Disapproving Via Bans

Adam Ozimek posted on why anti-prostitution laws are inefficient:

Say Ray’s friend Lenore wants to purchase Ray’s prostitution services and she values them at $400. But when Lenore does this it bothers Ray’s other friend Tonya. … The marginal utility gained from prostitution by consumers would vastly exceed the marginal disutility to objectors. (more)

Matt Yglesias responds:

I think Adam Ozimek’s post … nicely illustrates why nobody likes economists: … a big part of the point of prostitution prohibition laws is to express social disapproval of prostitutes and prostitution. … You can [call] a person … you disapprove … as a “whore.” … Its insult status reflects and upholds a social consensus that whores are bad people, not just that whoring is a kind of undesirable nuisance. Side-payments can’t address this issue.

I think the best way to think about prostitution prohibition is just to observe that we’ve historically done a lot of stuff to bolster the privileged position of heterosexual companionate marriage. This has entailed a lot of avoidable cruelty to gays and lesbians, sexually active women, children of unmarried women, and voluntary prostitutes. But the cruelty isn’t a pointless side-effect that can be reduced through better policy design. The cruelty is integral to obtaining the objective. (more)

Adam responds:

One could … [argue] that the costs and benefits of the expressive value of laws should be taken into consideration. .. This would mean weighing the cost of lower status of prostitutes against the benefits of those who wish to lower their status. … Matt seems to think the reason people don’t like economists is because they miss these things or they ignore them. That’s a fair enough criticism. But he should consider Robin Hanson, whose willingness to wrap any cost or benefit into welfare analysis, no matter how egregious, is surely the purest form of economic thinking. No offense to Robin, but I don’t think people would like economists more if [they] conducted economic analysis more like him. (more)

So do people dislike economists like me because we ignore key costs and benefits, or because we try to consider them neutrally, instead of tipping the scales toward their desired conclusions?

Oddly for a post emphasizing the importance of social disapproval, Matt doesn’t say if he approves of banning things to express disapproval, or of disliking economists for neglecting disapproval motives. Nor does Matt says if he thinks bans-to-disapprove are efficient.

So let me say clearly: policies that create real social costs for the purpose of raising the status of some relative to others are usually inefficient, and therefore bad. Those whose status is raised usually gain less than is lost by those whose status is lowered, plus those who suffer the social costs of the policy

We can also see this as some societies trying to look good in the eyes of other societies, by paying real costs to signal their commitment to certain ideals. Even if this benefits such societies, the set of all societies probably loses on net.

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  • The people who support such policies don’t dislike economists because of some technocratic disagreement about which costs and benefits to include in the analysis. They dislike economists because we don’t treat the debate as a moral argument.

    Well I’m quite happy to push back on both economic efficiency and moral grounds. “policies that create real social costs for the purpose of raising the status of some relative to others” means You have to suffer so I can feel better about myself sounds like tyranny; sounds immoral.

  • Doug

    These types of moral bans aren’t necessarily inefficient zero(or negative)-sum policies. As an example take drug prohibition, economist/libertarian arguments for legalization have largely failed because they’ve been phrased in terms of utilitarianism or efficiency. But most people (as I’ve think you’ve mentioned before Robin) support drug prohibition because they view drug users as bad, irresponsible, low-status people. So it becomes an issue of responsible sober people versus “lowlife druggies.” Most people obviously side with the former.

    However I think it’s no coincidence that this (and a dozen other issues like it) are lumped in with the phrase “family values.” As Tyler Cowen mentioned the other day issues like marijuana legalization have deep pools of parental voters who will come out against when it’s on the margins. Issues about good “normal” people against degenerates and losers go hand and hand with concern about “the children.” What parents worry about is that once society legalizes drugs that it will undermine their message to their kids about drugs being bad. Because a legal/political victory for drug users raises their status and makes it more socially acceptable.

    To an economist these look like inefficient tradeoffs. the group of the targeted ban suffers massive utility losses for some vague psychological gains related to feeling of social or political comfortableness. Is it worth it for hundreds of thousands of lives to be ruined by the drug war, just so suburban white collar people don’t have to worry that men in red woolen shirts are getting incredible kicks from things they’ll never now?

