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In her post about Deborah Jeane Palfrey, a convicted panderer who committed suicide rather than go to prison, economist-commentator Megan McArdle holds the government responsible for the suicide on the grounds that the law against prostitution is unjust:

A number of people have argued that since prostitution was illegal, and Palfrey knew she was risking jail, I have no right to be indignant that she got caught, and sentenced to jail, and then killed herself. They have further argued that “rage” is not the proper response to the illegality of something that a majority of my fellow citizens think should be illegal. … I really can’t accept the notion that I’m not entitled to be enraged at a law that a majority support. I think that there are a lot of sorts of laws that don’t become more just because a majority likes them. … When an unjust law makes someone’s life so unendurable that they end it, I lay much of the responsibility at the foot of the law, the system that contributed.

This seems a rather undemocratic point of view to me. At the heart of the rule of law is the idea that there are a system of rules we all live by, and that these rules also apply to those who choose to break them. Without some sort of agreement on these rules, we have no rules at all: for example, some people say that speed limit laws are unjust, and they should be permitted to drive at whatever speed they like. Does that mean that any prosecution of them is unjust, no matter how many people voted to establish a speed limit?

Democracy resolves these issues by giving everyone in the community a voice in establishing the laws they live by, but if people could simply ignore laws they voted against, all laws would be utterly meaningless.

Some commenters on her site respond succinctly:

I am not crazy about criticizing the prosecutors – I don’t really *want* prosecutors to ignore organized crime rings solely because libertarians think the law is a dumb one. If you want to use the suicide as an argument for decriminalizing prostitution, go for it, but I don’t have a problem with prosecutors prosecuting crimes. ( J Mann )


It’s a fundamental rule of law concern if prosecutors ignore laws they consider “unjust.” It’s their job to enforce the law, not to agree with it. I’d add, I’m not sure I accept the argument that prostitution should be legal simply because it’s consensual, but I am quite sure this is a political matter to be settled by the legislature, not prosecutorial discretion. ( Salemicus )


We can debate the propriety of prostitution all day long. But when you do something that you know to be illegal and get caught, you assume the risk of prosecution. I don’t think prostitution laws are proper. I don’t think drug laws are proper. (Legalize and regulate with both, I say.) But blaming the government for someone’s suicide when they know that what they were doing was illegal is ridiculous. She was an adult, and she knew that what she was doing carried risks. If she wasn’t willing to accept those risks, she shouldn’t have been doing it. ( Trigger )