In my capacity as host of the podcast Faithful Economy, I recently had the opportunity to interview Scott Cunningham, an economist at Baylor, about his work related to markets for prostitution. Albeit a bit reluctantly, Scott made a powerful case for at least partial legalization of prostitution. You can listen to our conversation here. I have a hard time agreeing with legalized prostitution, but I also found his arguments compelling. Scott’s take on this argument grows naturally out of his faith and his thinking as an economist, and I will try to explain why that makes sense. The standard way of thinking in economics leans a bit libertarian. In fact, I honestly don’t think a very powerful argument can be made against legalized prostitution unless we reach outside of the vocabulary of the economics discipline.

I would like to use this blog to explore this topic. I will start by trying to summarize the case for at least partial legalization, and then I will explore some responses. This response will not include a review of the literature on the topic, which is substantial, but instead will introduce readers to the ideas that I think are most important. Along the way, I will highlight the ways in which these arguments against prostitution stretch the vocabulary of economics in interesting ways. This summary really isn’t about economics, though. The limited vocabulary of economics is just a reflection of the similarly limited consensus moral vocabulary of our liberal order.

Considering Legalization

Scott is an empirical micro-economist, which means that he uses data, guided by microeconomic theory, to learn how economic life works in practice. He has made a name for himself in the niche area of the economics of prostitution, a difficult topic to study. Some of his findings make it clear that the illegality of prostitution has two effects: (1) it makes the market smaller and (2) it makes sex work more dangerous, particularly for the women involved. In one study he found that decriminalization in Rhode Island resulted in dramatically fewer cases of rape and sexually transmitted diseases. Even if the practice is illegal, he finds that when prostitution is mediated by websites like Craigslist, the result is less violence. He estimates that the movement of prostitution online reduced female homicides by 10 to 17 percent.

So the first part of the case in favor of decriminalization, of some sort, is that sex work is dangerous, and that this danger could be mitigated by a different policy. The second part of the case rests on the characterization of the participants. In our conversation, Scott noted that there were many sex workers that entered that market because of substantial material need. In a world in which women did not feel like they had to choose between prostitution and medicine for their children, there might be noticeably fewer sex workers.

For these women, already on the margins of the economy, criminalization adds to their precarity. If prostitution were legal, they would be able to screen customers, they would be able to invest in buildings and security, and they would have better police protection. It is partly the absence of these things that makes sex work so dangerous.

For all of these reasons, someone who cares about people on the margins of society might consider decriminalization to be a good idea, even if they thought the practice was immoral. It is plausible that the threats of violence are far worse than the damage to the participants in the market. Moreover, if you think we should give people wide freedom to make their own choices, as long as those choices don’t hurt other people, legalization might seem reasonable. Economists are particularly susceptible to these kinds of arguments because we have a strong tendency to trust people to make their own decisions. We assume, in our theory, that people know best how to pursue their own well-being. Moreover, economists tend to prioritize allowing markets to function, and to recognize the unfortunate consequences that result from prohibition. Scott has written about legalization here. His overview of the different policy alternatives and the evidence is worth exploring for those who are interested.

A Five-part Argument against Prostitution

There are many sophisticated arguments against prostitution, and I do not need to document them all here. Instead, I want to summarize some big categories of arguments in order to make a point about this debate.

The first argument against prostitution is that these markets, even when legal, hurt many people nearby. The very availability of sex for money might be the thing that causes marriages and families to fall apart. Putting aside the effect on the customers, the children and partners of the customers may end up bearing a significant burden.

Second, legal prostitution means more prostitution, and this is a problem if we place any value on chastity and faithfulness, particularly for men. It may seem like a lost cause in our sex-saturated culture, but if we believe that sexual faithfulness is good for people, then this increase in commercial sex could be doing real damage to the character of the participants.