    But the tradeoff has only a little to do with this. Parents want their descendants to share their values. They also know that they don’t have sole control over this variable, that kids also take their cues from society at large. Parents want society to give big red signs to their descendants saying “X, Y and Z [the things they morally disapprove of] are socially unacceptable and low status.” One very visible and obvious way to do that is with official moral bans. More so once the moral bans are in place lifting them raises the social approval of the group more than if the ban had never been instituted in the first place.

    Theoretically the bans could be efficient from a utilitarian standpoint. The social status tradeoffs are indeed zero-sum, but the loss of utility to the targeted group from the moral ban could be outweighed by the utility loss to parents and grandparents of the marginal kids engaging in the activity. Although I believe this isn’t the case (mostly because I doubt that many people are actually on that margin), one could make the argument that it is. For those whose values strongly disapprove of such things, seeing a child or grandchild become a drug user, prostitute or homosexual can be massively devastating.

    Note that this isn’t the classical argument of more drug users vs. safer drug use. Even if the drug use is rational (i.e. utility maximizing), or even if it’s made completely safe, the above argument can still hold. Parents often disapprove of these things because of their values, not their factual beliefs. They don’t want their kids being prostitutes just because it’s dangerous or an irrational choice, but because their moral values strongly disapprove of it and they get big gains when their children share their values.

  • Joseph K

    I think lots of people who disapprove of these vice crimes like prostitution and drug use really have very simplistic notions of morality. Things are either good or bad and those things that are good are altogether good, and those things that are bad are altogether bad. In other words, if we legalize something intrinsically bad like prostitution that can only possibly lead to bad outcomes.

    Most people’s reaction to things like prostitution and drug use is simply a feeling of moral revulsion, and it’s a feeling that’s not easily altered. Similarly, people who are against gay marriage simply feel that homosexuality is disgusting or irreligious or unnatural. People who are against markets in organs or other body tissue are simply offended by the idea of putting a price on living flesh. That legalizing such things might actually save lives or reduce suffering is counter-intuitive because to them, if it feels bad it must be bad, and if its bad it must be entirely bad. The concept of a trade-off is something to be ignored and rejected.

    Thinking in terms of cost and benefit or in terms of balancing among trade-offs seems like more of a mathematical way of thinking. A more linguistic way of thinking is more in terms of either/or and all/none thinking. Mathematical thinking allows for subtleties not really capturable in language: continuums of degree and complex causal interactions. With math we can add up a set of positives and negatives and reach a net sum which is either positive or negative. But this type of thinking isn’t going to persuade people.

    Nonetheless, you could persuade people to feel okay with legalizing prostitution, by making them feel (the way many libertarians do) a revulsion to governmental intrusion into personal decisions or perhaps a fondness or religious idolization of prostitutes (such as with ancient religious prostitution). People’s revulsion towards homosexuality is changing as they get to know more gay people and are exposed to it more in the media. Though I hope that policy is guided more by the cost-benefit/utilitarian way of thinking; the rhetoric has to be in these emotive terms.

  • Salem

    They dislike economists because we don’t treat the debate as a moral argument.

    More accurately, because economists use an implicit moral argument (utilitarianism) that most people do not share. And then economists pretend that they aren’t making a moral argument. The entire exchange in the post assumes that marginal utility is what’s important.

    “You have to suffer so I can feel better about myself” sounds like tyranny; sounds immoral.


    • Walter Simons

      economists use an implicit moral argument (utilitarianism) that most people do not share. And then economists pretend that they aren’t making a moral argument.

      That expresses the problem very neatly.

      Few things are as infuriating as trying to talk to someone who operates from an entirely alien set of meanings.

      Remember that humans form markets when social relationships are fairly stable and trusting. If there is no trust at all, no one actually tries to trade – at most people might pretend to offer a trade with their left hands while readying concealed weapons in their right hands.

  • Ryan Vann

    “You have to suffer so I can feel better about myself” sounds like tyranny; sounds immoral.


