Short version: when people are in a bad situation and only have bad options, taking one of those options away is wrong and causes suffering. Not understanding this is a common failure mode among the general population and results in a lot of situations where governments are actively harming poor and desperate people.

Why does this happen? I think it's a combination of fabricated options, typical-minding, and the usual political failure mode where activists care more about signalling their virtue than actually putting in the effort to understand what does and does not help people. It's also often easy to strawman the case for not taking people's options away. 

Example 1: selling kidneys

Mrs Singh is an impoverished Indian woman who loves her children. One child has contracted tuberculosis[1] and will die unless she can get money for antibiotics. Mrs Singh has three options:

  1. sell a kidney to get the money
  2. do something else desperate and maybe illegal to get money
  3. watch the child die

I wish we lived in an ideal world where everyone had access to free health care and no one was desperate for money. But when you're truly desperate for money, at least you can sell a kidney. Oh wait, that's illegal[2]. Because almost every government[3] decided to take the only halfway-good option away from desperate people. 

(In a comparable situation where no money was involved - say a British Mrs Smith needed to donate one of her own kidneys to save a child with kidney failure, and the surgery was free on the National Health Service - no-one thinks that the desperate mother is exploited and should be saved from donating a kidney for her own good. I defy anyone who is anti-selling-kidneys to explain why Mrs Smith is not exploited but Mrs Singh is.)

How can the world get this so wrong? My best guess is typical-mind fallacy. Activists and lawmakers tend to be reasonably well-off people who are unlikely to be so desperate that selling a kidney is their best option. So they are unable to put themselves in the mindset of someone genuinely desperate and assume that anyone who sells a kidney must be exploited in some way. And they make the lives of desperate people even harder while telling themselves how virtuous they are. 

Example 2: sex for rent

The UK, where I live, bans people from having sex with their landlord as a form of rent, and recently had a debate on toughening the law even further. Note that the debate specifically references landlords with empty rooms who advertise for people who are willing to have sex in lieu of rent. This is not about landlords trying to change the terms of agreement with existing money-paying tenants, a situation where there really would be a risk of coercion.

Insofar as I can pass the ITT of the proponents, I think it goes something like this: "Evil exploitative landlords demand sex from tenants. If we just stop them then the happy tenants could live exploitation-free."

The problem is that the happy-tenants outcome is a fabricated option. What would actually happen is that the landlords who can't rent to tenants willing to have sex would just rent the room to someone who can pay a market rate in money instead. (And probably then use the cash to pay prostitutes - which is actually legal in the UK - since we've already established that these landlords are willing to give up cash to get sex.)

From the point of view of the prospective tenants, the legal-sex-for-rent situation gives them three options:

  1. Pay a shockingly high rent for a room somewhere, which they may or may not be able to afford at all
  2. Agree to have sex with their landlord and pay nothing or a very discounted rent which they can afford
  3. Be homeless

These are all bad options, and anyone who has to choose between them is already in a bad situation. I wish we lived in an ideal world where everyone would have good options[4]. But in the world we actually live in, it's not hard to understand that some people would genuinely choose option 2 as the least-bad choice. So when you ban sex-for-rent you are taking people's best option away from them and forcing them to fall back on alternatives which they have already decided are worse, probably including homelessness. The ban makes people's lives worse and it specifically impacts people whose lives are already tough. 

As well as the fabricated option, I think the pro-ban case suffers from the same sort of typical-minding as my selling kidneys example. Activists and lawmakers can't themselves imagine ever agreeing to sex-for-rent, because they can't put themselves in the mindset of someone who is really at risk of homelessness, so they assume anyone who does agree must be subject to some kind of coercion. 

And, of course, the anti-ban position is easy to strawman. The pro-ban people will find some horrible situation where a landlord chained a tenant to the bed and used them as a sex slave or whatever and pretend that is the central case we are talking about. Instead of admitting that this is obviously illegal and would still be illegal even if consensual sex-for-rent was allowed. 


A rant about 'exploitation'

Often when governments take bad options away from people, they justify themselves by saying that they are protecting people from exploitation. Except that they effectively define exploitation as "doing something I would never be desperate enough to do". I think the entire category of argument where you claim to be protecting someone from making the wrong choice is false. 

