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Prior Knowledge

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Economic coercion

The legalisation of prostitution last year saw renewed debate on this age-old issue. Among the arguments, one perennial is that most prostitutes are forced into the occupation as a result of economic circumstances. Women from poor backgrounds have few options and so can hardly be said to freely choose to become prostitutes. Hence, so the argument goes, a society that legalises prostitution is allowing a practice that forces women in dire straits to become prostitutes.

This is a particular instance of a general form of argument that appeals to the notion of ‘economic coercion.’ The same form of argument is often made in other areas. The idea of allowing people to sell their blood and organs is often objected to on the same grounds, as are payments for participation in medical research. I’ve even heard the argument made against boxing. The concern in all these issues is the same: that the people who ‘choose’ these activities would most likely be those from poor economic backgrounds.

Is this a coherent objection to these practices? One possible response is to take a more robust view of personal responsibility. Being offered a lot of money when you have very little makes something very tempting but it is hardly the same as having a gun pointed at your head. However, for the sake of argument let’s set this aside and assume that prostitutes from poor economic backgrounds are in some sense forced into that occupation.

A second response is to say that rather than being an argument against prostitution, concerns about economic coercion are reasons to bring about a fairer distribution of wealth in society. If some people are so poor that they’re forced to become prostitutes, sell their organs, etc then something should be done about this extreme poverty so that they will not be forced to make those decisions. Once this is done, no one will be forced into these desperate occupations.

This I think is a good answer but still leave us with the following question: given that a radical redistribution of wealth will not happen anytime soon (Labour and National are currently vying for who can pander to middle-incomes the most rather than helping the worst off in society), what should be done about prostitution, organ-selling, etc in the meantime? The economic coercion argument seems to say that since prostitution is a result of poverty, this a reason for legally prohibiting it. But that can hardly be the correct response. Many people who work in factories have few other job opportunities available to them but we wouldn’t think this is a reason to prevent them from working in factories. Prohibiting prostitution would actually make would-be prostitutes worse off. Society would be saying “your economic circumstances are so bad that you are forced into option X (whether it is prostitution, organ-selling, boxing or whatever), so we are going to block option X.” But this is crazy. Surely somebody in poverty but with option X, which will allow them to make money, is better off than somebody in poverty without option X.

So why is the economic coercion argument such a common one against organ-selling, prostitution, etc? I suspect the answer is that there is an underlying belief that the people involved are forced to make decisions that are ultimately against their best interests. If economic circumstances forces a person into option X, that is bad if option X is bad for that person. This is a highly paternalistic attitude to take towards people. Society would now be saying “your economic circumstances are so bad that you are forced into option X and we know better than you that X is bad for you.”

Now this may not bother some people, since they may think that paternalism is sometimes justified. But it is not clear that it is in the cases we’re examining. If one is in severe poverty it may well be perfectly rational to sell one’s spare kidney for $10,000. After all, one can survive adequately well on one kidney and $10,000 can make a great deal of difference to one’s quality of life. Similarly, it is far from clear that other decisions such as to become a prostitute or agree to try out a new drug for its effectiveness and side effects are irrational if the compensating rewards are large enough.

Economic circumstances may mean that people are forced into certain activities, but this is no reason to legally block those activities.

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  • I agree with your general point, though it isn't obvious that paternalism is unjustified in such cases. A desperate drug addict might well be severely exploited if all such constraints were removed. The sorts of people affected here are, in general, those who are least likely to be in a position to be able to rationally assess where their best long-term interests lie. It's at least questionable whether most would pass up an opportunity for instant cash (gratification) for the sake of their long-term interests.

    Also, such constraints can, in certain circumstances, serve to improve the options open to the desperate, as G.A. Cohen has argued. If my life depends upon your co-operation, then you are in a position to demand anything at all from me in exchange for it. But if there are constraints on what I am free to give, then these are also constraints on what you can demand. Assuming an exploitative relationship, you are still benefitting hugely from the exchange, even when these constraints are imposed, so you will still go ahead with the 'bargain'. It just means you can't exploit me quite so badly. So here the constraints are clearly to my advantage, and they're not even paternalistic in nature (I'm certainly happy the contraints are there, because they restrict what you can demand from me, and I already think your demands are unreasonably excessive, it's just that I have no choice but to accede to them).

    But this is different from the sorts of scenarios you were discussing. In the above case, I would get the reward with or without the desperate sacrifice. (I don't know whether such cases ever arise in real life?) In the cases you discuss, the desperate person will not get the cash *unless* they are able to make the sacrifice. Imposing constraints in such situations is thus genuinely paternalistic.

    9/15/2005 04:35:00 PM  

  • richard said:
    "A desperate drug addict might well be severely exploited if all such constraints were removed. The sorts of people affected here are, in general, those who are least likely to be in a position to be able to rationally assess where their best long-term interests lie."

    This is not true. Lack of money is not a voluntariness-vitiating factor, even though drug addiction may well be (though not always). It's exactly this paternalistic attitude towards the poor that is so objectionable. Lack of money could quite well focus the mind. This is pure speculation but so is the opposite claim and they're equally likely or unlikely.

    10/13/2005 01:28:00 PM  

  • I think the issue here is "might". they might be exploited but that isnt a problem in itself - any system has the potential for some sort of expolitation it is just a mater of how likely and how sever it is.
    I also think it is incorrect to arbitrarily ascribe equal probability - just use the best information to decide each case.
    Actualy I think I'm agreeing with richard.

    10/20/2005 09:25:00 PM  

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