    How do you figure this is a strawman? Certain culture norms and moral are inherited by individuals; they impose these morals on others, often in a punitive fashion. How does that not decribe the argument being made?

    • Salem

      The people who are “imposing these morals on others” do not make an argument anything like “you have to suffer so I can feel better about myself.” Therefore to claim that is their position is to set up a strawman.

      In my view, prostitution is an immoral act that should be discouraged. It’s not that punishing people doesn’t create negative utility, as Simetrical says, but rather that we have to punish people who do immoral things – murder, prostitution, etc – to provide a deterrent. So when considering whether prostitution should be legal, I consider:

      The cost of enforcing the ban
      The possibility that a regulated sex industry might lead to less violence against sex workers
      Possible tax revenue

      That there would be less of a deterrence against prostitution
      A legal sex industry would presumably be much bigger and might threaten public decency
      A cascading effect which harms public morality and family values on a wider scale

      I can see how reasonable people could take either side of the argument. But you will notice that me feeling better about myself doesn’t figure anywhere in my thinking.

      • Karl Hallowell

        1) That there would be less of a deterrence against prostitution
        2) A legal sex industry would presumably be much bigger and might threaten public decency
        3) A cascading effect which harms public morality and family values on a wider scale

        These points are easily dealt with by noting that 1) society doesn’t have a reason to deter prostitution, that 2) public indecency can be punished by revoking licenses, fines, and other stuff that is already known to work, and 3) no slippery slope has been demonstrated here. To the contrary, I imagine prostitution will continue to have considerable stigma associated with it, because that’s how people are. Keep in mind that if I’m in a stable relationship, my partner is very likely to feel jealousy and other negative emotions, if they find out that I frequent a prostitute. This isn’t likely to create a positive attitude about prostitutes in the general population.

      • Salem

        society doesn’t have a reason to deter prostitution

        If you regard this as axiomatic, then of course you have a problem with a ban on prostitution. But by saying this, you are taking a moral position, that prostitution is not immoral. If you take a moral position and refuse to justify it, you are not really arguing in good faith.

        no slippery slope has been demonstrated here. To the contrary, I imagine prostitution will continue to have considerable stigma associated with it, because that’s how people are.

        This is what people said in the 1920s when divorce laws were being liberalised. “Divorce will continue to have considerable stigma associated with it, because that’s how people are.” Didn’t work out that way. We can easily see a similar slippery slope with prostitution, where prostitution becoming more widespread makes it more acceptable, which makes it more widespread, and so on. Something similar is happening with pornography, too.

        Besides, if these points are so “easily dealt with,” why haven’t you persuaded a majority to legalise prostitution? Shouldn’t that make you think that you’re overrating the strength of your own argument (note the name of this website). I guess you can claim that your opponents are actually motivated by secret arguments they do not disclose, but this is just obnoxious.

  • Simetrical

    The issue is not that most people favor inefficiency, or that they have simplistic moral views. The issue is that most people are not utilitarians, they’re deontologists. If prostitution is immoral, then punishing those who practice it is deserved, and therefore does not create negative utility. Similarly, any pleasure gained through prostitution does not count as positive utility, because it’s immoral.

    Deontology can do cost-benefit analysis based on utility functions, but *not* just utility functions that each person chooses for himself. The one doing the calculation decides the overall utility function, which may incorporate individual choice of utility functions but is not just a sum or average. This is less elegant and less democratic than utilitarianism — “tipping the scales toward their desired conclusions” is a fair description — but it’s what the large majority of people believe. And it’s part of why they don’t like economists.

  • andrew kieran

    i don’t dislike economists. i do dislike mainstream society for considering prostitutes to be worse people than their customers

    • Well, I favor a policy of total nonjudgmentalism toward both the prostitute and the customer It’s becoming fashionable (even if not quite “mainstream”) to condemn the customer, often framed in the way Andrew’s post does. I am a customer of prostitutes. I suppose that the typical customer of prostitutes is not some guy for whom the prostitution turns into a close personal relationship in an incredibly easy manner–nevertheless, that’s exactly what it’s like for me. And I definitely defend the idea that neither I, nor a more typical trick who never forms a close relationship with his hooker, is doing anything wrong. The fashionability (yes, Andrew, your opinion is quite politically correct rather than a truly unpopular one) of this condemnation is probably in large part due to a lack of pity for the sex-starved: Being deprived of sex is not seen as being an affliction that should be removed, it’s not seen as understandable that someone would take desperate measures like getting together with a prostitute. I thought about posting on Robin’s most recent “sex-starved” thread (hey, Robin, I hope to see you revisit that topic in a month or two), and maybe I really should get around to making such a post.