(The most important word in that sentence is 'choice'. I agree that where someone is being coerced or deceived into doing something against their will then they are being exploited and it's governments' job to protect them. But when someone would reflectively endorse X as their least bad option, then taking X away from them is wrong.)

Taking the least bad option away from consenting adults is also offensively infantilising. It's an expression of the attitude that "those poor people are too dumb to know what's good for them, so we'll make their decisions for them". It is an attitude that has repeatedly gone wrong in history[5] and will go wrong again. 

Please, dear readers, don't make this mistake, and push back against other people who are trying to make this mistake. We could reduce human suffering at zero cost just by not throwing obstacles into the way of poor and desperate people who are trying to do the best they can in difficult circumstances.

More examples

The following are exercises for the reader

  • Sweatshop jobs at low wages in developing countries
  • Building codes in developed countries that require all new dwellings to have a certain minimum floor area
  • Paying someone to be a surrogate mother (ie carry someone else's baby in her womb)
  • Can you generate an example of your own?


ETA: Final thoughts after reading the comments

I think my initial version overstated a couple of things. I should have been clearer about stating: don't take away bad options that the individual would reflectively endorse. A couple of commenters said they were happy not to be at risk of accidentally doing something terrible because they were caught out by some small print. That is not what I'm trying to say. I have no problem with regulations to check that someone really is fully informed and consenting before they take a major decision. But if someone genuinely wants to sell their kidney, for example, we should respect their choice.

I should also have been clearer that I was specifically reacting against the idea that politicians and regulators should take people's options away because they think they understand what is good for the poor and desperate better than they do themselves. I think that's not only wrong, it's roughly equivalent to the Victorians who thought the women's rights movement should go away because male relatives would make better decisions for their women than the women would themselves. You can do someone an awful lot of harm while claiming it's for their own good. 

Having said that, a couple of commenters raised the example of arms race dynamics such as educational signalling, where rational individuals will fall into a bad Nash equilibrium, and it can be to everyone's benefit to prevent the arms race. I agree in principle with this case. (Notice that in the arms race example, the justification is not that the regulator knows what is good for people better than they do themselves, it's that the regulator is in a better position to fix a coordination failure.)

Finally, I would like to thank Brendan Long for this: creating a world where people have good options is good, but banning a bad option isn't the way to do it. That is an excellent one-line summary of what I am trying to argue. 

  1. ^

    If India has already rolled out free tuberculosis treatment, substitute some other disease. 

  2. ^

    Of course, making things illegal doesn't prevent them from happening. It just means that Mrs Singh no longer has the option 'sell the kidney in a proper hospital with a legal contract that will be enforced by the law' and now has the option 'sell the kidney in some unsanitary backstreet operation and pray like hell that the criminals she dealt with will give her the money they promised'. 

  3. ^

    Except Iran. Why is a theocracy the only country capable of being rational about this?

  4. ^

    Or more realistically, a world where developed countries built enough housing so that people could afford to pay the rent without being forced into desperate choices.

  5. ^

    Think of a typical Victorian man who sincerely believed that men should make decisions for women, because men knew better and women couldn't make decisions for themselves. Or a colonial administrator who thought that "civilised" people should make decisions for "ignorant savages" who didn't know what was good for them. History does not look kindly on these attitudes, nor should it. 

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Surprised by the upvotes. This is a textbook example of ignoring the second-order effects and congratulating yourself for being smarter that the others.

Basically, game theory. Having an option taken away (by the past-you) is the winning strategy in the game of Chicken. Making paying for blackmail illegal reduces the incentive of other people to blackmail you. Yes, in certain situations having fewer options is better for you!

If you disagree with a specific case, you need to argue about that specific case. But there is no general rule about why having more options is always obviously better.


(Reformatted the text, maybe the previous version was confusing.)

The game theory example ignores the principal-agent effect. We are not talking about you rationally choosing to give up some of your options. We are talking about someone else, who is not well-aligned with you, taking away your options, generally without input from you.

