Would legalizing adult prostitution decrease the demand for child sex slaves? That’s the curious argument made by one of my favorite libertarian economist. Donald J. Boudreaux , a professor of economics at George Mason University, recently wrote:
If men can legally buy sex from women 18 years of age or older, men will have less demand to patronize children. And sex entrepreneurs will have less incentive to ‘supply’ children. With all prostitution being illegal, those who demand as well as those who supply commercial sex are subject to prosecution regardless of the age of the women they patronize or employ. By making adult prostitution legal, however, not only will that trade become more open to public scrutiny, but also the ability of those in the commercial-sex market to avoid prosecution simply by patronizing and employing women aged 18 or older will likely dramatically reduce incentives to turn young girls into prostitutes.
Boudreaux is one of the most astute economists in America, so it’s surprising to find him make such shockingly naïve claims about sexual trafficking.
The theory behind Boudreaux’s idea is based on a basic economic concept: substitute goods. Goods or services that, as a result of changed conditions, may replace each other in use are considered “substitutes.” Two classic examples of substitute goods are margarine and butter and coffee and tea. If the price of coffee or butter rises, people are more likely to choose a suitable substitute, such as tea or margarine.
But what constitutes a suitable substitute can vary considerably. Anyone who has ever been to Starbucks knows that the rise in coffee prices – both as a commodity and a consumer product – has not caused people to give up their mug of java for a cup of Earl Grey. The taste and preferences of coffee consumers tends to be inelastic. For most coffee lovers, the price would have to rise considerably for them to switch to tea.
Boudreaux is implying that adult prostitution and child prostitution are suitable substitutes. Does he really think that pedophiles and hebephiles (people with sexual interest in pubescent individuals approximately 11–14 years old) would become teleiophiles (people with a sexual interest in adults) if only they could get a discount on the cost of sex with an adult prostitute?
The market for child sex slaves exists precisely because sex with an adult is not considered an adequate substitute for those with a sexual attraction to children. Legalizing adult prostitution would have no impact on child exploitation. Indeed, as I’ll explain in a future post, countries in Europe that have legalized prostitution have found that it has not reduced crime or improved the social conditions of prostitutes. The main impact that it has had is to aid human traffickers in exploiting women and children.
Like many libertarian economists who argue for legalizing (adult) prostitution, Boudreaux misunderstands who is being incentivized by the decriminalization. Legalization doesn’t incentivize women to become prostitutes – few women would choose such a life for themselves – it provides an incentive to pimps and traffickers to increase the supply of the “labor force.” Legalization, as Germany has found, merely creates a new form of crony capitalism by providing government protection to the exploiters.
Libertarians and conservatives often mock liberal economists when they present utopian, Ivory Tower models of economic behavior that are contradicted by real word experience. We should hold our own side to the same standards. It’s time for the “reality-based community” on the right side of the political spectrum to stop supporting the inane idea that legalizing prostitution would benefit the exploited. As the natural experiments conducted by countries across the world have proven, the groups that benefit most when prostitution is legal are bureaucrats and pimps. We shouldn’t let adherence to naive idealogical idealism cause us to side with panderers and politicians over victimized women and children.