Friday, March 10, 2006

Raising the Wages of Sin

Why do modern liberals continue to defend sexual freedom while selling out on other personal liberties that raise the same issues?

Many modern liberals are quite happy to restrict liberty in the name of health when it comes to, say, the food you eat. They’re ready to impose fat taxes, restrict marketing of junk food, permit lawsuits against Big Food by their obese customers, and so on. They’ve already succeeded in all three endeavors (taxes, marketing restrictions, and lawsuits) against tobacco, and in the first two against alcohol. But when it comes to sexual freedom, the liberals are holding out. They oppose state restrictions on sexual freedom when it comes to abortion, sodomy, promiscuity, and so on. People who have more frequent sex, or who engage in certain non-traditional sex acts, expose themselves to greater health risks. Just like people who smoke or drink or gorge on trans-fats, they are accepting long-term risks for short-term pleasures. There is no difference in principle.

So why don’t liberals who support a fat tax also support a sex tax? One possible defense: a sex tax would just be too invasive and burdensome to implement. Okay, but what if we had effective sex-tracking technology, so that people’s bank accounts could be automatically debited for each sex act with minimal invasiveness and low enforcement cost? Would they have any grounds for opposing the sex tax then?

But set aside the science fiction, since at present fat taxes are still more feasible than sex taxes. How about marketing restrictions? Sex-marketing is even more common than junk-food-marketing, and probably just as effective. Yes, advertisers aren’t trying to sell sex per se; they’re using sex to promote other goods and services. Nevertheless, marketers glamorize and encourage sex just as much as they do junk food. Conservatives harp on this point all the time, and they’re right on the facts. The reason to ignore them is that, well, they’re anti-sex. But I don’t see how a liberal who supports health-based restrictions on food marketing can consistently oppose health-based restrictions on sexual marketing. How long will it be before the moralist right and healthist left make common cause to put government back in the bedroom?


Matt McIntosh said...

Glen, don't give them ideas!!

Glen Whitman said...

Ben: "Safe sex" is not completely safe, just safer than some of the alternatives. There is always some degree of risk involved unless, as the conservatives say, you're abstinent. In general, the liberals defend your right to have access to devices that make sex safer (condoms, HPV vaccine, contraception), but they also defend your right to choose your level of risk. Thus, you can have multiple sex partners, even though doing so multiplies your chances of getting an STD. You can have anal sex if you want, even though it involves greater risk of condom breakage and HIV transmission. I agree with their position, but how does it square with their position on fast food? As with sex, there are more and less risky ways to consume fast food -- e.g., eating it in moderation versus abstaining versus having a Big Mac every day.

"What fast food advertisment promotes is not a safe diet." Really? I've never seen a fast food ad that said you should eat it every meal. Having fast food every now and then is not unhealthy. The ads are consistent with both healthy and unhealthy diets.

Blar said...

Here are some questions for Glen. They may come across as merely rhetorical, but I really would be interested in hearing answers to any one of them, or every one of them.

Aren't there already sales and marketing restrictions on sex that far exceed any restrictions on food?

Have there been any successful lawsuits besides the ones based on the claim that businesses lied about the effects of their products (such as smoking causing cancer)? Why are you taking the tobacco lawsuits as a sign of liberalism run amok?

Don't you think that there is a rather important difference between taxing market transactions and taxing personal activities, with the latter being far more intrusive?

Liberals are concerned about the government tracking phone calls and library books - do you really think that they'd support a technology to track sex acts?

Doesn't it seem like a bit of a stretch to say that raising the price of some product and making it more difficult to market counts as "selling out" a personal liberty?

Now here's a rough answer to your opening question:

Liberals support moderate restrictions on sex-related activities and moderate restrictions on other kinds of activities; there is no contradiction. They are only extreme defenders of sexual freedom compared to conservatives who try to prohibit, stigmatize, and repress, and they are only "selling out" other personal liberties relative to purist libertarian standards. Because sex is not a market transaction, the kinds of moderate government involvement in things related to sex that liberals would support are different from what they support on issues like junk food and tobacco, so policies that would be direct analogies to things like fat taxes are not particularly relevant.

Some government interventions that liberals might support with respect to sex:

- prohibiting or heavily regulating prostitution
- regulating and taxing the production and distribution of pornography and sex shows (e.g. strippers)
- disseminating information about the risks of different sex acts
- efforts to persuade people to avoid high-risk sexual activities
- subsidies for products (such as condoms and HIV tests) which make sex safer
- a mandatory rating system for media with sexual content
- prohibitions on displaying sexual content in public, with varying levels of restriction depending on the venue
- the mandatory inclusion of technologies in various media to allow parents to prevent their children from being exposed to sexual content of certain levels

This earlier conversation is obviously relevant. Glen makes a similar (though narrower) argument there, and we have some arguments back and forth which, looking back, comes across as less cordial than I would have liked.

Glen Whitman said...

It's always fun to spar with Blar...

You're correct to remind us that on some sexual issues, like prostitution, liberals have never been on the side of freedom. They can't be said to have sold out because they were never sold in.

And likewise, they've always supported some amount of regulation of food and drugs, a la the FDA. But I think it's also true that liberals have been moving gradually toward even more government intervention in personal affairs. They didn't always support fat taxes and lawsuits against McDonald's; now they do. (Or at least a lot do. I realize I'm generalizing.) So you might rephrase my question as follows: will liberals soon become more interventionist in the sexual arena as well?

Like many liberals, you put a lot of weight on the market vs. non-market distinction. And this is one of the major things that distinguishes liberals from libertarians. Libertarians realize that the exchange of money doesn't make an activity any less "personal," in the sense of being private or intimate. What I put in my body is a personal matter to me. Now, since I live in a modern economy characterized by specialization, it's not reasonable to expect that I'll grow all my own food. I've got to buy it. But that doesn't make my eating habits less a personal matter than they would have been if I were a farmer who grew the food himself.

If you're saying that market transactions are simply easier to regulate, I agree. But in that case, you have to admit that *if* the cost of regulating sexual behavior were low enough, you'd be in favor. And I suppose you've already admitted that in a number of cases, so at least you're consistent. But I think these things -- food, drugs, sex -- ought to be left to individuals even if regulation is easy.

And of course, I'm willing to make some exceptions in the case of children. But I object to the use of children as a wedge for infantilizing everyone, and I object to policies that attempt to impose uniform standards of child-rearing on everyone.

Some of the policies you support are ones that I'd oppose or that I'm ambivalent about, but that don't raise personal liberty issues in the same way. Subsidies, for instance, expand the size of someone's choice set rather than shrinking it, so they don't take options away. Likewise, providing information doesn't actually infringe on what people can do.

On marketing. No, I don't think it's a stretch to characterize liberal support of marketing restrictions as selling out on personal liberty, at least if the restrictions are severe enough. We're talking about freedom of expression here! Marketing is just another word for trying to persuade others, with words and images, to think or do something you'd like. Yes, money is a motive. I know that bothers liberals, but it doesn't bother me.

You raised a few other issues, but this comment is already long, so I'll stop for now.