I have a problem with the generalization. I believe that taking away your options is sometimes good and sometimes bad. You seem to say that it is always bad. (Did I misunderstand that part?) From that perspective, even someone not well-aligned can make a lucky guess once in a while. Also, it's not like people make these decisions for others completely randomly. We have the meme "it is bad to use sex as a payment" because many people in the past were in the position where they had to use sex as a payment and they disliked it.
3Dumbledore's Army1y
I think I overstated slightly. And I’m focusing on the rationale for taking away options as much as the taking away itself. I’d restate to something like: taking people’s options away for their own good, because you think they will make the wrong decisions for themselves, is almost always bad.    There’s a discussion further down the thread about arms race dynamics, where you take away options in order to solve a coordination problem, where I accept that it is sometimes a good idea. Note that the arms race example recognises that everyone involved is behaving in a way that is individually rational. But the idea that politicians and regulators, living generally comfortable lives, know better than poor people what is good for them is something I really object to. It reminds me of the Victorian reply to the women’s rights movement: that male relatives should be able to control women’s lives because they could make better decisions than women would make for themselves. Ugh.    To the specific sex example, yes it’s unpleasant to be in that situation, everyone agrees. The problem is that banning payment in sex forces people into situations they find even worse, like homelessness. I would prefer governments to solve these problems constructively, like by building more housing, and said so in a footnote to the main post, but in the meantime we should stop banning poor people from doing the best they can to cope with the world that actually exists. 
But it can make sense to take away options they probably wouldn't want to take anyway (yes, you may be wrong here) but if they exist, it is too tempting for a third party to navigate them into situations where they would be forced to take this option. To give a specific example, I am happy that I am legally prevented from selling myself into slavery. I'd really hate to do it accidentally, just because I missed something hidden among dozen pages of fine print when signing a phone contract or something like that. Or, imagine a sleazy landlord, renting a room to an inexperienced poor girl. Suppose she wants to pay with money. But if he is sufficiently smart, he can easily create a trap, when at some moment, using some bullshit contractual penalty, he takes away all her money... and then generously offers that she can pay the next month with sex instead, rather than go homeless. From a near-sighted perspective, yes, having such option is better than automatically going homeless. But the larger picture is that having such laws dramatically increases the motivation of the sleazy landlord to create this trap in the first place, so I would expect such situations to happen often, as some of the landlords would likely create an anonymous online forum to share advice.

It's not really sufficient to point out that second-order effects exist, one also needs to compare their size to the first-order effects.

That's what I meant by "you need to argue about that specific case". Sometimes it is one way, sometimes it is the other way. I disagree with the implied generalization in the article ("when people are in a bad situation and only have bad options, taking one of those options away is wrong and causes suffering"). It is possible that the world full of pretty girls with one kidney missing offering free sex for a sleepover in a garage might be a better place, all things considered, but we need to look at the details, not just invoke a general principle of "taking options away is always bad and everyone who disagrees is making a logical fallacy or virtue signalling".
Thanks for the example of chicken, I hadn't considered it. I have changed my mind about this now. (Not sure how often this is applicable in real life.)
5Brendan Long1y
I feel like the mistake the post is pointing out is that people think way too many things are games of chicken, and end up removing poor people's steering wheels "for their own good". I think there really is a general rule that more options is better, and while there are exceptions, they deserve extra scrutiny, especially when making decisions for other people. There's a reason cars generally come with a steering wheel.
I upvoted it because it makes a very important point: Sometimes, there are no good options, and thus you should be very wary of restricting choice. It's possible for restricting choice to come out on top, but often we fabricate supposedly good options that aren't realistically there. In essence, this is essentially how I see the abortion debates. Often times, pro-life people imagine that the result of an unaborted baby is a living, happy baby, but this is mostly not the likely case.
Sometimes, yes. I have a problem with the generalization... and the accusation that whoever disagrees is making a logical fallacy or signalling virtue... and with the two specific examples. But yes, it is a true and important and often counter-intuitive idea that -- sometimes -- removing bad options from people makes their situation worse, because their other options are even worse.

Basically, because the world where kidney selling is legal is not the world where mothers won't see their kids dying, it's the world where people are forced to sell their kidneys to pay their student loans.

Useful heuristic for deontology-violation: this shit usually doesn't have good consequences in the end.

