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The Abolition of the Labor Market

Rather against my better judgment, and that of my wife, I allowed myself to be persuaded to take part recently in a debate, or public conversation, about prostitution. It was not a subject about which I knew much, after all, or one to which I had given much thought. The conversation was supposed to consider the question of whether prostitutes were the victims or conquerors of men.

This seemed to me to be about as fair a question as whether a man has stopped beating his wife yet, yes or no? It was an example of a very reduced view of human relations, even between prostitutes and their clients. Power enters many human relations and is important, of course, but the search for power is not an exhaustive description of human relations, pace Alfred Adler, and most of them take place outside the proposed victim-conqueror dialectic. A lot of relations between prostitute and client are surely furtive rather than manifestations of power on either side, and even a dominatrix is not her client’s conqueror. She is providing a rather peculiar service for him, that’s all.

The two women on the panel with me took different views of the matter, though both were somewhat opposed to me. The question supposedly before us was, fortunately, soon forgotten. The first of the women was a representative of a prostitutes’ organised pressure group, and herself a prostitute, and the second a sociologist.

The first wanted prostitution to have the same legal rights and protections as other trades. In the absence of these, violence against prostitutes, she said, was sure to continue. The second said that her research had shown that the popular conception of prostitution was mistaken, that (especially in the age of the internet) fifty per cent of prostitutes were graduates, twenty per cent were post-graduates, and that most of them moved in and out of the work as the mood, or need for money, took them. Prostitution, had several advantages, for example flexible hours and comparatively high rates of pay; there was a lot of job satisfaction in it. And she took the view that as a person was the ‘owner’ of her own body she was therefore at liberty to dispose of it as she saw fit. I did not point out that a person’s relationship with his body is not one of ownership and in any case ownership did not entail limitless or unfettered rights of disposal, either legally or morally, over what is owned.

She continued, however, that sociologists categorised prostitution as a member of the class of occupation called body-work. Many occupations required intimate contact with other people’s bodies, she said, for example nurses; I supposed hairdressers would be another such occupation.

At this point I intervened. Was she saying, I asked, that prostitution, being merely one kind of work among others, could rightfully be forced upon unemployed women in receipt of social security, who had not the right to turn down available work in supermarkets, for example? (This scheme had been mooted in Germany. After all, the politically correct, including the leading medical journals of the world, insist upon calling prostitution sex work and prostitutes sex workers, implying that there is nothing special or distinctive about it.)

A reduction ad absurdum works as an argument only if someone has a sense of the absurd. The sociologist, alas, did not: I suppose reading too much sociological prose had destroyed it in her. Anyway, she said that a woman could not just go out and be a prostitute; like many, or even most, jobs it required certain skills.

Surely, I said, training could easily be given and certificates handed out. At least at elementary levels, no very prolonged apprenticeship could be required. The audience, which was mainly hostile to me, tittered, albeit a little nervously. I did not point out that I felt sure that, at the minimum wage, demand for services would be elastic to put it mildly.

The spokeswoman for the prostitutes of England, on the other hand, believed that prostitution was an evil brought about by the current economic dispensation. Women, many of them single mothers, had no choice but to prostitute themselves. They could earn much more by prostitution than in respectable jobs; increasing poverty and desperation drove them to it.

I asked her whether she was saying that all women in a certain situation were prostitutes, having no choice in the matter: in which case there would surely be millions more than there are? (I skated silently over the question of whether single parenthood is in many or most cases itself a choice, not only that of the women involved, of course).

She replied that in an ideal world there would be no prostitution, but that so long as many people had to do jobs at low pay in occupations that they detested, prostitution was a reasonable choice. (The fact that prostitution in her opinion was undesirable suggested that she did not agree with the sociologist that it was a job like any other, that there was something intrinsically wrong or degrading about it.)

What she was really asking for, then, was a world in which everyone did a job, other than for reasons of pay, that he or she found agreeable and conformable to their wishes. This was a kind of Marxist Utopia, as expressed in The German Ideology, in which:

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of

activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes,

society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible

for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the

morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise

after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter,

fisherman, herdsman or critic.

I said that what the prostitute wanted, in effect, was the abolition of both the division of labour and the labour market. To my surprise, a portion of the audience, far from taking this as absurd, was extremely enthusiastic about it. They wanted (at least in theory) the abolition of the division of labour and the labour market. Furthermore, as members of the bourgeoisie themselves, in its intellectual branch, they benefited from precisely what they wanted to abolish.