      So I dislike those who frame the issue as “prostitutes versus customers,” as opposed to seeing it as a transaction that can and should be beneficial to both parties. I especially dislike it because it’s tempting to take the argument on its own terms. I really tend to think that those who smoke crack are “worse people” than those who do not, and crackheads are bad enough that the scale simply has to tilt toward thinking that a crack-addicted prostitute is worse than a drug-free and otherwise unobjectionable customer. (And this argument doesn’t apply when the prostitute doesn’t use hard drugs, or the customer is just as addicted to drugs, or if he only hires prostitutes when he is on drugs.) This argument seems to be quite easy to win, so I have to remind myself that prostitutes are my friends, and they’re not the ones making these arguments, and so I shouldn’t be lured into an argument about which one is worse.

      A focus on drug addiction is crucial for understanding what the drug-addicted prostitutes are actually like, but I admit that it’s unfair to the non-drug-addicted prostitutes. In the interest of being fair to them, I can think of several reasons why the prostitutes have traditionally been more stigmatized than their customers. (Remember, I think the stigma should be much lower in both cases.) Most importantly, the prostitution is seen as more central to the prostitute’s identity than to the customer’s. In the modern West, people’s identities are defined by the occupation they specialize in, and this applies to prostitution. (Also, the prostitute can often be more recognizable than the client.) And another reason might be the way in which sexual perversion is conceptualized. After all, if people think in terms of a sexual perversion in which people trade sex for money, then the one receiving money is the one who is doing something quite different from “acceptable” motives for sex like pleasure, affection, and reproduction. The one who is paying is presumably motivated by a more understandable impulse to have sex for pleasure, and therefore this way of thinking sees the customer as the less perverted party.

      • andrew kieran

        “The fashionability (yes, Andrew, your opinion is quite politically correct rather than a truly unpopular one) of this condemnation is probably in large part due to a lack of pity for the sex-starved”

        really? and there was me thinking i was railing against the liberal mainstream!

        wow, thanks for pointing out i’m being PC, i never would have known otherwise.

        and so sorry for being unsympathetic to your plight, i guess seeing as i’m totally drowning in pussy i wouldn’t know how it feels to be sex-starved would i? i’d say i haven’t had an inkling of what you were talking about for most of the last 10 years! woop!

        at the end of the day i point-blank refuse to feel sorry for anyone who can afford to pay for sex. if you can afford to pay for sex you can afford the time and energy it takes to work on being more attractive to the opposite sex. paying for it is just treating the symptoms of your problem.

        me, i never get laid, but to be quite honest i’ve got more important things to be concerned about than the desires of my wee man

      • These days, those days

        “Really? And there was me thinking I was railing against the liberal mainstream!”

        It’s a common mistake. But yes, this tendency to think that the customers are worse than the prostitutes comes from a tendency for the middle class to take blame for the lower classes’ problems. The problems that make prostitution common and harmful in the lower classes arelower classes are things like drug addiction, lawless crime, and being more promiscuous than they can afford to be. But instead of blaming the lower-class roots of these problems, many people would rather blame a (perceived) middle-class group like the prostitution-customers (never mind that the customers, too, may usually be lower- rather than middle-class). In other words, PC middle-class guilt.

