My introductory students write papers for me on various ethically difficult topics such as “should a mother be permitted to sell her child,” “should it be legal to sell a kidney,” and so on. One of the topics happens to be, “Is it OK to have a market for sex?” The prompts are far more detailed than this, but you get the point.
In their discussion of the moral challenges in these questions I often hear things like, “allowing prostitution degrades the sanctity of marriage and sex.” That may be true. I am certainly sensitive to the Hayekian insights that changes in legal and cultural institutions can dramatically change the psychology of a people. More on that in a future post. But as a static matter, I take exactly the opposite position (I think I do at least, I am easily persuadable here). Wouldn’t having the sale of sex be open, regular and legal increase the sanctity of an institution that eschews it? Wouldn’t couples in a committed relationship be sending a message to others and to themselves that the sexual intimacy between them goes far beyond the pursuit of fleshly pleasures alone? Wouldn’t it send a message to others that they are willing to make a more overt sacrifice by being in a committed relationship than by not doing so?
I have the same feeling about kidney sales. It is often asserted that allowing kidneys to be sold degrades the altruistic incentive for people to donate. Indeed some experiments demonstrate that charitable giving decreases when the chance to be paid for such activities increases. I have lots to say regarding that insight, but accept it as true for now. When kidneys can be sold for $10,000 wouldn’t that imply that any charitable donation of a kidney on your part is MORE altruistic? Wouldn’t donating a kidney, when in fact you could have sold it, actually be an even greater act of kindness?
Now, there is a real criticism here, but it is an economic one and not one I suspect the moralists among us have in mind. The criticism? When we make prostitution and kidney sales illegal, the effective “price” for those things is actually higher than we see on the open market, so the dollar value of what one sacrifices when they make a donation is larger when markets are prohibited.
Would Santa Claus be as cool if gift giving were done regularly throughout the year?