This suggested to me what in fact I had long suspected, namely that victories in the field of social, economic and philosophical thought are never final, but that the battles have to be fought over and over again, no matter what experiences Mankind has gone through in the meantime.

Reader Discussion

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on June 23, 2016 at 10:29:24 am

Was she saying, I asked, that prostitution, being merely one kind of work among others, could rightfully be forced upon unemployed women in receipt of social [safety net benefits], who had not the right to turn down available work in supermarkets, for example?

Nice thought; I hadn’t really considered this before.

I would not be surprised to learn that the qualifications for various social safety net programs would bend to accommodate an applicant’s moral objections. Would government withhold benefits from an unemployed Hindu who declined to take employment slaughtering cows? I suspect not. Similarly, I’d expect that women who claimed moral objections to engaging in prostitution could get a pass.

At least in the US, government seems inclined to grant benefits to people who don’t qualify for them, provided the people cite a religious reason for refusing to take the steps necessary to qualify. For example, Obamacare imposes a tax on businesses, but grants an exemption to firms that provide employees with health insurance meeting certain minimum standards. Hobby Lobby refused to provide insurance meeting those standards, citing moral reasons, but demanded to receive the tax exemption anyway. And Hobby Lobby won.

On my next tax return, I’ll acknowledge that I don’t meet all the technical requirements for getting a tax deduction for donating $1 million to the Church of Scientology, in that I never gave the money. But I’ll argue that I would have given the money but for the fact that doing so would be against my religion. Thus, to deny me the tax deduction would be to penalize me for practicing my religion, so I’m entitled. Or, at least, I act entitled, and that should be sufficient.

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nobody.really
on June 23, 2016 at 11:57:59 am

1) "Hobby Lobby refused to provide insurance meeting those standards, citing moral reasons, but demanded to receive the tax exemption anyway. And Hobby Lobby won."

Gee, I wonder. could it be that the tax exemption had more to do with the fact that H-Lobby (and other firms) actually provided health insurance which was the putative objective behind O-care and not the provision of contraceptives. Just wondering, here. thus, if an ancillary *benefit* happens to conflict with a (heretofore considered) more fundamental right (and an obligation on the government) to provide protection for conscience, ought the ancillary benefit not be deemed non-essential.

Is that rational basis, strict scrutiny or some form of "modified-limited- hanging out" scrutiny?

2) Your next tax return:

Or, at least, I act entitled, and that should be sufficient."

Hey, if all else fails, I understand that some of the Clinton foundation's tax attorneys / accountants may soon be looking for work. I can get you their phone numbers. I suspect they could help you in this matter.

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gabe
on June 24, 2016 at 13:06:51 pm

[…] Dalrymple reminds us just how easily crackpot ideas gain wide […]

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Revisiting the “Marketplace” of Ideas – The Cheerful Crosspatch
on June 24, 2016 at 18:57:28 pm

The fact that those arguing against you, argued badly, or are afflicted with ideological claptrap, does not inhherently make them wrong - only some of their arguments wrong.

By the sweat of our brows we earn our daily bread.

We are compelled to work to survive. That is not force - atleast not in the sense that government has a right to interfere with. That government has done so and badly chosen to subsidize non-working and then force working to compensate, and this creates a less palletable outcome with respect to prostitution, is irrelevant.

It is not valid reduction ad absurdem to argue that government has created a problem and fixing another problem results in a conflict with outher stupid govenrment policy.
It merely demonstrates government as uniformly stupid.

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a "property" in his own "person." This nobody has any right to but himself.
John Locke

Yes, we do own our bodies - the philosophical basis for other property rights starts with self ownership.

No we are not entitled to the job that makes us happy - but we are entitled to chose what we do - constrained only by the choices actually available, and our own needs, and the demands nature imposes on us.

Regardless,m the fact that sociologists, and organizations of prostitutes might be economically and philosophically illiterate, is not a compelling reason for denying them the opportunity to trade whatever skills they have for whatever they want and need.

Libertarians have been arguing to treat prostitution like any other occupation for centuries.
Neither your ignorance of those arguments nor the ignorance and ideological idiocy of other panelists
alters the merits of strong arguments that never came up on your panel.

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jbsay
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on April 15, 2020 at 09:49:41 am

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