The Difference Makes a Difference

In a November 2015 Reason article, Elizabeth Nolan Brown compares how our government is repeating the mistakes of its failed war on drugs by so adamantly going after sex trafficking. She suggests we’ve deliberately loosely defined trafficking in order to puritanically prohibit up any sort of prostitution, as well, and from there, she’s off and running on her argument about overreach.

There’s a lot to unpack there, and I’m still forming my opinion on a lot of those ethical issues. I’m happy to hear your thoughts and opinions, but what I’m most immediately drawn to is the data behind this scenario. When Brown points out that the government has been taking action based on outdated and often disavowed research papers, and that the media loves to leap onto shocking numbers, no matter how tenuously sourced, I grow concerned. Throughout the 2016 election, we saw many people mourning the rise of fake news (not just Faux News) and the many pants-on-fire lies blatantly committed by Trump. (Clinton’s false claims were both fewer in number and at least far closer to truthiness.) Shouldn’t we be just as, if not more, skeptical of the statistical improprieties that our government utilizes in order to galvanize the public to action? You’d think that we’d be more skeptical after the false narrative about WMDs that the government created post-9/11 in order to shepherd the fearful masses into a glut of redundant and over-expensive programs (Homeland Security) and wars (Iraq, Afghanistan). Why aren’t we?

“Regardless of whether the number is 300,000 or 30,000, something must be done to protect these children at risk of exploitation and trafficking,” said Moira Bagley Smith… But it’s exactly this kind of thinking that inflicts real-world policy damage. Whether there are 30,000 or 300,000 crime victims makes a great deal of difference in terms of fashioning an appropriate response, as does the context of the victim’s circumstances. Separating the mythology of sex trafficking from the facts is crucial for addressing problems as they exist, not problems as we might want, fear, or imagine them to be.

In our everyday lives, we are expected to be as calm and rational as an actuary. Those of us with the privilege of affording health care often choose between a variety of policies based on how likely we feel we are to need coverage; we do our best to be financially prudent when deciding whether to insure certain items. Given infinite resources, we would insure ourselves against even the most improbable events, but then again, if we had infinite resources, we wouldn’t have to bother with insurance. Why, then, is it OK for the government to spend so lavishly on things it likely doesn’t need? Shouldn’t we pay far closer attention to the numbers the government produces when it comes to military expenditures (when we already have a significantly larger and more advanced army than those of our nearest rivals combined)? From a purely logical perspective, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would rather see New York City expend its resources preparing for a volcanic eruption as opposed to beefing up its shoreline defense against rising tides and stronger hurricanes. As Brown puts it above, we must address the problems that exist, not the ones we fear or imagine.

It is possible, surely, that prostitution can lead to sex trafficking. (You’d think, though, that illegal prostitution would be far more responsible for this than legal prostitution.) Then again, so can going outside. It seems to me that once you remove actual statistics and risks from your decision-making process, you can justify any action, and actually end up causing far more harm than good, especially in the often invisible long term. Within the world of medicine, things like triage exist so as to make the best of a bad situation. Research often works the same way, as the most resources are often spent on the diseases that affect the most people–that’s where the customers/money lies, after all. I don’t think anybody would disagree than an individual with spinal bifida is suffering and should have better treatment options; if, however, that care were to come at the expense of those struggling with cancer, we might reconsider our moral calculus. There is nothing controversial about the suggestion that government grants should be based on need, and that that need should be driven by data–that is, after all, the way we currently do things. The issue is with false data, and those who knowingly propagate it.

In the case of sex trafficking, Brown notes how damning hyperbolic statistics can be, especially when they redirect resources away from options that are both far likelier to succeed and much less intrusive:

For a fraction of the money spent on these measures, state governments or private foundations could fund more beds at emergency shelters. [Lack of safe resources is often why homeless youths first turn to prostitution.] The resources that churches, charities, and radical feminists use trying to convince people that all sex workers are victims (and their clients predatory) could go toward helping that minority of sex workers who do feel trapped in prostitution with job placement or getting an education. For the majority of vulnerable sex workers, the greatest barriers to exit aren’t ankle-cuffs, isolation, and shadowy kidnappers with guns, but a lack of money, transportation, identification, or other practical things. Is helping with this stuff not sexy enough?

If by “sexy,” we mean agenda-driven, then that’s exactly the rationale Brown is getting at. Instead of following the numbers to where the most good can be done, she suggests that the government is being manipulated into overreactive policies by those who condemn certain behaviors. In fairness, Scott Shackford’s article in the same issue of Reason makes a similar case against liberals, suggesting that gay, lesbian, and transgendered citizens don’t need the government to step in to pass anti-discrimination laws on their behalf because the numbers don’t actually back up their claims. Here’s where I have a harder time agreeing, because now we’re talking about an issue that I actually care about, where I am less removed and more emotionally charged. But isn’t that exactly the place that we were just agreeing we shouldn’t be legislating from? That we should be listening to the data?

This isn’t saying that people aren’t discriminating against LGBTQ employees, mind you, and they absolutely shouldn’t. It is, however, suggesting that incidents in which bakers or even doctors unfairly treat certain people (1) don’t happen nearly often enough to necessitate political interference and (2) that there are enough alternative actions for these individuals such that the government need not step in. I’m angered by the idea that someone would refuse service to someone on the basis of sexual orientation. And I do think that this election demonstrates that there are more than enough pockets in which normal social resistance wouldn’t be enough, and where the refusal to service certain people might become so widespread that it would be far more than a simple inconvenience. (After all, Memories Pizza was forced to close after refusing to cater a gay wedding, but then made nearly $800,000 through homophobic supporters on GoFundMe.)

Ultimately, I guess it comes down to something as simple as cost to me, be it a moral cost, actual monetary cost, or expenditure of political currency. Activism might be free, but any governmental response takes time–and that cost goes up with increases in bureaucracy. Actually implementing policy is also likely to have an effect, whether you believe in backlash politics or not, as it immediately widens a rift between parties or shifts some of the once-undeclared voters and angers one group of individuals or another. The more direct the action, the more immediate this cost, so wouldn’t it be wise to make the passing of new laws and/or restrictions a last-resort measure? At the very least, if action needs to be taken for the safety or freedom of a group of citizens, shouldn’t there be clear data to back up the decision?

When we ask for radical, sweeping changes, don’t numbers grow more important, not less? I wish that even a single improper shooting of an unarmed black citizen would inspire police departments to change (to self-police), but is the massive hand of politics suited for the individual, or is it better employed to handle a consistent or systemic set of circumstances in which violence is unanswered, unpunished, un-prevented? As Shackford puts it, “there should be something more than an ever-shrinking number of unpopular…decisions before asking Leviathan to step in.” I feel torn between two desires and have no idea how to resolve them. Any ideas?


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