The visible hand in economics

Of prostitutes, police and power

Posted on: January 15, 2008

Matt observes that some crimes are not worth reporting, and it is probably sub-optimal for the police to do anything about them if they are reported. The flipside of that is the cost to society of criminalising behaviour and then refusing to enforce the rules. Sudhir Venkatesh and Steven Levitt’s new paper on prostitution in Chicago finds that the power imbalance created by its criminality imposes large costs on the industry’s workers. Via Foreign Policy:

They estimate that roughly 3 percent of all tricks performed by prostitutes who aren’t working with pimps are freebies given to police to avoid arrest… leading the authors to conclude that “a prostitute is more likely to have sex with a police officer than to get officially arrested by one.”When freebies given to gang members are factored in, about one in 20 tricks go solely for protection and the “privilege” of plying their trade. When freebies given to gang members are factored in, about one in 20 tricks go solely for protection and the “privilege” of plying their trade.

Since police protection is non-existent, for obvious reasons, the prostitutes turn to other sources of protection. The authors find “[w]here pimps are active, prostitutes appear to do better, with pimps both providing protection and paying efficiency wages.” Don’t think that the prostitutes aren’t still in a highly risky profession, though, with condom use estimated at only 20%; condom use in areas of legalised prostitution can be close to 100%.

While it is only a case study, it does suggest that criminalising behaviour without enforcement simply puts those who are criminalised at an enormous social and economic disadvantage. I imagine the impact of the laws also depends heavily on the particular law: criminalising the person soliciting a prostitute would likely have far less impact on prostitutes’ economic welfare than criminalising the prostitutes themselves would. Criminalising the prostitutes themselves creates an even greater power imbalance between the prostitutes and those they interact with than would have previously existed. The increased power imbalance seems likely to result in their exploitation by those who have power over them, and that hypothesis seems to be borne out by this latest study.

More at Reason from Radley Balko and Kerry Howley.

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