        It can be hard to tell which opinions really are mainstream. The idea that “the prostitutes are worse people than the customers” may be the default point of view in many ways–in other words, the mainstream traditional view. But the mainstream also seems extremely sympathetic to the idea that the customers are worse: thus, I drew a distinction and realized that customers-are-worse may well be untraditional, but it is most certainly not unfashionable. Finally, the “liberal mainstream” is the good liberalism, not the bad liberalism of PC, and it may well be sympathetic toward the idea of not judging or criminalizing either the customer or the prostitute. “Prostitutes are worse” or, for that matter, “both are equally bad” are pretty clearly examples of the conservative mainstream, while the liberal mainstream sees no reason to hate either party. (For again, “prostitutes are worse than customers” may well be based on a simple bias like “women are worse than men.” Surely that’s not the “liberal” mainstream!)

        “If you can afford to pay for sex, you can afford the time and energy it takes to work on being more attractive to the opposite sex. Paying for it is just treating the symptoms of your problem.”

        Well, part of my problem is that I don’t even truly understand how to frame my problem in terms of being “attractive,” as against figuring out how to break through the wall of unavailability, the obstacle most simply expressed by saying that so many of the girls I meet already have boyfriends. For if that is the problem–and I think it is–how is “being more attractive” the solution? Is it realistic and ethically pure to strive to be so attractive that they will break up with their current boyfriends for me?

        So the thinking is that prostitution completely eliminates the wall of unavailability as it normally operates; that mutual liking is not at all a sufficient condition for a relationship when one party already has a boyfriend–but that this “boyfriend obstacle” can be eliminated through a different set of rules like those of prostitution. And sure, prostitution can often be just a way of treating the symptom. So is aspirin.

        “Me, I never get laid, but to be quite honest I’ve got better things to be concerned with than the desires of my wee man.”

        Sure, that is a part of my problem as well: Not having better things to be concerned with. Really, if I had never met any prostitutes, my life would have been more boring and lonely and I would probably never get around to finding a hooker–unless of course it were easy, and it were as easy to find a brothel as to find a Hooters restaurant. The idea that the hood is some kind of exciting place, more interesting than normal life, is a large part of prostitution’s appeal for me.

        But I’m happy for you, that you’ve got better things to be concerned with.

  • someguy

    I really hope Matt clarifies but it really seems like he thinks the cruel policies are integral, not a pointless side effect, to obtaining the objective of bolstering the privileged position of heterosexual companionate marriage.

    That is horrible.

    The policies are extremely inefficient in regards to lowering and raising the status of the relative groups.

    Legalizing prostitution won’t really raise the status of prostitutes in any meaningful way and it won’t lower the status of virtuous married women. A whore will still be a whore.

    In many cases I don’t think the main intent or outcome of these policies is to raise or lower the status of the target group.

    If they sold joints, valium, or oxycodone at the local convenience store most people wouldn’t buy it because the status of those products had increased let alone because the status of drug users had been raised. Yes, there would probably be some small change in that direction.

    But most people who would now buy, would buy, because the risk/reward ratio had changed.

    • VT

      As someone living in a society where prostitution is legal, I can attest to this. Although I estimate most people in my country would not call a prostitute immoral (after all, who is he/she hurting?), I have never met anyone who would consider it “just a career choice”and I am certain no mother wishes for her child to be a prostitute.

      The reasons for this are not just job danger, I think. I believe it has to do with prostitution conflicting with the societal value of sex being love-related. The lower status of prostitutes stems from the perception that life forced them to leave behind this cherished value, which signifies that they are not very succesful. The pity that comes with this observation is the source of low status.

      Perhaps I am wrong in separating values from morality like this – in any case, I am sure the social status prostitution gives people is also low here. It is only raised slightly, because the added label “criminal” is not relevant.

      On another note, drug use is also not punished as harshly here as in the U.S., with some drugs being practically legal. Much the same reasoning goes – it’s not considered immoral, but it is considered a bit sad. The face that it’s also not particularly rebellious to take legal drugs may have only added to this feeling of pity. The best comparison may be to drunks.

      • Karl Hallowell

        at the end of the day i point-blank refuse to feel sorry for anyone who can afford to pay for sex. if you can afford to pay for sex you can afford the time and energy it takes to work on being more attractive to the opposite sex. paying for it is just treating the symptoms of your problem.

