Clare Chapham’s article, “If you don’t take a job as a prostitute, we can stop your benefits”, in the Guardian was forwarded by a friend; Todd Zywicki at Volokh also comments. Some see this as an argument for keeping prostitution illegal and others as evidence of a nanny state that can’t afford to keep up welfare payments with a 10% unemployment rate. My friend believes prostitution should be illegal. I am less opposed.
The essential problem, however, seems to me that coercion in many ways – some petty and some not – are likely to come when a state casts “safety nets” broadly. I don’t see how it can’t be coercive–if we do not have to face the bad consequences of our choices then soon the state will recognize that to survive we must not be allowed to make bad choices for which it takes the consequences. But life is full of complicated choices – is it a bad one to take unemployment pay and not work or is it a bad one to enter one of the more unattractive and dangerous professions (even ignoring the spiritual problems many might have). However, if we want the state’s money then we need to prove we “deserve” it by interviewing for jobs. And frankly, as a taxpayer, I do think that some requirements for such checks isn’t a bad idea.
I would prefer a world, however, where people felt work was dignified and sought it without the government’s push, where people felt prostitution (even though legal) compromised them and they had a strong enough sense of self not to compromise themselves. A world where, in other words, we made our own choices and took our own consequences.
But this brings us to another characteristic of broad state regulations: reputation and peer pressure count for nothing; everything is either approved and therefore encouraged or not – and then made illegal. Laws then govern all. Nuances that arise from peer pressure, the pressure of traditions, of our own peculiarities, of our own desire to say “I prefer not” will be submerged by what must be. We will do as we should–or someone will want to know why. This leaves little room for our petty vices and eccentric life-choices. Such a world is likely to have few compromises in the rules – only compromises in the self.