07 December 2012

Porn, Abortion, and Slavery

Paleo Retiree, of the excellent Uncouth Reflections, weighs in on porn:
Porn is an issue on which I’ll never see eye-to-eye with them. To many of the paleoconservatives, the traditionalists and the especially the trad-Catholics, porn seems to be the work of the Devil. It’s created by the wicked, the damaged and the depraved, and it destroys lives and undermines Western Civ. The idea that many of the producers and performers might be semi-rational people making their own decisions seems inconceivable. As far as I can tell, it’s a deeply-held assumption for the paleo/trad/Catholic crowd that nobody in his/her right mind would choose voluntarily to have sex for money on camera. So, inescapably and almost by definition — and no matter what the actual evidence reveals — porn performers aren’t in their right minds. QED, right? The idea that many millions of people manage to enjoy the occasional look at sexy imagery — even the extreme stuff — without having their lives wrecked by the experience seems like a hard one for them to wrap their brains around. And the further idea — one that I hold — that racy erotic pleasures are a redeeming feature of civilization really seems to flip them out.
The rest of the post is worth reading, especially for the historical perspective on erotica. Anyhow, Paleo Retiree’s argument has some valid points, and deserves a little more consideration, via a thought experiment.

Imagine that, tomorrow morning, the 13th amendment to the constitution of the United States was suddenly abolished and that slavery was completely legal in all its forms throughout the entire country. How many people would go out and buy slaves, assuming a market popped up instantly? Very few, I would imagine. Why? Because most people find slavery morally repugnant. Rules and laws abolishing slavery* are not generally needed, because most people will not engage in this behavior.

Now, this should help to illustrate the vanity of banning porn (or, for that matter, abortion). The problems that conservatives will face when trying to ban or limit porn or abortion is that the law will find itself in conflict with a sizeable number of people’s desires. The reason why porn is so ubiquitous to modern American society is that there are a lot of people who simply want to watch it. Banning porn will not eliminate the desire to view it, and thus will not prevent its consumption. (Notice how this parallels drugs.) Likewise with abortion: outlawing it won’t cease its occurrence, and may not even do that much to curb it. As long as people see erotic value, or some other value, in porn, it will continue to be produced and distributed. As long as people continue to find abortion to be a personally viable and helpful option, it will continue to occur. As long as people want to light up a blunt, weed will still be around.

Thus, conservatives who wish to eliminate these things would do well to focus their efforts on changing people’s hearts and minds instead of simply changing legislation. Changing the words on a state or federal legal register is a far cry from actually having the law enforced, and is a further cry still from having the law enforced effectively. In fact, attempts at enforcement will be for naught if the community to whom the law applies does not support it (think of all the illegal speakeasies during prohibition). The only way for any legislation to have any practical effect is for it to already have widespread support among those to whom it applies. Thus, conservatives, if they desire to ban things like porn, abortion, and drugs, would do well to convince people that it’s wrong, instead of trying to use the government to force morality down people’s throats.

* Though laws providing redress for being enslaved are necessary to a limited extent to provide redress for those who would hypothetically end up enslaved. Note that there is a difference between laws of redress and prohibition, and that the former are predicated on an assumption of prohibition that does not necessarily need to be stated (think: “ignorance of the law is no excuse”).

5 comments:

  1. This argument seems to fall short of your usual high standard. The purpose of a law is never to "eliminate" a practice, but to reduce its incidence by raising the cost of the practice above what marginal practitioners are willing to pay. Assuming that pornography consumption is undesirable, we may assume that many who now consume it would be dissuaded by increasing the cost of the product, the difficulty of obtaining it, and the risk of possessing it. I'm fairly sure that a market for pornography would exist even if possession entailed the death penalty, but it would be a much smaller market.

    Your proposal to change hearts and minds is not fundamentally different than legal sanctions, since you're trying to raise the cost of pornography consumption by adding some amount of shame or sensed social disapproval. This will work on the marginal pornography consumer, for whom the present (very low) costs are very near to what are, for him, very low benefits.

    Do you disagree that all moral suasion works on the margins?

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  2. "This argument seems to fall short of your usual high standard."

    That's probably because I didn't define my terms or use them consistently.

    "I'm fairly sure that a market for pornography would exist even if possession entailed the death penalty, but it would be a much smaller market."

    Not necessarily. The harshest mandatory sentences for any type of crimes are those belonging to drug crimes (in some states, for example, your sentence could be hypothetically longer for selling a couple rocks than for manslaughter). Drug use has basically in creased YoY for the past couple of decades in spite of harsher sentencing measures. The reason for this? Non-federal enforcement officers are not as inclined to enforce these particular laws (e.g. a couple of cop buddies of mine have told me on a couple of occasions how they take pains to look the other way and avoid making drug busts, especially for what they consider to be minor stuff.) That was the point I was getting at. Yes, you can have a whole bunch of legislation ban a whole bunch of things. But that's not the same as having that legislation enforced.

    A nominal ban of an action or thing is not the same as an effective ban. If all the rules and regulations in the United States were consistently and constantly enforced, everyone would be in jail (indeed, this is the thesis of Harvey Silverglate's Three Felonies a Day. The practical application of the law--who goes to jail and how do people adjust their behavior as a result--varies wildly from the nominal application of law (i.e. statutory law, or legislative law).

    One reason why fighting the drug war is a losing proposition for conservatives is because a good number of LEOs are actually inclined to enforce the law. Likewise with porn. You could pass legislation tomorrow banning it completely and, is in your example, attach the death penalty to this. But who would enforce it? The problem conservatives have is that most people don't actually agree with their social prescriptions, which is why their legislative efforts will fail. There are not enough people to pass the bill, and there aren't enough people to enforce it. Killing, or even jailing someone for porn seems like over-righteous overkill to most people (unless it's kiddie porn). Putting a mother and/or doctor to death for an abortion seems a bit harsh to most people. That's the problem conservatives have: they're in the minority, and their attempts at enacting legislation to affect collective morality will be doomed to fail. They need to change minds before they can change the legislation. That's the only point I was trying to make. Basically, they need more political support for their ideas, and that won't come by trying to force their morality down other people's throats.

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  3. The problem conservatives have is that most people don't actually agree with their social prescriptions, which is why their legislative efforts will fail.

    JMSmith, I'm inclined to agree with Simon here. The prohibition was a failure (an actually encouraged the further growth of organised crime) because the public at large did not agree with it. The law only works when the perps are at the fringes of society and community support is behind the laws.



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  4. It will be interesting to see what happens with respect to marijuana use in Washington and Colorado. It may turn out that demand is inelastic and everyone who wanted it was getting as much as they wanted through the black market, so reducing the costs will simply free up discretionary income for pot smokers. I'm inclined to think that demand for pornography is highly elastic, the principle cost in the past being shame at point of purchase. But I agree that a law that is widely flouted and seldom enforced does no good, and that the "moral majority" is an illusion.

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  5. @SP- thanks for stopping by.

    @JMSmith- I'm not sure if porn would be that elastic. Its demand is likely tied to its ease of access, and there aren't many substitute goods with that qualification. Now that the floodgate is open, I think shutting it will be difficult because there will remain a market for easily acquired erotica.

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