        That’s nice. But why should anyone else share your values? Remember one of the fundamental cornerstones of economics is that not everyone wants the same thing or values things the same way. Sure, I can afford the time and energy to be more attractive to the appropriate sex. But I don’t highly value that attractiveness. My time and energy is better spent elsewhere (IMHO). If I really want sex under these circumstances, then paying for it is a reasonable alternative.

  • someguy


    I liked your comment but maybe they are still utilitarian? They are just applying a different utility function?

    Are crack heads really getting positive utility out of their crack pipes?

  • Jeffrey Soreff

    Mark Twain said

    There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.

    There’s something ironic in having law raise or lower anyone’s social status, given the general contempt with which the makers of that law are viewed, at least in the U.S.

  • So do people dislike economists like me because we ignore key costs and benefits, or because we try to consider them neutrally, instead of tipping the scales toward their desired conclusions?

    Well, I dislike economists because they are aggressively autistic in their efforts to reduce the complexity of human relations to simplistic notions of utility. And that they seem willfully blind to other approaches.

    In this case, there have been plenty of people who study actual prostitutes, plenty of people who have worked-out theories of why markets may be disfunctional or undesirable in certain cases (eg Debra Satz), and plenty of non-academic common-sense reason why people may not want to tolerate prostitution (see this comment at Yglesias).

    It’s not that economists can’t contribute usefully to a discussion about prostitution — I’m sure some do. It’s when they pretend that you can ignore everything else about it and trump everybody else with some stupid calculation based on bogus notions of utility that they come off as obnoxious.

    • I agree with the commenter that streetwalkers & corner dealers (along with broken windows) are signs of social decay that people don’t want to live near. But the illegality of those trades is why they are on the street rather than a brick-and-mortar business!

  • Douglas Knight

    How effective are bans at disapproval? Prostitution is legal pretty much everywhere in Europe. I believe the only exceptions are Ireland and Poland (also, being a John in Sweden). Plus, it’s legal in Canada, though 90% of Canadians I surveyed deny it.

    Maybe the acts of creating and lifting bans are powerful acts of (dis)approval, but the existence of many bans seems not to be noticed by people.

  • An economist isn’t a scientist unless they treat their subjects neutrally. Would you trust the worm research of someone who expressed repugnance at worms, or the parasite research of someone who thought parasitism unethical and necessary to eradicate from the world? Such at-any-cost thinking is going to blind you to the realities of the world. It is certainly more difficult to separate out one’s moral judgements from one’s analysis when it comes to human things — such as economics — but it should be done when possible. I may moralize on blogs, but in my scholarly work, I try to remain as neutral as possible.

  • “… why nobody like economists …”

    Vapidness like that is why I’m glad the academic blogosphere has arisen. How about some reasonable humiliy, Mr. Yglesias? Such as, “if this is what I have to say, perhaps I should simply direct the conversation towards smarter commenters?”

    Although I think the best engagement with this is to look more broadly at the mechanics of total coordinations. ” … nobody likes … ” … everybody likes …” type situations, because I think it’s an important and understudied social phenomenon that can probably yield insights under economic analysis.

  • Jehu

    People in the US haven’t had free association for a long time—at least the 1960s prior to the civil rights acts. If they had free association, they’d likely feel less inclined to use the sledgehammer of the law to express their disapproval when they could simply say things like ‘We don’t serve your kind around here’ or ‘Fill in the blanks need not apply’ without facing any sort of legal jeopardy. I’d hypothesize that the massive proliferation of laws and regulations since the 60’s has the loss of free association as one of its main drivers.
    Remember, most things are at their bottom related to the battle for social status and the zero and negative sum goodies that society has to offer. Somebody HAS to be on the back of the bus, practically by definition (and we’ll redefine the back as the worst seats anyone is actually using if you get cute and make the back of the bus unusuable or unused). If we can’t use free association/disassociation to do it, we’ll use laws instead. Why do you think SF passed their ‘unhappy meal’ proposition? It’s not really about health or anything, it’s about giving the middle finger to groups they don’t like.

    • Jordan

      I also submit seat belt laws as an example. I have never once heard of someone getting injured because someone ELSE was not wearing their seat belt. Allowing people to break the norm and not wear their seat belt should be a matter of personal choice.

