On banning, desires and the free market

It seems to me that the logic used by many law makers across the globe goes something like this: “People want X because it gives them pleasure. X is being offered by criminal groups so it must be bad. Hence make sure X is illegal and everybody will be happier even though we deny them of what they want and aid criminals at the same time. It’s all for their own good.” This logic is reflected by the recent news the Finnish minister of justice has proposed that we ought to ban buying sex. In its current state the law prohibits buying sex from human trafficking victims. However, as the minister rightfully pointed out, currently it can be somewhat difficult for an individual buyer to determine whether or not the person he/she is purchasing sex from is indeed a victim of human trafficking.

There’s a saying about prostitution being the oldest profession on earth. Why? Because people enjoy having sex and hence it has also been bought and sold for since the beginning of economies. As George Carlin famously pointed out: “Selling is legal. Fucking is legal. Why isn’t selling fucking legal?” It’s true that human trafficking is a problem related to street prostitution. Gangs force women to sell themselves as payment for their trip. This violates the basic right of bodily integrity and therefore is – and should always be – condemnable and punishable. But it’s not the selling of the sex that is the core of the issue, it’s the human trafficking.

There are plenty of women and men out there selling sex out of their own desire to make money. That is nothing else than entrepreneurship at its finest and something that governments (at least in the western world) normally seek to encourage because it creates taxable revenue for the state. I’ve never understood people who think that by making something illegal we can make it go away. Making buying sex illegal does not remove the problem of human trafficking, in fact it makes it worse. If we should have learned anything from the prohibition era its that banning a thing people seek pleasure from only helps to create and maintain a black market for it.

It doesn’t require more than a very basic understanding of how the free market operates to understand why bans of this sort don’t work: people who have a need create demand, and when there’s a large demand that cannot be met by businesses because of the law it will be filled by criminals. You can only ban the buying or the selling but you cannot outlaw the demand. It amazes me that people struggle so much in understanding it. Whether it’s alcohol, drugs or sex there will always be a market for these things and by making/keeping them illegal the only thing we’re achieving is helping the criminals to make money.

The minister said that “Finland does not want to be a country enticing human traffickers.” I agree. So let’s make brothels legal. This would improve the working conditions of the people who are selling sex. It would also create jobs and taxable revenue for the state which could be used – among other things – to help crack down on human trafficking. But most importantly it offer a legal alternative to the business currently controlled by organized crime elements.

It wouldn’t instantly kill the black market, but history has shown that over time the increased legal competition tends to starve it out for the most part. This is why we no longer have bootlegger-gangs making a fortune from selling booze illegally – the majority of consumers get their alcohol from legal sources and the remaining segment that would be interested in buying from illegal sources is so small that it’s not really profitable (ie. worth the risk) to be running such an operation.

I am by for not the first person to propose this since we already have countries such as the Netherlands where this has been realized and made into law. So I don’t think it’s a problem of the law makers and our dear minister of justice not being aware of these more sensible solutions. I think these sort of proposals have more to do with trying to outlaw something some people are uncomfortable with than actually trying to solve the problem of human trafficking.


Do you understand, gentlemen, that all the horror is in just this—that there is no horror!

-Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuprin, The Pit


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