Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over could also be called The End of the Middle-Class Nation.
Rather against my better judgment, and that of my wife, I allowed myself to be persuaded to take part recently in a debate, or public conversation, about prostitution. It was not a subject about which I knew much, after all, or one to which I had given much thought. The conversation was supposed to consider the question of whether prostitutes were the victims or conquerors of men.
This seemed to me to be about as fair a question as whether a man has stopped beating his wife yet, yes or no? It was an example of a very reduced view of human relations, even between prostitutes and their clients. Power enters many human relations and is important, of course, but the search for power is not an exhaustive description of human relations, pace Alfred Adler, and most of them take place outside the proposed victim-conqueror dialectic. A lot of relations between prostitute and client are surely furtive rather than manifestations of power on either side, and even a dominatrix is not her client’s conqueror. She is providing a rather peculiar service for him, that’s all.
The two women on the panel with me took different views of the matter, though both were somewhat opposed to me. The question supposedly before us was, fortunately, soon forgotten. The first of the women was a representative of a prostitutes’ organised pressure group, and herself a prostitute, and the second a sociologist.
The first wanted prostitution to have the same legal rights and protections as other trades. In the absence of these, violence against prostitutes, she said, was sure to continue. The second said that her research had shown that the popular conception of prostitution was mistaken, that (especially in the age of the internet) fifty per cent of prostitutes were graduates, twenty per cent were post-graduates, and that most of them moved in and out of the work as the mood, or need for money, took them. Prostitution, had several advantages, for example flexible hours and comparatively high rates of pay; there was a lot of job satisfaction in it. And she took the view that as a person was the ‘owner’ of her own body she was therefore at liberty to dispose of it as she saw fit. I did not point out that a person’s relationship with his body is not one of ownership and in any case ownership did not entail limitless or unfettered rights of disposal, either legally or morally, over what is owned.
She continued, however, that sociologists categorised prostitution as a member of the class of occupation called body-work. Many occupations required intimate contact with other people’s bodies, she said, for example nurses; I supposed hairdressers would be another such occupation.
At this point I intervened. Was she saying, I asked, that prostitution, being merely one kind of work among others, could rightfully be forced upon unemployed women in receipt of social security, who had not the right to turn down available work in supermarkets, for example? (This scheme had been mooted in Germany. After all, the politically correct, including the leading medical journals of the world, insist upon calling prostitution sex work and prostitutes sex workers, implying that there is nothing special or distinctive about it.)
A reduction ad absurdum works as an argument only if someone has a sense of the absurd. The sociologist, alas, did not: I suppose reading too much sociological prose had destroyed it in her. Anyway, she said that a woman could not just go out and be a prostitute; like many, or even most, jobs it required certain skills.
Surely, I said, training could easily be given and certificates handed out. At least at elementary levels, no very prolonged apprenticeship could be required. The audience, which was mainly hostile to me, tittered, albeit a little nervously. I did not point out that I felt sure that, at the minimum wage, demand for services would be elastic to put it mildly.
The spokeswoman for the prostitutes of England, on the other hand, believed that prostitution was an evil brought about by the current economic dispensation. Women, many of them single mothers, had no choice but to prostitute themselves. They could earn much more by prostitution than in respectable jobs; increasing poverty and desperation drove them to it.
I asked her whether she was saying that all women in a certain situation were prostitutes, having no choice in the matter: in which case there would surely be millions more than there are? (I skated silently over the question of whether single parenthood is in many or most cases itself a choice, not only that of the women involved, of course).
She replied that in an ideal world there would be no prostitution, but that so long as many people had to do jobs at low pay in occupations that they detested, prostitution was a reasonable choice. (The fact that prostitution in her opinion was undesirable suggested that she did not agree with the sociologist that it was a job like any other, that there was something intrinsically wrong or degrading about it.)
What she was really asking for, then, was a world in which everyone did a job, other than for reasons of pay, that he or she found agreeable and conformable to their wishes. This was a kind of Marxist Utopia, as expressed in The German Ideology, in which:
In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of
activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes,
society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible
for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the
morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise
after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter,
fisherman, herdsman or critic.
I said that what the prostitute wanted, in effect, was the abolition of both the division of labour and the labour market. To my surprise, a portion of the audience, far from taking this as absurd, was extremely enthusiastic about it. They wanted (at least in theory) the abolition of the division of labour and the labour market. Furthermore, as members of the bourgeoisie themselves, in its intellectual branch, they benefited from precisely what they wanted to abolish.
This suggested to me what in fact I had long suspected, namely that victories in the field of social, economic and philosophical thought are never final, but that the battles have to be fought over and over again, no matter what experiences Mankind has gone through in the meantime.