Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Legalize prostitution?

Here's my beef with the argument that we should legalize prostitution.

It is rooted in the belief that anything that you want to do with your body is fine regardless of the consequences on others.

This is different than the belief that the government should stop trying to protect people from their own bad decisions. If someone wants to fill themselves with trans fats, get their whole body tatooed, or wants to dye their hair every colour of the rainbow, nobody would object.


Because these acts have no widespread negative effects on people.

There is a certain class of libertarian that measures everything according to self-will. If you want it, and it does not directly "harm" any consenting adult, it should be your right. It makes personal will, adult consent and the absence of direct and visible harm the measure of all government policy.

But sometimes, personal will and adult consent, exercised on a collective scale, leads to negative consequences for society.

For instance, take pornography.

Fifty years ago, child pornography was virtually nonexistent. I'm sure there are people who will pull out the odd example. But it's not rampant like today.

How did child pornography become so widespread?

It began with legal pornography. All the adults were consenting.

And it became widespread. And the sexual values of pornography became widespread. And so on. Until today, it's almost mundane, and many young people look to it to understand sexuality.

And it has become so banal, that the "naughtiness" that sells pornography has been neutralized. I see a picture of a naked woman I think: ho hum. So do most of you. It just doesn't have the same kick as it did 50 years ago.

For pornography to sell, it has to be create the sentiment of perversion. The sentiment of perversion occurs when it creates the feeling that you're doing something more deviant than is acceptable now. There's a reason that websites advertize girls who are "barely legal".

So now, among the things that are "more perverted" (because adult pornography has become so "boring") is pedophilia. I'm not saying there aren't other really perverted adult porn. It's just that the development of more and more perverted pornography is a natural result of the nature of engaging in it. When you jerk off all the time, you develop a sense of tolerance. So you need a stronger kick.

Take another example: doing drugs.

If someone decides to smoke a joint in his living room, what's it to the rest of society?

The problem is that when millions of people get high, it's going to have a negative affect on society. There will be more drinking under the influence. There will be more negligent parents. There will those who become apathetic.

And the rest of us have to live with those negative consequences.

And when marijuana becomes legal, you can be sure that people will try other drugs. I know, you're saying "it's a myth that marijuana is a gateway drug!" Even if only ten per cent of marijuana users go on to harder drugs because of the interest in getting stoned, that's a problem for society. If Canada decriminalizes marijuana, and as a result, one million Canadians take up the drug, who would have otherwise not, and ten per cent go on to harder drugs, that's a significant number of hard drug users, especially considering the social dysfunction that goes along with harder drug use.

The standard of consenting adults, free will and direct harm cannot be the measure by which we evaluate laws and public policy because what people want for themselves is often bad, and the harm doesn't come to the fore at the individual level, but at the collective level.

That being said, we can't criminalize everything that might cause harm on a collective level. It's a practical issue. Take gambling for instance. It leads to gambling addiction, even if lots of people engage in it without problem. How much time do we want to spend policing weekly poker games or bar bets?

And it's the same thing with pornography. Do I want to send people with dirty pictures to jail? No. Do I want to send every stoner to jail? No.

There are only so many resources out there for policing. You want to focus on those issues that most affect the community.

The thing is, that it is difficult to criminalize activities that are widely accepted. If you make pornography, marijuana and gambling highly accepted, there is less of a desire to prosecute people, one because everyone's doing it-- and so people blind themselves to the harm; and authorities don't have the resources to prosecute everyone. And the inability to stop those activities makes criminalizing them seem ineffective.

So while it's true that a purely libertarian worldview is inappropriate in evaluating law and policies.

But we have to consider police resources and effectiveness in designing future prostitution laws. We have to consider what we can reasonably accomplish with them.

We also have to consider that the real source of our laws are not special interest groups and judicial activism. It's true that they have an influence. But the reality is that if Canada's prostitution laws were struck down, it's because our culture let it happen. Our values are so laissez-faire that people can't see the problem.

You can only pass effective laws if they are consonant with the mindset of the people. If people don't see the problem with prostitution, they're not going to support a law against it. Right now the libertarian paradigm that I spoke of above is dominant, especially when it comes to sexual matters. We have to show that individual acts, when considered on a collective scale and viewed in the long-term can have a negative effect on society. I think social conservatives have to drive home that point.