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.