Third, prostitution can be harmful to sex workers as well. Even if we put aside the entire problem of sex trafficking, some jobs demand extraordinary sacrifices of people, and it seems likely that sex work is one of those jobs. Particularly for the marginal sex worker, who might much rather be doing different work, the toll that the practice takes on a person, psychologically and spiritually, if not physically, is likely not compensated by the money earned. The physical harms to sex workers might be mitigated if prostitution were legal and safer, but that might make it even easier to ignore that the industry would, at it’s core, be dependent on people engaging in immoral acts..

Fourth, there might be a particular problem with the fact that prostitution involves an exchange of money. Many scholars, including some Christians, have argued that there are goods that are diminished or destroyed by market exchange. You cannot buy friendship or disciples. Sex is often named in such a list. Kevin Brown wrote a nice paper on the topic in CSR, available here.

In this view, prostitution is a problem because the exchange of money for sex, if it becomes normal, undermines the good of sex.

Fifth, Christians think about marriage and sex as ways in which we reflect and point toward the faithfulness of God and His relationship to the Church. A broad acceptance of sex outside of marriage, including prostitution, undermines that correspondence. Christians, of course, can work to live faithfully despite the changing culture, but we might still be concerned that this kind of cultural change can alter the very meaning of marriage, faithfulness, and sex.

It is interesting that most of these arguments require that we posit some moral harm that is worth preventing even if people freely choose it. The first argument is the exception, since the harm, there, is not for a participant in the exchange. This reality is why a libertarian is more likely to accept legal prostitution: they place a particularly high value on that free choice. So when is it worth using law to limit that free choice? In this case it would only be worth it if you believe that laws should point people toward a particular good. You can cite Calvin’s third use of the law here, or reach back to Aristotle. If the law is supposed to help people be virtuous, then it makes sense to make laws not just when they keep people from hurting each other, but when they are good for an individual to follow them.

The Limits of our Economic Vocabulary

What is immediately noticeable to me is that if I operate completely within my vocabulary as an economist, I cannot make the above moral case against prostitution. Economists are not very good at theorizing about situations where people are prone to make choices that are not good for them. We don’t have a thick account of families or faithfulness. We are not good at thinking about virtue or character. We are also not very good at thinking about the evolution of norms and culture. All that is to say, I believe that there is a moral and a pragmatic case against legal prostitution, but you won’t find it in the economics discipline. If we were to make a bold pronouncement about prostitution, but never even consider questions of virtue, family, and culture, we would be dodging the question.

I don’t want readers to think this is a really big problem. Some people might count this as a strength of the discipline. I do think this illustrates, however, that there are some areas of public policy that economists are not well-equipped to think about. We can still contribute to the conversation, as Cunningham’s work certainly has.  And to be clear, this is just what these scholars are doing. They analyze policy options and give us great information about human behavior, but they wisely avoid the trap of assuming that they have all the information we need to answer these difficult questions.

The discipline of economics is a manifestation of a kind of broader liberal consensus. We don’t have a rich moral vocabulary because we don’t have agreement in our larger culture about the key ethical issues at stake here. Our liberal order includes a set of institutions and habits of public dialogue that sidestep these big contested questions. Instead we seek a consensus on things that are easier to ground. We agree on a set of ground rules for deciding things (democracy) and leave a wide latitude for people to disagree. In a liberal order, then, when we can make common cause with folks who think very differently, it is usually common cause about concerns that warrant easy agreement. We want everyone to be a bit wealthier, healthier, and we want good schools. Don’t ask us to agree, though, on what wealth is for, what schools are for, or how to think about death.

The economics discipline reflects this retreat. We focus on material and empirical concerns that we can easily measure and easily weigh. The unfortunate side effect is that, by leaving the big questions of character and goodness to individual disagreement, we inevitably end up with a political dialogue that makes it look like these concerns don’t matter at all. And yet they inevitably arise when we try to make decisions about things like prostitution.

If you would like to see Scott Cunningham’s response to this blog post, please visit Steve’s personal site:  https://stevenmcmullen.com/prostitution-state-violence-and-economic-opportunities-a-response-to-mcmullen/

Steven McMullen

Hope College
Steven McMullen is Associate Professor of Economics at Hope College and the Executive Editor of Faith & Economics.