Safer Sex? Public Prostitution Houses

A new sex market in Zurich, Switzerland has caused a lot of buzz lately in the media.  Zurich is instituting a public meeting place, or several “sex boxes” where prostitution can take place in a safer environment.  In Switzerland it is not illegal to be a prostitute, so the goal of this new institution is to provide a safer working place for prostitutes, while also cleaning up the streets.

Some citizens are upset because they are institutionalizing prostitution, while others are happy to see less pimping on street corners and a more sanitary situation.  To those that say a public sex market patrolled by public workers is immoral, one could say that it is immoral to not allow citizens to work.  Being a person who gets paid for sex is a job.  It may not be a job you and I may want, but it is a job that some people may have a comparative advantage at or a preference for.  Further, the demand is there.  People want sex all the time and people ARE WILLING to pay for it.  So, why when a market for sex emerges do people cringe at the idea of legal prostitution? In Switzerland legalization is not an issue where in the United States it is (minus some counties surrounding Las Vegas). However, the issue in Switzerland is whether the government publicizing sex by means of “sex boxes” with bathrooms for sanitation purposes and patrols to ensure the safety of workers is wrong and will actually address the issue of prostitution safety that it was intended to.

First, the idea that these public “sex boxes” won’t be exposed to pimps is far-fetched.  Pimps can still come to collect money and even try to pay off the public workers that are intended to protect prostitutes.  Even if this is not the case, couldn’t public workers essentially turn into pimps since they are playing a similar role to pimps in that they provide security?  It would just transfer the private black market job of pimping to a public worker, which will force the former street pimp to either find a new job or turn into different black market activities.

Second, the issue that prostitutes were having sex in open areas and urinating on the streets may not be resolved by “sex boxes” that have café, bathrooms, a shower and tables.  Although these seem like nice amenities, the cleanliness of the facilities is unlikely to be cleaner then a grassy park area.  Sure the Zurich public gardens and streets may be cleaner for citizens with the loss of street corner prostitutes, but those gardens are probably more sterile than any “sex box”, bathroom or table at a public prostitution house. Further, the “sex boxes” are sheds with no doors, allowing easy entry from other clients or public workers.  In terms of prostitution safety, I am unsure of whether easy access all-around provides a more sanitary situation.

Now, the other goal of public prostitution houses is to reduce prostitution seen on the streets and in this case, that may be possible (and for taxpayers who are shelving $760,000/year to keep it running they certainly hope so), but it is unlikely.  Prostitutes are likely to relocate as a new marketplace for sex opens up, but I don’t think it will move all prostitutes to these public houses despite a meager $43 for a prostitute license fee.  Instead there may just be a move to relocate prostitutes off the streets in massage parlors or other private places by pimps who are scared to lose their jobs.  Contrarily, having easier access off of a road to prostitutes may actually increase the demand for prostitutes and thus encourage more people to enter into the market, which may altogether not change the amount of prostitutes on the streets.

Despite the perhaps good intentions of public prostitution houses, it is unlikely that the safety of prostitutes or the street sanitation issue will be enhanced in Zurich with the new “sex boxes”.

Is the Prison Population Too Overwhelming for Taxpayers?

There is an interesting series of articles in The Economist this past week on new federal reforms to deal with the overcrowded prison population in the U.S., which is the largest in the world. “The Land of the Free has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners”.  Putting away ‘bad’ people behind bars seems appropriate when the crime is just, but in America this is really not the case.

Two of the three new reforms seem appropriate in that federal prisons will allow elderly prisoners that pose no real threat to society to serve shorter sentences and prisoners will be given community service and drug treatments instead of more time behind bars.  Each will ameliorate the overcrowded situation of prisons (The Economist quotes a cost of $35,000 per inmate) and allows inmates to try and rehabilitate their lives and find jobs. The third reform no longer charges drug suspects with minimum offenses based on weight of drugs involved and lets judges decide, at the time, what each offender’s punishment should be. There are two problems with this reform: unequal punishment per similar offense and a failure to alleviate the source of the actual prison problem—the criminalization of drugs.