9Rudi C1y
This is absolutely false. Here in Iran selling kidneys is legal. Only desperate people do sell. No one sells their kidneys for something trivial like education.
Could you explain what process forces people to sell their kidneys to pay their student loans? In my model, something like this will happen in the minds of people who study but have to pay hefty student loans (before they start studying): "I want to study field X to signal that I'm a conscientious employee. But I know I will have to pay hefty student loans. There is a chance I will have to sell my kidney. Is the risk of me selling my kidney small enough to outweigh the benefit?" After they have studied: "I now have to pay student loans. I will either have to work harder to pay them back, or I can sell my kidney. [If them selling their kidney is lower cost than working harder] I guess I'll sell my kidney. [If working harder is lower cost than selling their kidney] I guess I'll work harder then." I think a worldview in which taking options away from people is bad is actually quite informed by a deontological libertarianism—it says something like "you have too high uncertainty over the strategies that other people would take, and removing possible strategies shrinks their option set. You can't increase the payoff for an agent in a normal-form game by taking actions away from them." I wonder whether this one is true (and can be easily proved): For a normal form game G and actions ai for a player i, removing a set of actions a−i from the game yields a game G− in which the Nash equilibria are worse on average for i (or alternatively the pareto-best/pareto-worst Nash equilibrium is worse for G− than for G). This is quite easily proved for a minimax strategy.
It's false: consider the normal form game (0,0) (2,1) (1,1) (3,0) For the first player the first option is dominated by the second, but once the second player knows the first player is going to choose the second option, he's motivated to take the first option. Removing the first player's second option means the second player is motivated to take the second option, yielding a higher payoff for the first player.
A common hypothesis is that the need for signalling increases as more people put more effort into signalling. So while it may be beneficial for an individual to be allowed to sell their kidney to pay for student loans, that benefit gets cancelled out by the fact that it increases the chance of them getting a degree and thus makes it more necessary for others to get a degree too.
I think this view is correct and restricting kidney sales would alleviate this somewhat. Under my worldview that falls under positional games, and taxing positional games specifically would result in less of this happening. I believe that people who complain about exploitation are worried about something else though: I think they would also count it as exploitation if someone would sell their kidney for food, which is not a positional game/done for signaling purposes.
Are positional games like education currently extra taxed? Do the people defending kidney markets make sure to first tax positional games before creating the markets? Why not say that, then? Like you could go "hey quetzal_rainbow, I think you are misrepresenting your own opinion and are actually worried about people selling their kidneys for food"? Instead of your original comment buying into the student loans example.
I don't think we currently tax positional goods in general. I have only intuitions whether that would happen in worlds where kidney markets are introduced, and those intuitions say "no". I hadn't considered the fact that student loans are positional goods, and that allowing more expenditure of resources on positional goods wastes them. I had treated "student loans" similar to normal goods that can be purchased. I don't know what @quetzal_rainbow intended their comment to mean.
So if your intuitions say that there would be no taxes on positional goods in a world with kidney markets, doesn't that make the possibility of taxing positional goods irrelevant? It seems like the effects of those markets should be judged based on the non-taxed case, not the taxed case?
Currently, we live in a world where kids are seeing their mothers and fathers dying, either from selling kidneys on the blackmarket/being kidnapped and having them stolen, or from end-stage renal disease, wasting away on dialysis. It is odd to me to see an appeal to consequences used to buttress a deontological moral view.

As a steelman of taking away bad options:

By taking away bad options, one creates pressure for the creation of better options. In the short-term this is presumably bad, but in the longer term this may lead to the actual creation of better options, which may be good.

Disclaimer: I don't know to what extent I buy this steelman. But also I'm concerned about your post from a Chesterton's fence perspective. How did people develop the aversion to exploitation? Are we sure there isn't a good reason?

