29 November 2008

For Prostitution

The Objectivist
Revisiting Prostitution
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 24, 2008

Prostitution is one of those businesses that is here to stay and yet, outside of the Eliot Spitzer scandal, receives little discussion. The case for legalizing it is surprisingly strong and yet there is little movement for doing so. Even in liberal San Francisco, voters turned down a measure that would have prevented the police from arresting prostitutes.

The case for legalizing prostitution is straightforward. On one version, if two persons wish to engage in a transaction that does not harm anyone else, then they should be allowed to do so. A second version focuses on rights. In prostitution, the customer, almost always a man, gives the prostitute money, something which he has a legal and moral right to do. The prostitute has sex with the man, which she (or he) also has a legal and moral right to do. Somehow, the combination of these acts is illegal. This ban does not cover payment to actors in pornographic movies for reasons that escape me.

One argument for banning prostitution is that we should protect prostitutes from themselves. This is an odd argument in that you might think that the state is not your father and hence should not be in the business of protecting you against yourself. One might also think that consistency should prevent such laws. After all, we allow adults to eat unhealthy things, smoke, get fat, drop out of school, and serve in dangerous wars. However, even for fans of paternalism, the issue arises as to whether prostitution is a bad for women.

This is a claim that prostitution is bad for the women (and men) who work frequently made. The empirical studies in fact show that the job has a distinct mixture of benefits and costs. The best window into this mixture is one of the few in-depth studies on prostitution that was done by University of Chicago economics professor Steven D. Levitt (author of “Freakonomics”) and Columbia University sociology professor Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh.

In Chicago, street prostitutes earned around $27 an hour, roughly four times their hourly wage in other jobs. In other work sectors, these women averaged around $7 an hour. Interestingly prostitutes who worked for pimps, or business agents as I like to call them, earned around $41 an hour. In a week, the average prostitute only worked around 13 hours per week , averaged 10 sex acts, and earned around $340 a week, which is more than they made through other work. My guess is that this light work week might be valued by women who can’t afford much day care and whose other work prospects are undependable, dreary, and don’t pay much. Surprisingly, another academic study indicated that in many cases prostitutes enjoy the sex.

The down side is that prostitutes are in a violent, unhealthy, and stigmatizing field. Levitt and Vankatesh’s study indicates that working street prostitutes report being a victim of violence (from customer or business agent) about once a month. They are also at risk for disease because condoms are used about 25% of the time. Prostitutes also get arrested, although fairly infrequently (1 arrest per 450 tricks). They get imprisoned even less frequently (1 in 10 arrests leads to a prison sentence). They frequently buy off the police with sex. Incredibly, around 3% of their tricks are given to the police to prevent arrests. This is a higher rate than freebie sex given out to gang members for protection. Other researchers argue that being a prostitute is stigmatizing and leads to diminished marriage opportunities.

Do the costs outweigh the benefits? This is hard to tell. It depends in part on what other employment and marriage prospects the women have and what they value. It is unclear whether it is worse than their other options. Even if prostitution is bad for the women, one wonders whether they would be better off were prostitution legalized, thereby allowing women to gain better access to medical professionals, honest cops, and reputable business agents.

The cost-benefit analysis is also unclear when we look at high-end prostitutes. Venkatesh’s research indicates that some of these women make a lot of money (around $7,500 per session or $10,000 per session depending on how elite their clientele is). However, their other opportunities are probably quite good. At this level, the women tend to be white, have a college degree (or are in college), and only take referrals. In addition, they are also exposed to violence (on average, twice a year).

A second argument for prohibiting prostitution is that it is necessary to prevent business agents from exploiting prostitutes. Levitt and Vankatesh’s study casts doubt on this argument. In Chicago, business agents allow prostitutes to earn substantially more money (50% more) per trick, turn fewer tricks, get arrested less often, and give less freebie sex to cops and gang members. In return prostitutes pay a flat 25% fee on all of their tricks.

A third argument for banning prostitution is that it carries with it negative externalities. A negative externality is a harm to people who are not part of the transaction. In particular, prostitution is thought to cause crime, tamp down property values, break up families, promote immorality, etc. Negative externalities usually do not provide a good reason to ban something as opposed to zoning it. For example, the state allows bars and industrial plants despite the fact that they are alleged to cause crime and noise and tamp down property values to drop. In an analysis of Chicago neighborhoods, prostitution did correlate with crime. In contrast, this is not true of the drug trade. In the absence of data, it is hard to assess the claims about family breakup and promoting immorality. Also, the externalities need not be all negative. When studied, many rapists report preferring voluntary sex. This might indicate that prostitution will reduce the incidence of rape, although this is pure speculation. In addition, the negative externalities might be outweighed by the gains to prostitutes and their customers.

A fourth argument is that prostitution will lead to the importation of foreign sex slaves, thereby leading to sexual slavery. However, Emily Bazelon in Slate.com points out that in countries that legalized prostitution (Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands) have not become awash in foreign sex slaves. Neither have the parts of Nevada in which it is legal.

