This is a guest post by Scott Cunningham, an Economist at Baylor University, in response to my post about the legalization of prostitution, available here. The context for this conversation is a podcast episode from last year, in which I interviewed Scott about his empirical research about prostitution.

I appreciate Steve’s description of our conversation and his position a lot. I want to offer this response only to expand a bit on a couple of important parts of this argument.

Economics as a modern discipline has lost much of the moral philosophy that once set the context for our work. As a result, it is not as common to hear people reason ethically except when it comes to issues like redistribution and inequality. That said, the tools of economics are helpful for dispassionately working through counterfactuals and general equilibrium. In this case, in particular, we need to think carefully about the consequences of a policy that go beyond the immediate obvious result. I think readers need to hear that if they adopt a ban on prostitution, they have to use police and courts, and these efforts will be largely aimed at poor people, who likely will have long-term repercussions that we never intended. Without thinking through these consequences, it is too easy to reason in a naïve way about these policies. Steve doesn’t interact much with the implications of state violence its long-run consequences, but that makes some sense. Our podcast conversation focused on the best empirical research on violence and the economics of prostitution more broadly. But I think readers should understand what the full costs of prostitution bans really are.

To make this clear, let me expand a bit on the real consequences, as I see them.

Poor Opportunities

First, note that bans can do real harm to sex worker families and sex workers themselves, since by their next best alternative to non-coercive sex work is likely not a living wage for a family. Many face real obstacles for a variety of reasons that are associated poverty, and as such, “difficult work” may pay the best option. The point is to keep this in mind — whenever people make a choice, they do so because the next best alternative is worse. So if we see people freely choosing something as psychically stigmatizing and physically costly as sex work, you can imagine that their next best alternatives are bad, potentially very much so.

If we do not invest in a broader social safety net and in jobs training programs, prohibition is even more harmful. For example, assume there was universal healthcare. In that scenario one doesn’t depend on the job or the wage as much, and therefore it is possible that some of the harm, from prostitution bans, that I worry about could be mitigated. Right now, however, it does not look like our safety net is comprehensive enough to make enough of a difference.

The Consequences of a Harsh Criminal Justice System

Second, we use the violence of our criminal justice system pretty freely. I have always thought that state violence should be preserved (used cautiously) more often than it is. We punish people intensively, though, and as a result the US has the world’s highest incarceration in levels and rates.

Moreover, our expansive justice system has real economic consequences. Cycles of poverty are perpetuated by small fines and misdemeanors. This is one of the problems generally with the cycle of poverty actually: the way our criminal justice system is designed makes it harder to escape poverty. People can’t afford to pay simple fines, and then eventually a warrant for their arrest is issued. If they can’t make bail, they lose their jobs or plead guilty simply to get out of the system. This results in their having a criminal record, hurting their ability to find work and housing. Even simple things like a traffic violation can trigger this kind of cycle.

Weighing the Evidence

Consistently, studies have found unusually harmful outcomes associated with criminalization, like higher STDs, higher violence against women, and some suggestive evidence for reduced investments in children due to lost income. We have to contend with the argument that legalizing prostitution might reduce these substantial harms. Given the high costs associated with using the violence of the state, we should have a really good reason to not liberalize sex work. All the recent research, however, just reinforces the high social cost of prostitution bans.

Interestingly, there is a long precedent in the Christian tradition for making a kind of second-best prudential judgement about prostitution, on just these grounds. For just one example, Aquinas shared some of these concerns and weighed them heavily. There is some literature noting that he was ambivalent to bans despite the sinfulness of sex work, because he worried about violence in their absence. Manisha Shah and I cover a bit of this argument a bit in one of our recent papers.

Overall, I am clearly less worried about legalization than McMullen is, but also, I think, Christians can too quickly use the power of the law to bring about simple moral ends, without considering the consequences that result. Those consequences also have real moral weight.

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