There are many reasons why drugs should be legalized, but I am only going to touch on two main points. The first is a moral point that it is an infringement on an individual’s freedom to not allow them to do what they wish to be happy (such as drugs) so long as it does not harm anyone else. Second, and more relevant to the taxpayer, it prevents a black market and thus is invents a taxable market.

At $35,000 a prisoner and roughly 219,000 federal prisoners, half of which are drug offenders, the cost to taxpayers on not legalizing drugs and putting drug offenders in jail is $3,832,500,000 a year! Now, if we also collected tax revenue on drug sales and reduced the amount of law enforcement needed to curb illegal drug trade, it could save American taxpayers between $85,000,000,000-$90,000,000,000 a year.  This is just one of many estimates by Harvard economist, Jeffrey Miron.

So, although the reforms can help eliminate some of the burden for taxpayers, the bigger issue, and thus the bigger cost to taxpayers, lies at the American government’s discord for drugs.

Economics and Political Institutions

In my field of study I often have occasion to contemplate the relationship between Economics and Political Science. The distinction is a relatively late one in the history of social inquiry and is lately eroding as political scientists apply increasing analytic rigor to the subject matter they study and economists begin to take seriously the institutions in which their subjects are nested. On that note, I leave you with a quotation of which I am rather fond by Abba Lerner:

Thousands of habits of behavior and of enforced laws had to be developed over millennia to establish the nature and the minutiae of property rights before we could have buying and selling, instead of each man just taking what he wanted if only he was strong enough… Each set of rights begins as a conflict about what somebody is doing or wants to do which affects others… An economic transaction is a solved political problem. Economics has gained the title of queen of the social sciences by choosing solved political problems as its domain.

Abba Lerner, “The Economics and Politics of Consumer Sovereignty” (1972)

Institutions and the Limits of Human Purpose

Why does the heart pump blood throughout the human body? My biology teacher would have said something like “to carry needed oxygen to the cells of the body…” This explanation of the phenomenon implies that a biological system could have a purpose, which, of course, they do not have. Thus, aside from a discussion of metaphysical origins, it makes no real sense to ask why the body’s systems do anything. Yet we all know that this functionalist conceptualization is a convenient and harmless fiction in the biological context.

But functionalist explanations of institutional structures can be more problematic precisely because it is not so easy to spot the fiction. Human beings do in fact act purposefully toward the achievement of goals. Thus, many political consequences are certainly the result of human planning. But planning requires a foreseeable outcome to be obtained in the future from an actor’s present conduct. Since human cognitive limitations renders individuals only selectively attentive to the remote effects of their present political arrangements, there are necessary strict limits on the extent to which individuals could be said to intend the longer term consequences of today’s political maneuvers. As Paul Pierson puts it:

Functionalist interpretations of politics are often suspect because of the sizable time lag between actors’ actions and the long-term consequences of those actions. Political actors, facing the pressures of the immediate or skeptical about their capacity to engineer long-term effects, may pay limited attention to the long-term. Thus, the long-term effects of institutional choices, which are frequently the most profound and interesting ones, should often be seen as the by-products of social processes rather than embodying the goals of institutional actors. Paul Pierson, Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (2011, 14)

As I may attempt to explore further in a later post, this observation may have significant implications for how we interpret the intentions of national founders with respect to the institutions they collectively establish. How an American Constitutional framer understood a given provision he set out may be less meaningful to us today as we attempt to apply the provision to changed circumstances. Even those of us who, for example, take the Second Amendment quite seriously may find it necessary to re-examine whether it is truly doing the work its authors intended or whether those purposes might otherwise be served. This might not mean an abandonment of that provision, but such an exercise is more productive and worthy of a free and deliberative people than the reflexive rhetoric we often encounter in the public square.