5Brendan Long1y
The problem is that you create pressure for the creation of better options, but if the people involved had the ability to create better options, they would have already done it. I guess you could say the idea is to create political pressure to make better options, but it seems unnecessarily complicated to use politics to create political pressure. If you have political control, just do the good thing immediately?
1Dumbledore's Army1y
Thanks for a steelman. Can you give any real life example of where taking away bad options has led to the creation of better options? Or conversely, can you think of any real life examples where a government said something like "we've allowed sex for rent, now we can ignore the housing crisis"?  I notice that the large majority of the bad options I can think of are ultimately the result of poverty. But even in the current world there are few governments strongly focused on reducing poverty among their own citizens and none I know of focused on reducing poverty internationally. So the existing long list of people not being allowed bad options isn't really leading to good options.  Internationally, what help there is often comes from charities - do you think it likely that MSF or Oxfam would say "OK, Indian people can sell kidneys now, I guess they don't need us?" I doubt it. 
The canonical example of this is minimum wage laws. There is a lot of economic theory about how (reasonable-level) minimum wages create unemployment. And many people continue to insist that this is in fact the case, based on pretty solid supply/demand reasoning. But in most circumstances, big empirical studies persistently fail to show any evidence that the predicted unemployment actually occurs. Why? I can tell some just-so stories about it, but the real answer I think is "geez, I don't know, real life is much more complex than simple supply/demand models."
4Brendan Long1y
Research on this seems to go back and forth, but my understanding of the latest was that it's just hard to measure but at a high level the evidence largely points in the way theory predicts (minimum wages reduce employment). Related to the original post, this is why I think the Earned Income Tax Credit is good while a minimum wage is bad.
Have you read through the studies and methods yourself and checked that they estimate the effects correctly?
2Brendan Long1y
Why did you decide that this isolated demand for rigor belongs on my comment and not the parent, or dozens of other comments?
I posted it on the parent comment too. Is there some reason you find it more difficult to answer my question than the parent commenter does?
0Brendan Long1y
No I didn't estimate the effect myself. I don't think that's a reasonable bar for commenting in this context. I also doubt it would make a difference if I had, since as a non-expert, my opinion of any given study's methods is probably not going to convince anyone.
I tend to think social science is untrustworthy, so if you haven't double-checked their methods yourself you should probably assume they are wrong.
2Brendan Long1y
But would you trust the methods if I had checked, or would you still want to check it yourself?
If you had checked, that would be a filter, which would make it more worth paying attention to and maybe checking myself.
1Dumbledore's Army1y
Thanks, that’s a good example. I’ll think about it.
Have you read through the studies and methods yourself and checked that they estimate the effects correctly?
Admittedly I have not. TBH I'm not sure i could tell even if I did. But I'm very confident just by looking at the world around me that predictions by minwage opponents of imminent mass unemployment every time it's raised are wrong. What I also know is that the ultimate effect is controversial among respected economists. What I deduce from this is that if there's an effect it must be small, because if it was big it would be obvious.
I guess one possible example would be that the government started providing free tuberculosis treatment in India?
1Dumbledore's Army1y
But is the free tuberculosis treatment in India because kidney selling was banned? Or because countries which get to a certain development level try to give at least some basic free healthcare to their people? In a counterfactual where India had legalised kidney selling for the last twenty years, do you think they would not have free treatment for tuberculosis? 
I don't know. I mean a few years ago, I could have felt like writing a similar post to what you wrote. But somewhere along the line I realized that others may have personal experiences that their heuristics such as "exploitation is bad" work out well, and that my disagreement may simply be because I lack those experiences. This is particularly critical to me because I am autistic and introverted so I have had fairly few social experiences and until recently have not paid so much attention to the precise details of those experiences. Maybe if you are allistic and extraverted, this stuff is less of a problem for you. But in such a case, I think I would be more interested in you drawing on experiences from your personal life and giving example of cases there where exploitation has been good/would have been good. I assume they'd be more representative and that you'd know more details about them than about big political topics which affect many people.
1Dumbledore's Army1y
I’m also introverted and nerdy bordering on autistic, so I can’t make a claim that my experiences are different from yours in that sense. I think some of my perspective comes from growing up in developing countries and knowing what real poverty looks like, even though I haven’t experienced it myself. And some of my perspective is that I value my own personal autonomy very highly, so I oppose people who want to take autonomy away from others, and that feeling seems to be stronger than it is for most people. 
1Daniel V1y
Upvote for paragraph one, agree for paragraph two. It's a very narrow (but admittedly compelling) perspective to realize that in particularly bad situations, regulations can compound the badness. But there is plenty of room to debate regulations when it comes to typical cases, and it's probably a better basis on which to evaluate them.

To me, your post looks like you lay out your own position without really engaging with why people hold the opposite position and strawman people by saying that they lack immagination. 

Quite recently jeffk wrote Consent Isn't Always Enough.

