Local Option

Harry Reid of Nevada wants to outlaw brothels state-wide.  Not surprising given that he is a scold and centralizer – among the worst combinations in an American politician (though scolds on their own have a place to play in a free society in which social change should come from the use of reason, speech, and disapprobation).   Critics of Reid’s speech point to the state’s respect for local option in the case of prostitution.  For example:

“When I initially heard he was going to mention it I was very surprised, just because it hasn’t been an issue for many [legislative] sessions and there haven’t been any problems,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, a Republican with brothels in his district. “It’s always been a local option, and I think that’s where we ought to leave it.”

But is local option really the first-best policy option for those who believe that adults should be allowed to engage in any consensual activity even if others believe it to be immoral?  There is a large danger of “grassroots tyranny” in giving localities too much power to regulate various occupations and activities.  However, local option is clearly preferable to centralization in many cases as it allows people to vote with their feet and to live in approximations of Nozick’s “utopia of utopias.”  It is also a bulwark to one size fit all “solutions.”  I think libertarians are rightly torn on this issue. 

3 thoughts on “Local Option

  1. If we adopt the Lockean position that one cannot alienate the right to one’s own body or life, then no government, even one unanimously consented-to, may levy prison or capital punishment on any consensual behavior. Thus, the most a socially conservative “utopia” within Nozick’s framework, for instance, could do on an issue like prostitution or drugs would be to levy civil fines.

    Of course, there are problems with Locke’s position, including the implication that suicide may be made illegal, but there may be a defensible middle ground between him and, say, Murray “I have the right to sell myself into slavery” Rothbard.

    1. Jason,

      I’m certainly not an expert on Rothbard (just a fan), but where does he exhibit such a position? I realize that, particularly towards the end of his life, he folded on a couple of positions he had once held in high esteem – I’m just not aware of where he presented a position contrary to the one he presents on this issue in The Ethics of Liberty. I’ll try to look for an article that supports that claim in the meantime – but I particularly remember this part of his aforementioned tome:


      1. Thanks for pointing that out, CoC. I must be mistaken about Rothbard’s position & may in fact be confusing him w/ Nozick. I did recall that Rothbard opposes the requirement of specific performance of contracts (as opposed to paying damages for breach), and a moment’s reflection would have revealed to me that this position necessarily contradicts the possibility of voluntary slavery.

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