      Of course, it gets more complicated in the day of modern socialization, where a deadbeat not wearing a seat belt can shirk emergency medical costs and create a high tax burden on others; but I would consider that cause to reform liability, not to mandate by law where individuals must place themselves in a cost-benefit judgment of comfort vs. safety. If it were really about economics and not disapproving via ban, there would be an option at the DMV to pay more for a sticker that tells police that I’m allowed to drive unbuckled.

      • Jordan

        Why are all of my comments replies to random others… 😕

  • These days, those days

    The idea of disapproving via bans does a great job of explaining the facts of which countries adopt the so-called Swedish model of prostitution. The Swedish model is the policy of criminalizing the buyer in a prostitution exchange, and not criminalizing the prostitute. The theory being that buyers are so responsible for the problems of prostitution that it’s okay to criminalize them, while the same can’t be said about the prostitutes. This model has been adopted in several north European countries (with Sweden the first, of course), and in every case, the country’s status quo was that prostitution was legal but rare, and the evidence is unclear whether the ban really did make it rarer still.

    The anti-prostitution activists in America are almost all supporters of the Swedish model. And although they wield much influence over government policy, they never change any state’s law into a Swedish model that decriminalizes the prostitute’s side. It always just gets translated into a tough-on-crime, keep-criminalizing-both-sides by the time it gets translated into actual policy. The anti-prostitution activists always see any decriminalize-both-sides proposal as being worse than the status quo of criminalize-both-sides, and a cynic would suspect that the American anti-prostitution movement doesn’t care about making it so that prostitutes aren’t criminalized; that they would rather put ten innocent prostitutes in jail than refrain from punishing one guilty client. But they do have an excuse: It is politically difficult to change from full, both-sides criminalization to the Swedish model. But why is it difficult? And why was it easy to make the change in Sweden?

    In Sweden during the 90s, prostitution was legal, but most people believed it was wrong–so they did their part by not patronizing the sex industry, and therefore said industry was small. Since they believed it was wrong, they were easily persuaded to support a ban on prostitution. The actual designers of this ban were radical feminists who believed that all prostitutes are helpless, passive victims, and therefore the Swedish model makes just as much sense as punishing con artists but not making it a crime to fall for the scams of a con artist. So they came up with the Swedish model, and it became law in Sweden.

    In a both-sides-criminalized country like the US or South Africa, changing to the Swedish model inevitably seems like softening the law’s anti-prostitution stance by removing the penalties from a key participant in prostitution. Even though a number of people may believe that the Swedish model would reduce prostitution, and that this would be a good thing, they still can’t get past the apparent–and probably actual!– tendency to “send prostitutes the message” that being a prostitute is not going to be as hard now that it’s not a crime to be a prostitute.

    Sweden didn’t have that obstacle, since the status quo was to have few or no prohibition laws against prostitution. Americans may behave as I have described on the level of governmental policy, but I also think that many Americans think as if they kinda believed in the Swedish model’s view of prostitution, as well. On the other hand, Australia and New Zealand follow the decriminalization model, and Australians and New Zealanders tend to react to the Swedish model with the scorn it deserves: to think that a prostitute is trying to be a prostitute, and if we want to help her–and we should–the way to do it is to provide better options that replace the desperation of prostitution, rather than to persecute her customers.

    • Douglas Knight

      Every source I’ve ever seen (eg, wikipedia) says that prostitution was illegal in Sweden in the 90s.

      If American anti-prostitution forces like the Swedish model, then, yes, they’d have trouble implementing it in most states, but they could have tried for Rhode Island, where prostitution was legal until last year. I don’t know why it took them 6 (or maybe 11) years to ban it, but disagreement about which way to go is the reason.

      • These days, those days

        Rhode Island is a great example of how the anti-prostitution movement actually operates. You’re quite right; Rhode Island would have been a great place to try Swedish-model legislation. Prostitution was going to be re-criminalized somehow–it was really only decriminalized by an accidental loophole in the law–so if there was an opportunity to try the Swedish model, Rhode Island was it.

