Should Vitter Resign?

Jonah leans that way, but with caveats; Jason Zengerle looks at Congress's recent anti-prostitution gestures; Ramesh writes that "maybe one reason that Vitter hasn't been more forcefully and widely condemned is that our law and culture don't treat prostitution as simply 'illegal,' like drug dealing ...You can't advertise for drug deals in the yellow pages, but you basically can for prostitution." He also asks "how far" we want to take Ruth Marcus' reasoning "that prostitution is different from adultery on moral as well as legal grounds," because, in her words, "One is demeaning to a particular woman, the second to all women."

I'm not sure how far I'd run with that particular way of phrasing it, but I think her basic suggestion is right. I'd put it this way: Adultery where you don't pay for sex is arguably a worse sin against your spouse than going to a prostitute, because you're cheating emotionally as well as physically; however, going to a prostitute is a worse sin against society, because it makes you an active participant in a industry that profits from a kind of large-scale degradation that goes far beyond the damage it does to a single marriage. (Similarly, using drugs might be a worse sin against people close to you than selling drugs, because their lives will be more damaged by your addiction than by your dealing - but selling drugs is a worse crime against society as a whole, and merits harsher penalties.) Adultery is a matter of private morality, in other words, whereas procuring a prostitute is a matter of public morality; that's why the latter is an appropriate target for criminal penalties, and why Vitter shouldn't be able to get away with claiming that his actions belong to the private sphere.

Yes, prostitution will always be with us, and it's possible for me to imagine a society where I would support the kind of Catholic libertarianism that this writer recommends, on the grounds that it's simply too pervasive and inevitable a vice to legislate against. But America in the twenty-first century isn't that society; we're rich enough and sexually permissiveness enough that both potential prostitutes and potential johns should be able to find other ways of getting what they need (income and sexual excitement, respectively). Ramesh is right that we tend to treat prostitution with a wink and a nod, which is why Vitter almost certainly won't have to resign. But the law is correct, the winking and nodding isn't, and if Vitter did what he appears to have done I think there's a strong case he should step down.

Meanwhile, Deborah Jeane Palfrey's lawyers are busy arguing that she's protected by Lawrence v. Texas ...