Pros and cons

Victor Joecks

Few debates polarize like the one over legalizing prostitution. Opponents, like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Doctors for Life, International, say prostitution exploits women, is the equivalent of sexual slavery and constitutes a fundamental violation of human rights.

Some, however, see it as a matter of freedom. The National Organization for Women, for example, supports the decriminalization of prostitution, appealing to their support "of a woman's choice [of] what to do with her own body." In addition, University of Nevada, Las Vegas sociology professor Barbara Brents has formally interviewed 50 Nevada prostitutes and has argued that legalized brothels are far safer than illegal ones.

Nevada witnessed this debate first hand after State Sen. Bob Coffin and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman began discussing legalizing prostitution throughout the Silver State. Brothels are currently legal in Nevada, but only in counties that choose to legalize prostitution and have fewer than 400,000 residents. This excludes Clark County and Washoe County, which include Las Vegas and Reno, respectively, where the vast majority of residents and tourists can be found.

These public officials were willing to risk the political backlash that comes from taking on this controversial issue. But their reason for addressing it wasn't their concern for either the rights or health of women. No, their thinking was much more straightforward—you can't tax what's not legal.

Nevada is facing the harsh reality of less tax money coming into state coffers than politicians and bureaucrats had planned on spending. Coffin and Goodman were just working hard to make sure they considered all potential sources of "broad-based" tax revenue.

"I'd be happy to listen to arguments for legalization anytime," Coffin said. "In the meantime, I know we have to get some money from the world's oldest profession."

Goodman got more specific: "I've met with folks from that industry who make a very compelling argument that it could generate $200 million a year in tax dollars, and that would buy a lot of textbooks, pay for a lot of teachers."

Unfortunately for Coffin and Goodman, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley recently killed the proposal to legalize prostitution statewide.

Whatever your position on this issue, we should all be able to agree that prostitution should have been legalized or not based on its merits—not on its potential as a new tax source.

If the ability to tax something is a reason to legalize it, why stop with prostitution? Drugs, illegal immigration, kids playing hooky from school, murder—these have all been going on for years, despite laws or rules against them. Since they're going to happen anyway, state and local governments might as well make some money off the deal, right?

The purpose of any level of government, however, is not to make money. Its purpose is to protect the rights of individuals, fulfill a few core functions and protect citizens by enforcing existing laws.

If those laws need to be changed, a debate is certainly in order. But that debate, on prostitution or any issue, should be held on the merits of the law to be changed, not the amount of tax revenue government could get its hands on.

The trick will be getting Nevada's politicians to start focusing on what constitutes good policy, rather than on finding new ways to consume even more of our hard-earned money to spend as they please.

Victor Joecks is the deputy communications director of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.