        Donna Hughes is the most influential of the radical anti-prostitution ideologues, and her influence was key in Rhode Island’s re-criminalization. She could have pushed for Swedish-model legislation that left prostitutes uncriminalized. Instead she set up a group (Citizens Against Trafficking) that pushed for exactly the kind of anti-trafficking legislation that every other state has. And predictably, the result was that Rhode Island’s new law was a typical, both-sides-criminalized prohibition of prostitution.

        What possible reason could Hughes have for using her influence without making an effort to get Rhode Island to adopt the Swedish model? Did she believe that this move was the best for her own personal career aspirations? Does she just like seeing prostitutes as well as clients arrested? Or possibly, she knows that Swedish-model legislation would not, in fact, eliminate prostitution in the US. But Hughes and the rest of the antis derive great rhetorical benefit from claiming that the Swedish model would work in the US. Thus the Swedish model’s true purpose (in the US) is better served if someone prevents the experiment, prevents us from seeing its failure close at hand. That’s just one theory, but it is clear that Hughes is no friend to the interests of sex workers, whether voluntary or forced.

        About the Wikipedia article, it’s clear that the current legislation was passed in the late 90s. But I actually couldn’t figure out what it’s saying about the pre-1999 status quo. The relevant sentence is “In practice the law [regulating prostitution, passed in 1964] was used less and less,and was replaced in 1969 by the Social Services Act of 1980….” Eh? If the Social Services Act was passed in 1969, why is called it the Act of 198? And Wikipedia gives no information about what was actually in the Social Services Act. Perhaps I should be looking at a different part of the article, other than “History of prostitution legislation/Twentieth Century”? Anyway, I just checked my copy of “Sex and Reason” by Richard Posner, and as I had thought, it was written in 1992 and makes two references to how, at its time of writing, prostitution was not illegal in Sweden.

      • Douglas Knight

        I don’t think that Donna Hughes has ever supported a Swedish law. She always says that what she likes about Sweden is that they’re actually trying to end prostitution (a claim I doubt). She always uses the clause “legally redefine prostitution as a form of violence against women,” which rather fits “disapproving via bans.”

  • JohnJ

    Wouldn’t it be awesome if people could try their grandiose social engineering schemes on a small scale instead of trying to convince the entire country that some proposed change will be to all of our net benefit?

  • Dave

    Why people hate economists

    This is what happens when the ideas evolved by certain professions become over run by outsiders who find the constructs found therein congenial to their worldview. I love economics myself, but what is talked about in the blogosphere seems always to focus on a small piece of the knowledge base .For example marginal utility really gets the spotlight. Another one is externalities. When I took economics they talked about elasticity. How come everybody seems to talk marginal utility but no one talks about elasticity? At one time everyone “ in the know” was a Marxist. or a Keynesian. Now they are or are not Keynesians.

    Maybe it is like the way the trendy set took over psychology. Then all they could talk about was left brained vs. right brained. Then came multiple personalities existing outside of either lobe . Then faddish thinking moved on.

    The general public does not have the capability or the interest to jump to conform to each new idea or theory, especially if it has no emotional punch . The only punch many of these theories have is they are incomprehensible and hence must be brilliant. Even Joe Six Pack perceives that they don’t wash.

  • ravi

    I think much of the stigmatization of prostitution, drugs, gambling and other activities comes from the logic that they can be addictive and energy sapping and in the long run they might affect one’s ability to competently compete in the social race. In a sense they are all behaviors signaling one’s inability to forgo immediate pleasures in exchange for longer term joys.

    All of these activities can very quickly and insidiously become addictive. We humans are very fallible and if you think you are above it all, then you are clearly deluded. The possibility of a slippery slope is very real. In no other area have i seen or experienced so much irrationality and biased thinking as I have when it comes to humans and vices. The smart ones who are smug that they can control it are the ones that fall hard.

    It is a society’s responsibility then to warn you of the dangers in all possible ways. Any “prominent” vice in your life must be a neon sign saying that your life is imbalanced. I am not saying we should ban them all. I am saying that they are really dangerous and they can zap you. Avoidance is probably not a bad idea.

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