Having an extra option is good for one person, if all else stays constant. But giving an extra option to several competing people can lead to an arms race where everyone ends up worse off. (Imagine allowing steroids in the Olympics.) And conversely, taking away an option can prevent an arms race. This can happen for both "good" and "bad" options.

2Dumbledore's Army1y
I actually agree that there are situations where preventing an arms race is a good idea. (And I wish there were a realistic proposal for a government to do something about the education credentials arms race.) But look at the different justifications:  1. There is an arms race where each individual is doing what is in their own rational best interest, but the result is collectively damaging, we need a government to solve this coordination failure 2. Those poor people are too dumb to make their own decisions, we should ban them from doing X for their own good.  What I'm really strongly arguing against is anything which proceeds from argument 2. I think all the examples I gave are non-arms-race dynamics where most of the people arguing to take a bad option away are giving a version of the "too dumb to make their own decisions" argument, usually described in the language of exploitation. And like I said, I find those arguments offensively infantilising and wrong in principle as well as empirically causing avoidable harm. 
People already try to outbid each other for limited housing or education. Recall how cheap mortgages and student loans have driven up the price of these things. We shouldn't give people even more self-harming ways to overpay for these things.
1Brendan Long1y
Housing is actually a great example of what the original post argued against. The reason housing is expensive in some places is a limited supply (restrictions on building, restrictions on what kind of house can be built) combined with an increasing population. Preventing people from paying for housing in bad ways just makes them homeless instead. Fixing the real problem would involve building and legalizing more housing and then you'll find that fewer people need to make hard decisions to pay rent.
Could you explain how allowing sex for rent or kidney sale would lead to an arms race that makes everyone worse off? Or is this just meant to be an argument for why allowing extra options isn't necessarily good, that doesn't apply to the specific examples in the post?
Unless new apartments are built, people auction off the existing ones. If they have more money, the rent gradually increases to match the increased supply of money. Let's assume that the old equilibrium was $500 for rent. When some landlords change it to "$500 or sex", it will increase the demand, because now some people who couldn't afford the $500 but are willing to provide sex, can rent, too. But unless more apartments are built, increased demand simply means increased prices. It is obvious how to increase that "$500" part, but what about the other one? It would depend on how exactly the contract was specified -- whether it put a limit on how much sex, or just "whenever the landlord wants it". But at some moment, presumably, the landlord is sexually satisfied. Which doesn't mean that he wants to leave money on the table, right? So the new increased price may be "either $550, or sex and $50". Oh, and if too many people provide sex, the new equilibrium might also be "either $550, or sex and $400". The poor girl who cannot afford to pay $500 may still choose the second option, but now it isn't as attractive as it seemed first. The thing about selling sex is that you can charge a lot for it precisely when the supply is low and illegal. When everyone is selling sex, as a way to survive, it gets much cheaper. You cannot just change one thing (the supply) and expect that everything else (the market price) stays the same.
Thanks, this is a great explanation and you changed my mind on this. This is probably the reason why most people have the intuition that legalizing these things makes things worse for everyone. There were many proposed explanations for that intuition in this thread, but none of the others made sense/seemed valid to me, so I was beginning to think the intuition was erroneous.
It is a tradeoff; both options have their specific bad consequences. It is not obvious which one is greater, and it may depend on the surrounding circumstances. For example, alcohol was a disaster for Native Americans, but Prohibition in 20th century created a boom of organized crime (but also a decline of cirrhosis mortality). Should the alcohol be legal or not? Similarly, illegal prostitution is a source of income for organized crime, but using sex as a legal method of payment would probably result in many people being forced to take this option. The exact outcome would depend e.g. on how many people actually live in poverty (so even exactly the same law could become a disaster e.g. in USA, and quite harmless in e.g. Sweden). It is also difficult to predict how making sex selling a part of everyday life would impact people's attitudes towards poverty. Would it be like "no one should become so poor that they literally have to sell sex or starve, that is a horrible thing and we should use our tax money to prevent it", or would it be more like "obviously, poverty is a not a big problem, because those who can't find a job still have an option to sell sex, and if they think their bodies are too precious and they would rather starve -- it's their choice; why should my tax money subsidize other people's choices"?
There are already social security means-testing regimes that prod able-bodied applicants to apply for jobs and to spend their existing savings before granting them payments. If sex work and organ sales are fully normalized, these might get extended into denying social security payments until people have tried to support themselves by selling a kidney and doing sex work.
5Dumbledore's Army1y
There are already countries where prostitution is legal including the Netherlands, the UK and the US state of Nevada. (Not a complete list, just the first three I thought of off the top of my head.) None of them require people to prostitute themselves rather than accessing public benefits.  Likewise, there are countries, including the USA where it's legal to pay people for donating human eggs, and probably other body parts. So far as I know, no state in the US requires women to attempt that before accessing welfare, and the US welfare system is less generous than European ones.  Empirically, your concern seems not to have any basis in fact. 

