Filler: Prostitution and the basics of supply and demand

If the people didn't demand access to prostitution,

If the people didn't demand access to prostitution, such things wouldn't exist. (Credit: iStock)

Lane Filler

Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Lane Filler Lane Filler

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

bio | email | twitter

If Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice publicized the names and photos of 104 men accused of soliciting prostitutes to shame them into never doing it again, she may find she's caused the opposite. The only advantage of having everyone from your priest to your fourth-grade teacher call you "Hooker Lovin' Harry" is that any future dalliances with prostitutes won't hurt your reputation a bit.

To be fair, that mostly wasn't Rice's goal. The hope is that by shaming these men, she can make other fellows think twice before clicking over to www.moneyforahoney.com.

But it seems like if it was possible to really curb prostitution, someone in, oh, the entire span of history would've stumbled onto it before now.

I've attended a lot of events where DAs and police chiefs and mayors announced that a district plagued by prostitution, drugs and illegal gambling was finally going to be rid of these scourges. The question I always asked was: "If you expel all the cocaine, craps games and crazily underdressed ladies, how are your taxpaying residents going to access the hookers, drugs and gambling they demand?" The response was usually blank stares of incomprehension.

Demand creates supply, always. Laws and their enforcement can increase the price of drugs and prostitutes and illegal gambling, or the hassle of procuring them, but they cannot change the inexorable rule. Demand for illicit sex and drugs and gambling is so strong that these may be the last consumer products in America that thrive without really being advertised. Vice, unlike exercise bikes, face cream and a collection of power ballads from the 1980s, sells itself.

Rice is right about one thing. Prostitution creates serious societal ills. Women and children are abused and enslaved. But the most solvable ills that come with vice are often caused more by their illegality than by their existence.

A prostitute working in a legal and licensed business, afforded the same police protection as an employee in any other legitimate business, is a lot less likely to be beaten by a john or pimp, held captive against her will or denied wages. Recreational drugs, if legal, would be sold not by armed thugs but by retail establishments. That wouldn't stop overdoses, but it would put a brake on financially motivated drive-by shootings and gang wars. Anyone who has gambled in both legal and illegal casinos can tell you the legal ones are safer and more on the up-and-up than the underground variety.

Beyond that, there is the bedrock reality of what just governments should be empowered to do. Ideally, they protect us from others, not from our own desires. If people choose to work as prostitutes (assuming the choice is freely made), or avail themselves of prostitutes, or bet on the roll of the dice, or snort coke and go on a talking jag about this amazing new album they bought chock full of sweet '80s power ballads, that is their right.

So 104 people got embarrassed and somewhere, in some other sting, someone got nailed using drugs or betting on a football game. The arrests had no meaningful effect on the demand for such experiences, and therefore they won't have any meaningful effect on the supply of such services.

If the people, the taxpayers, the voters, your friends and neighbors and perhaps you yourself didn't demand access to prostitution and every other form of vice, such things wouldn't exist. Supplying such needs is a job, and such jobs don't go undone. Unfortunately, attempting to stymie such demands is a job, too. It's just not an effective one, or in a free society, an appropriate one.