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?