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Score one for Nozick


On the other hand, this article reminds me of perhaps the most indefensible policy that most progressives either agree with or are indifferent about: the criminalization of prostitution. This isn’t to say that I agree with the most simplistic libertarian defenses of decriminalization. The class makeup of women who choose to become prostitutes, and the number of men and women who choose to become prostitutes, make clear that there are various forms of gender discrimination that compel people to do work they would otherwise find degrading. It’s misleading, therefore, to say that such laws interfere with “free” choices. While I’m libertarian enough to believe there’s nothing inherently wrong with having sex for money, prostitution as a contemporary social practice reflects and constitutes problems that should concern feminists. Nonetheless, they are extremely bad laws:

  • The class and gender inequities that compel people (mostly women) to become prostitutes don’t go away when you make it harder to do it. In general, the relevant choice isn’t between prostitution and some hypothetical, non-degrading and well-rewarded job, but a series of bad options. To force people to choose one of the other bad options over sex work requires a paternalism and/or imputation of false consciousness that I, at least, want nothing to do with.
  • More importantly, the laws completely and utterly fail to achieve any of their stated objectives. If you’re a puritan (or the right or left), laws do little to actually discourage prostitution. If you believe in such laws for the more defensible reasons of protecting relatively powerless people, the laws are egregiously counterproductive. Criminalizing prostitution denies prostitutes legal protections, subjects them to the power of middlemen who are likely to use arbitrary violence, makes the job more dangerous to mental and physical health by emepting it from state regulation, and by constituting prostitutes as a marginalized class further encourages violence, theft and poverty. Even if you accept their paternalist underpinnings, these laws wholly fail to achieve their objectives, and indeed make the underlying problems much, much worse.

Basically, prostitution laws have most of the problems that most progessives correctly perceive in laws banning abortion and drugs, and even the strongest justifications for them are significantly less compelling. It would be difficult to identify a more indefensible set of laws that face as little opposition.


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