

If doing drugs and selling sex were considered as culturally innocuous as, say, running laps and popping popcorn, then they’d be legal. It’s precisely that they are viewed as dangerous and culturally stigmatizing that they remain illegal. For this reason, it seems the way in which Johnson presented the issue was in blunder, at least at first glance, because the average person reading isn’t viewing the situation through the same lens as a value neutral idealist. It seems one could replace “drug dealing” with “grand larceny” without really affecting the way in which most people would regard the act.

It’s also quite flippant to the objections. Heroin is quite obviously not peas and carrots. So when it’s presented as if it is the case, a mistake is made. Drug use and abuse runs the risk of addiction, health problems, and social marginalization. Prostitution would run the risk of the latter two. To ignore the social consequences of addiction, health issues, and marginalization seems like a misstep. I understand what Johnson was saying, of course, but one could make the case, as my friend has above, that prohibitions discourage the kind of behavior that would lead to poverty in the first place. Somehow I think it’d be harder to make the case that business licensing would do the same.

Damn the seller. Er, the buyer?

It’s interesting who we regard as the victim from situation to situation. My friend quotes an unsourced article:
The results of Sweden’s recent approach to the issue of prostitution demonstrate a compelling alternative to the bankrupt idea of legalizing “sex work,” which even Amsterdam officials acknowledge has failed. Recognizing that prostitution victimizes those in the system, Sweden has shifted the focus of felony charges onto the buyers of sex, while directing social services to those prostituted. This policy has nearly eliminated sex trafficking into the country, and domestic prostitution has not increased. Nevada’s policy of legalization has had precisely the opposite effect.
Normally, the drug dealer, not the buyer, is considered the comparative lowlife. But when we discuss prostitution, it becomes the buyer who is considered exploitative. This makes sense when there are children involved, but, other than that, I don’t understand. The view that a prostitute is always the victim seems to imply that no woman could enjoy prostitution and that paying big money to have sex is just a day in the life of being a man. So if we’ve fuzzied up the situation a little bit, it just doesn’t seem fair to impose stiff penalties on only Johns while providing alternatives to prostitutes. It seems circumstances play a large role in the decisions of Johns and prostitutes. The same would be true of drug dealers and buyers.

Unilateral Deregulation

Circumstances are of the utmost importance. If we reasonably assume that circumstances matter, contribute to and cause outcomes, then we can understand why problems persist despite deregulations which libertarians argue would result in net social benefits.

We can all probably agree that the poverty stricken have extra incentives to engage in these activities because they are more desperate. Ending prohibitions can only affect that insofar as it’s already limiting opportunity. For example, poverty caused by business licensing in poor communities isn’t going to magically disappear because of reforms in drug policy. So even though reform may provide options, it’s not like they provide a cure-all. Instead, the deregulation will make those activities safer by removing them from the black market.

Addressing the issues

Social problems are multifaceted and interconnected. Poverty promotes crime and crime promotes poverty while a lack of opportunity and/or anti-social culture underlies both. Johnson’s article makes a very good case that the former is being overlooked and resulting in social policy which breeds criminals and dependents.

At the very least, ending prohibitions addresses criminality and keeping people out of prisons should be an answer to one part of the problem. But this needs to occur in tandem with other reforms. Opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship need to be opened up. Relevant and honest information about drug use would also provide people with reasons to avoid drug abuse and may stifle demand. That way, non-drug industry related industry can flourish after the death of prohibition. The same would apply for prostitution.

As for sex trafficking, the solution is fairly straight forward: allow for legal recourse. The legality of prostitution should have no bearing on how claims of forced participation are handled. If it’s illegal, anyone could claim they were forced into prostitution. If it’s legal, the same applies, except there’d be less reason to do so. Why would a voluntary participant to prostitution say they weren’t? Perhaps there’s an information barrier that protects sex traffickers? Or perhaps immigration laws discourage unwilling sex workers who are trafficked from seeking legal redress? Seeing as how trafficking victims are primarily from other countries, they might unnecessarily be put in the awkward situation of trying to decide between sex slavery or poverty because of laws which dictate that they are not welcome. Trafficking would be made incredibly unprofitable were they allowed to leave at any moment. It's really just another problem of prohibition. Again, we see that opening opportunities and expanding liberty resolve these problems naturally without depending on much more than a simple legal system and market forces.

Sweden’s policy of providing social services to discourage sex work may serve as a decent leg up, but I don’t see any reason for restricting social services only to sex workers. Are they the only ones in questionable economic circumstances? (I'd actually assume Sweden has plenty of social services for all types of people.) Also, as implied above, I find it absurd to try to discourage sex workers who may enjoy their work from performing. People are diverse -- one size does not fit all -- that should be reflected in law.

So while ending prohibition doesn’t solve fundamental social problems, it serves as a necessary step in addressing them. Of course we shouldn't be content with that alone, but it’d be foolish to be content when there are other obvious shortcomings. The problems that remain after the repeal of prohibitions aren’t justifications for prohibition, they’re indications that social problems aren’t a flip of a switch away from being remedied. We need a holistic approach -- which does indeed include ending prohibition.