The world’s oldest profession is in trouble.
With the exception of Nevada (apart from Las Vegas), several countries in Europe, and a few elsewhere, prostitution is illegal in the entire world. Yet, in the felicitous expression of the late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, it constitutes a “capitalist act between consenting adults” and thus ought not to be prohibited by law.
Conservatives want to prohibit this practice because they deem it immoral and maintain it undermines the family, the bedrock of our civilization. Well, yes, possibly, it may well play havoc between husbands and wives, particularly if the former utilize these services of other women and the latter provide them to other men. But, it might well help single mothers to put more bread on the table than would otherwise be available and thus keep their families together. And who is to deny that it might well save some marriages, as an escape valve.
Even assuming this criticism to be valid, the violence of the law is to be used, sparingly, and only in reaction to a prior use thereof. So, yes, murder, rape, theft, kidnapping, etc., ought to be illegal, but not prostitution, since it is based on consent, not initiatory violence.
If a woman is forced into this trade, that constitutes an invasion of her person and of course, ought to be unlawful. Members of the right-wing of the political spectrum might well be correct in their claim that this profession is indeed immoral. But we should not concern ourselves with morality in general, only with one small slice of it: what is just law. Answer: it prohibits initiatory force and the threat thereof, and that is it.
In any case, there are many acts that may be considered immoral: eating too much, drinking excessively, laziness, gambling, shopaholicism, and yet while our society condemns them, they are not prohibited by law. Do conservatives really want to jail people for all these immoralities?
Left liberals are more divided on this issue. Some feminists see it as per se exploitative of women. The world should not be the sort of place where females earn a living in that manner. Should they be prevented by law from so doing? That would reduce their autonomy, a desiderata not only of feminists but of all men of good will. Other supporters of the feminist viewpoint are more logically consistent. They believe that women “can have it all.” But, surely, this profession is part of “all.”
According to some critics, prostitution may be voluntary for rich women, but not for their poorer sisters. They are in effect forced into this oldest profession by their poverty. This is nonsense on a stick. First of all, no one holds a gun to an impecunious woman and threatens her with death if she rejects the job of providing sexual services. Secondly, it is a fallacious understanding of “coercion” to think that poverty can compel anyone to do anything. All prohibition does is eliminate one option for the poor woman, and that can hardly help her.
What are the ill effects of prohibition? It did not work out too well for alcohol and there are ominous parallels in the present case. Let me count (some of) the ways.
Remember, we are discussing an entirely voluntary interaction between consenting adults; underage prostitution constitutes child abuse, a crime in all civilized societies.
Another point. It is entirely legal for people to co-habit with one another. But, horrors!, if money changes hands in this process, the very same act is rendered illegal under present law. The prohibition of prostitution, then, is a per se attack not only on voluntary sexual intercourse, but on commerce per se. (It is the same with markets in used body parts; A donates a kidney to B and all’s well. But if A charges B for this boon, then all legal hell breaks loose).
It cannot be denied that the world would be a better place if no one wanted to engage in this practice. But that is not the planet we occupy. In this one, let us legalize prostitution. Placing people in jail for engaging in consensual adult behavior is uncivilized.
Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute. He earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1972. He is the author of more than 600 refereed articles in professional journals, two dozen books, and thousands of op-eds (including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and numerous others). Prof. Block counts among his friends Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard. He was converted to libertarianism by Ayn Rand. Block is old enough to have played chess with Friedrich Hayek and once met Ludwig von Mises, and shaken his hand. Block has never washed that hand since. So, if you shake his hand (it’s pretty dirty, but what the heck) you channel Mises.