To steelman the anti-sex-for-rent case, it could be considered that after the tenant has entered into that arrangement, the tenant could feel pressure to keep having sex with the landlord (even if they would prefer not to and would not at that later point choose to enter the contract) due to the transfer cost of moving to a new home. (Though this also applies to monetary rent, the potential for threatening the boundaries of consent is generally seen as more harmful than threatening the boundaries of one’s budget)

This could also be used as a point of leverage by the landlord to e.g. pressure the tenant to engage in sex acts they would otherwise not want to or else be evicted (unless the contract specifies from the beginning exactly what kind of sex the payment will entail). I think many people would see such actions by the landlord as more of an infringement upon the tenant than e.g. raising the amount of monetary rent (sacredness of sex/consent).

Additionally, this could be seen as a specific manifestation of the modern trend of more general opposition to sexual relationships with a power imbalance between the participants.

(Parenthetically, I also want to thank you for writing this post, as it’s a good expression of a principle I generally agree with)

2Dumbledore's Army1y
Thanks for the comment. I think tenants are still better off with a legal contract than not. Analogously, a money-paying tenant with a legal contract has some protections against a landlord raising rents, and gets a notice period and the option to refuse and go elsewhere; a money-paying tenant who pays cash in hand to an illegal landlord probably has less leverage to negotiate. (Although there will be exceptions.) Likewise, a sex-paying tenant is better off with a legal contract. I realise that the law won’t protect everyone and that some people will have bad outcomes no matter what - I deliberately picked this example to make people think about uncomfortable trade offs - but I still think the general approach of trying to give people more choice rather than less is preferable.

Allowing people to sell their kidneys

  1. Allows people with two kidneys and little money to convert that to one kidney and lots of money
  2. Creates a market for kidneys, thus making the monetary value of having two kidneys legible

That means that, in the case of blackmail / threats / extortion / addiction / anything else that systematically acts as a resource sink that swallows resources until the victim has nothing left, the victim's kidneys are now part of "everything they have".

It might still be worthwhile to have a market for kidneys, even taking that into account. But it's not a one-sided tradeoff.

Indeed, in India especially it's not uncommon for people to be dragged off the streets and have their organs removed and sold by human traffickers, and killed after that. Making selling kidneys illegal at least ensures that this isn't an easy and straightforward thing to do. In Pakistan for example, an estimated 2500 kidneys were sourced in 2007.
That's not necessarily bad in the case of blackmail, since the reason blackmail works is because the person getting blackmailed has violated a norm. By making blackmail more profitable, that increases the chance of uncovering norm-violations, and by making getting blackmailed more devastating, that increases the disincentives against norm-violations.
It's possible to blackmail people with a lot of things besides revealing information about them violating norms. It also feels really strange that you think blackmailing landlords who have sex with their tenants would be fine while forbidding that norm violation by law wouldn't. 
Blackmail was intended to be a member of the "things where the demands scale with the value of the victim's legible resources" category. For a different example, let's take "kidnapping the victim's kid for ransom". In the absence of a market for kidneys, the kidnapper will demand "approximately all of your money", and will not bother with kidnapping the children of people who have no money. In the presence of a market for kidneys, the kidnapper can now demand "approximately all of your money, plus the fire-sale price on a kidney". People with no assets besides their kidneys are now viable targets. I am aware that the "ideal" solution from a decision theory point of view is for everyone to adopt the policy of "never give in to threats". However, as long as there exist people who do give in to threats, threatening those people is incentivized and creating a market for body parts increases that incentive.

