The Corner

Odd Libertarian Argument

Catching up after being felled by a random, non-H1N1 virus, I was puzzled to come across this argument by Veronique de Rugy, building on this op-ed by Reason editor Nick Gillespie. Under the clever title “Paying with our sins,” Veronique seconds his call to legalize prostitution, drugs, and gambling, in order to be able to tax these activities, thereby raising billions in revenue that could be used to pay down the federal debt our current president is so intent on running up. Huh? This is a libertarian argument?

I won’t bother questioning the principled libertarian argument that these “sins” are not matters for the government to bother criminalizing, and, in any case, should be matters of free choice. I don’t share that view — especially on prostitution, which is almost never a victimless business model. But I can respect an argument from principle about humans, vice, and state control. (Decriminalization would seem to be the appropriate revision, according to that argument.) 

What I cannot respect is the utterly perverse application of this libertarian argument for legalization in the service of greater taxation powers for the federal government. That is well past too clever by half. Is it not bad enough that the state already reaches its long arm into all manner of what should be private exchanges of labor and cash?

For the government to reap the desirable tax revenues from prostitution, drugs, and gambling, it can’t just decriminalize them. It must actively regulate them. In fact, it will probably need to run some of the services itself. Do we really want to set up state-regulated brothels so that some hapless, abused 18 year-old, selling her body because she has no marketable skills, can fork over a piece of her take to fund our health care? Our libraries? Our roads? (The traditional, I’d say preferable, libertarian argument is that the government shouldn’t really be providing health care, libraries, or roads.) And there will still be a black market, where the real action is.

That part of the citizenry that cares about morality will not wish to see its government in the position of prostituting women (or men), feeding addictions, and encouraging gambling in order to increase revenue. (Yes, I know that gambling is already legal in many places.) So the state loses legitimacy. But once the state gets a cut, of course it will encourage the activities. Why not? It’s legal! Increase the marketing budget! Government sanction will make it harder for the culture to maintain any moral stigma that might be useful in limiting these activities. Of course, with the socialized health care we will be paying for with our newfound riches, we can clean up the disease, unintended pregnancies, mental health issues, and addictions that ensue. So no harm, no foul — but ever higher government spending.

There are some activities that we all regard as dumb, self-destructive, and costly (smoking tobacco, promiscuity, alcohol abuse), and yet we agree that they should not be criminalized because most people can regulate their own sexuality, drinking, and smoking without undue harm. And it isn’t the government’s job to impose morality, health, or perfect safety in our lives. Similarly, there are some quite serious vices that we may understand to be inevitable, and, if we don’t have to look too closely, fine for those who like that sort of thing. But having the state sanction and profit from them is a step too far.

As I think about it, it is hard to see how Gillespie’s argument qualifies as libertarian. It is just plain liberal:  Destigmatize activities many consider immoral; give the government greater scope to tax and spend.

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