A fifth argument is that hiring prostitutes is wrong and that the law should enforce morality. This is an odd view of the state for those who think liberty is important. In addition, it is inconsistent with laws that permit people to enjoy pornography, alcohol, gambling, and adultery. The real problem, however, is that it is hard to see what is wrong with hiring a prostitute. People hire others for pedicures, hair cuts, and massages, all involve human contact. Why is sex different? At least in the short run, the exchange of sex for money appears to be mutually beneficial, otherwise such exchanges wouldn’t occur. The proponent of this argument needs to explain why morality supports banning of prostitution, but not premarital and gay sex. Paying for sex may seem distasteful, but such aesthetic objections are no more telling on prostitution than they are with regard to sex with a fat person.

It is surprisingly hard to see why prostitution should be criminalized. The most obvious arguments fail or lack supporting evidence. Perhaps we should revisit this issue.

12 November 2008

Against Diversity

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 10, 2008

The left often asserts that diversity is good for the U.S. The notion that diversity is good for the U.S. is an empirical claim and there is surprisingly little evidence for it. This is disturbing given that few slogans are more repeated in politics than “diversity is our strength” and given that schools and businesses spend large amounts of money and regularly sacrifice merit to promote diversity.

The argument against diversity is that when we look at ethnic, racial, and religious diversity, we find that it does not correlate with wealth, happiness, peace, or other indicators of human flourishing. As a result, even if diversity generates benefits, it is unclear whether they outweigh its costs.

Internationally, some of the richest countries have less diversity than their competitors. Examples of countries with less diversity include (in parentheses is their ranking in terms of per capita income): Norway (2), Ireland (4), Denmark (5), and Sweden (7). The same is true of two of the four richest Asian Countries: Japan (20) and South Korea (28). In more subjective terms, less diverse countries such as Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, and Norway have very happy people compared to the rest of the world (they are the 3rd, 5th, 9th, and 12th happiest respectively). This is measured in terms of life satisfaction, although genetic factors might explain a large part of the data. In terms of wealth and happiness, the U.S. has high numbers (10th in income and 11th in happiness). So while diversity does not appear to be necessary for wealth or happiness, it is not incompatible with it. My guess is that the U.S.’s wealth is probably due in large part to its free market.

Internationally, racial and ethnic diversity is a major source of violence. Jared Taylor, editor of the highly controversial American Renaissance, notes that a study by the United Nations found that between 1989 and 1992, there were 82 conflicts that had resulted in at least 1,000 deaths. Of these conflicts 96% (79) were ethnic or religious conflicts that took place within the borders of recognized states and only 3 were cross-border conflicts. Another researcher, Tatu Vanhanen of Finland, found a strong positive correlation between ethnic diversity and conflict. Intergroup violence in places like Yugoslavia and Iraq quickly spiraled out of control once the heavy hand that kept violence contained was lifted.

In the United States, diversity appears to have troubling results. For example, in 2007 Harvard professor Robert Putnam found that as racial diversity increase, levels of happiness decrease as does trust both within members of the same ethnic group and between members of different ones. Also, with the increase in diversity, people increasingly withdraw from community life. In short, Putnam found that as diversity increases people have less friends, less trust, and are less altruistic. When it comes to universities, the effects of diversity are also not obviously good. For example, a 2003 study by Stanley Rothman and fellow researchers found that there was an inverse relationship between the number of minorities on campus and how favorably students viewed their education.

Politically, the different races are worlds apart. In last week’s Presidential election, the Washington Post reported that 95% of blacks voted for Sen. Obama. The 95% support is not explained by political preference because plenty of blacks have economic and social views that are closer those of John McCain. For example, a majority of blacks in California supported Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. Rather, the preference is explained by racial identification and this was not limited to blacks. Nearly 20% of all voters said that the candidates’ race was a factor in their vote, although most said it was not the most important factor. A number of the most high-profile conservative blacks backed Obama, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Manhattan Institute member John McWhorter, and conservative radio host Armstrong Williams. It is hard to imagine that they would have supported Hillary Clinton had she won the nomination. This is not to say that such racial identification among voters is such a bad thing, but merely that it plays a more important role with a diverse population.

A clear example of racial identification in another context is the fact that until the 1994 Multiethnic Placement Act, the Association of Black Social Workers did what it could to reduce the adoption of black children by white families. In 1972, they publicly labeled the practice “cultural genocide.”

Patrick Buchanan points out that we are all familiar with some immigrants’ high profile acts of violence. He points out that the 1993 bombers of the World Trade Center and the 9-11 bombers were immigrants. The same is true of Colin Ferguson (the Jamaican who killed six and wounded eleven people on the Long Island Railroad), John Lee Malvo (the Caribbean immigrant who was the Beltway Sniper), and Chai Vang (the Hmong immigrant who shot six hunters to death in Wisconsin when they asked him to vacate their deer stand). And these are just the famous cases. Now, there are many benefits too to having a diverse population. Also, we all know people whose lives are immeasurably benefitted by particular immigrants (particularly spouses). Also, one thinks of Indian- and Chinese-Americans’ many contributions to high-tech industries and the medical field. All these stories point out is that anecdotes cut in both directions and do not constitute a strong reason to view diversity as either good or bad.

If we look at how people behave, they by and large avoid diversity. When given a chance, whether in church, school lunch tables, or prison yards, Americans appear to show a preference for their own kind and against diversity. To the extent that they know what is in their interest, there is at least some reason to wonder whether diversity is a good thing.

Now it may be that in a country as diverse as the U.S. is now, we have no choice but to learn how to make the best of it. However, to celebrate diversity and endlessly repeat that it is the greatest thing since sliced bread is, as far as I can tell, pure sentimentality.