I see that Harriet Harman, the UK's minister for women's affairs, thinks that Governor Schwarzenegger should close down the website PunterNet, which is based in California but posts reviews on UK prostitutes.
PunterNet must be delighted with this publicity. At least they are sensibly out of Ms Harman's grasp over in Sacramento. But the worrying thing about that is what she would say – and do – if the site were based in Britain. No doubt any website that offended her metropolitan middle-class sensibilities would be facing the axe. You can forget free speech when politicians have attitudes like that.
Ms Harman is already seeking to make it illegal to pay for sex, under the guise of preventing coercion (her legislative proposal talks about prostitutes 'controlled by another person' – though not even the cops have much idea of what that 'controlled' is supposed to mean). And she praised a police raid on a Birmingham massage parlour which 'freed' nineteen 'trafficked women' (it did nothing of the sort: it just nicked women who had come freely, if not always legally, from Eastern Europe to work in a wealthier country).
Now where people are sold into any trade against their will, we should move to stop it. But the small number of such cases are no reason to squeeze prostitutes out of a living because Ms Harman considers the activity immoral. Yes, prostitutes travel – it used to be to the next town, now, thanks to Ryanair, its the next country – to go where the money is better, and to protect their future employability (as Gary Becker puts it, their human capital) against tut-tutting neighbours and relatives. But where prostitution is a voluntary bargain, why should the state intervene? There may be issues of public health, but those are better fixed when prostitution is out in the open, than when it is forced underground.
The excellent book Prohibitions from the Institute of Economic Affairs points out that prostitution should, properly, be regarded as a caring profession, like nursing. There are many people who, for one reason or another, have no sex partner. If that leads to a voluntary agreement to exchange sex for cash, then both parties benefit. Ms Harman objects that this is 'exploitation of women'. Well, I had a look at PunterNet. Yes, I'm sure, in the shadowlands of prostitution today, the agencies take about half the fee. But even then, at anything up to £500 an hour, I'm pretty sure it's not the women who are being exploited.
Dr Butler's book The Rotten State of Britain is now in paperback.