Prostitution as a Capital Crime in the Capitol

Megan McArdle is “physically sick” that the DC Madam has committed suicide, driven to do so by a state using its resources to hound a woman engaging in consensual commerce rather than tracking down violent criminals. James Poulos wonders why he should care that a lawbreaker has killed herself.

Emotionally, I’m much closer to James than Megan on this one. Palfrey knowingly and willingly did the crime, took her reward, and the risk caught up to her. That she killed herself rather than suffering the consequences has not caused me especial devastation.

Policywise, though, I’m on Megan’s side. Not only is this is a bizarre prioritization of our law enforcement resources but, more fundamentally, it would make no sense to criminalize prostitution even if we had somehow managed to end the scourge of violent crime.

As Ezra Klein notes, it’s no small irony that Palfrey was facing a sufficiently harsh prison sentence that she preferred death for arranging services partaken of by the likes of still-Senator David Vitter. Or, as has been noted here and elsewhere during the unfolding of this episode, that it’s illegal to sell sex for cash but permissible to make pornographic movies, wherein all manner of people are paid for having sex so that others can then pay to watch them.

Megan feels justified in her outrage here because she thinks the state indirectly responsible for Palfrey’s death. While I agree that she has every right to feel that way, I disagree with the culpability argument. That a possible long jail sentence was a proximate cause of her suicide is unfortunate but hardly society’s responsibility. I think people should be permitted to drive faster than 65 mph on the Interstate when road conditions allow them to do it safely and that libertarians ought to be able to dance around the Jefferson Memorial with their iPods in the middle of the night, too. If someone gets a ticket and choses to kill themselves rather than pay it, though, I’m not going to blame the state.

Further, Palfrey wasn’t a citizen activist for legalizing prostitution; she was a criminal who made a fabulous living taking advantage of the supply constraints the law imposed. The law has always treated providers of illegal services more harshly than their customers. Abortionists, bootleggers, bookies, pimps, and drug dealers get or got more police attention and longer sentences than pregnant teens, drunks, gamblers, Johns, and junkies. Some of those activities have been legalized and others haven’t. Until they are, people are expected to obey the law.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    I note this conversation to be strikingly similar to the one we had a while back when Dale franks was doing Jury Duty. I had comments then that pretty much paralell your own now, James.

    It comes down to this, as I said then:

    I would have to ask, if there is ANY item that our purist “libertarian” friends would consider worthy of banning. .. anything at all… and on what basis they’d ban it. After all, nuclear warheads being smuggled into the country would most certainly find a buyer. Would they have been raising quite the stink they are now? After all Nuclear warheads don’t harm anyone. It’s how they’re used, that creates the situation of harm. Right? If the answer comes back”Yes” you’ve exposed the flaw in the argument; Selective process. If they answer, ‘No, nothing should be banned in a free society’ then you’ve exposed them as bloody fools. There’s no middle ground here.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Megan McArdle is “physically sick” that the DC Madam has committed suicide, driven to do so by a state using its resources to hound a woman engaging in consensual commerce rather than tracking down violent criminals. James Poulos wonders why he should care that a lawbreaker has killed herself.

    That’s interesting. How does Megan know why the woman took her own life? Claiming that it’s a reasonable inference is a stretch. There are thousands of men and women arrested for prostitution and pandering who don’t take their own lives. Clearly, there was something different about Ms. Palfrey.

    I think it’s sad when anyone takes their own life. Is it always the system’s fault when they do so?

    I’d need more information before leaping to that conclusion. An equally valid conclusion could be that she took her own life because she was hounded by reporters. What would be the appropriate remedy in that case?

  3. Michael says:

    There are thousands of men and women arrested for prostitution and pandering who don’t take their own lives. Clearly, there was something different about Ms. Palfrey.

    You mean like national publicity and media branding? Yeah, that might be a difference.

  4. Brian says:

    You mean like national publicity and media branding? Yeah, that might be a difference.

    I think that’s exactly what Dave is saying. Is her death a result of the sentencing or the publicity, or other factors we don’t know about? I’m guessing it’s the two I mentioned here, but we can’t presume to know that.

  5. Bithead says:

    Well, even if it IS, so what?
    I said as regards Eliot Spitzer a while back:

    I submit to you that Spitzer was involved with it to the degree he was specifically because it was illegal. He bet his marriage, his power, his reputation, millions upon millions of dollars, and more, all on the illusion that he knew the law and law enforcement and how to use his position, well enough not to get caught. He lost. A spectacularly quick meltdown, to be sure, but one of his own doing.

    Similarly, Palfrey was in the game specifically because it was illegal. She got a bang out of it. She couldn’t deal with being on the losing end of that risk. This is the fault of the law? I don’t think so.

  6. Michael says:

    She got a bang out of it.

    Ha! Brilliant!

  7. stevieMN says:

    Its time the US joined the rest of the Western world and decriminalized prostitution. Its a country of arrogant prudes

  8. DL says:

    If the definition of prostitution means some form of selling yourself for money, then the people who are the government in those senate and congressional buildings will be forced out of jobs.

  9. floyd says:

    “”Abortionists, bootleggers, bookies, pimps, and drug dealers””
    “”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””
    The Illinois Governor’s Office thanks you for the free publicity!!