When I try to make similar arguments, a common response is "Oh so you think people being forced to sell their kidneys is fine!". You touch on this a little but I think an important thing to reiterate is that creating a world where people have good options is good, but banning a bad option isn't the way to do it.

If you don't want people to have to sell kidneys to pay for X, look for solutions that make X cheaper or that make people richer, and then see if your solution worked by monitoring if people are still needing to sell their kidneys to buy X.

1Dumbledore's Army1y
" important thing to reiterate is that creating a world where people have good options is good, but banning a bad option isn't the way to do it." This is very well-phrased and I strongly agree. In fact, I think you have managed to summarise my view better than I did myself!

Regarding the rent for sex thing: The statistics I've been able to find are all over the place, but it looks like men are much more likely to not have a proper place to sleep than women. My impression is this is caused by lots of things (I think there are more ways for a woman to be eligible for government/non-profit assistance, for example), but it does seems like evidence that women are exchanging sex for shelter anyway (either directly/explicitly or less directly, like staying in a relationship where the main thing she gets is shelter and the main thing the other person gets is sex).

I wrote a post on respecting Chesterton-Schelling fences that seems relevant. Specifically, by removing the guardrail of "paying rent with sex is illegal" or "selling kidneys is illegal" without a careful analysis of why the guardrail is there in the first place, and what kind of a slippery slope lies beyond the fence is likely to cause unintended harm. For example, people might get pressured to sell organs, or to supplement rent with sexual favors, because it become legal. This is not just "removing a bad option", it is entrenching a different bad option. There are definitely ways to improve the situation, such as working on minimum wage laws, subsidized rent, free and stigma-free food and medication, and maybe even UBI. But there is no clear, simple and obviously good solution in any of your examples, as I can see. There are some more obvious cases, like removing overcomplicated zoning and building restrictions in California, but even there one must be careful to consider the consequences. 

I was prompting GPT-4 a bit to come up with examples of stories of exploitation and how they work, and some of the ideas it came up with made me think:

What typically happens to the resources gained in typical cases of exploitation?

Like you give two examples in your post. But I don't want to address the India example, partly because there's a hypothetical element to it (e.g. tuberculosis treatment is free in India), and partly because it may be unusual. (If the examples you give are unusual, perhaps the issue is not the concept of/aversion to exploitation, but rather that we are missing some other rule that makes an exception for the case you mention.)

What about more typical examples? Like the archetypal example of exploitation is sweatshop labor. But what happens to the money that the laborers earn? Are property rights strong enough that they get to keep it? The sweatshop presumably earns a profit, which presumably gives it some sort of power; what does it use this power for? If the sweatshop causes some sort of problem, who pays? What kind of work would the workers have if the sweatshops weren't available, and how do the long-term consequences of that work differ from the long-ter... (read more)

You can only sell your kidney once, but you have to make rent every month. Selling off assets to pay the rent is a losing game. When you've spent all the money, you're back where you were, but living on one kidney.

More generally, the more money available to the poor, the more rent-seekers will take it away from them. That doesn't mean that the poor will necessarily be left in the same place, but it is an ancient observation that "ye have the poor always with you". That remains true today, everywhere in the world, despite the enormously greater wealth around.

That's partly because "poor" means "relatively poor" as much as it means "absolutely poor", and a poor person in a present-day rich society is in at least some ways much better off than a poor person in, say, the society where that statement was originally made.

The problem is that the happy-tenants outcome is a fabricated option. What would actually happen is that the landlords who can’t rent to tenants willing to have sex would just rent the room to someone who can pay a market rate in money instead.

Actual real-life people don't behave like homo economicus with respect to sex. There's no reason to expect that if the landlord can't rent the apartment for sex, he would rent it for a monetary amount that is equivalent to what he would be willing to pay for sex.

(He also probably wants sex with a particular perso... (read more)

You're ignoring the impact of incentives. Having an additional option could improve people's situation at the moment you add it, but create incentives that make people worse off in the long run.

I disagreed with the post for the reasons given by tailcalled, but in the end, decided to upvote it. I did so because I think its line of reasoning is valid and the counterpoint is often not made precise enough, i.e., tailcalled's counterargument is weak as given, even if morally appealing.

"exploitation" is defined for those decisions because life rights (Including one's actual life like suicide, significant and irreversible physical damage like selling kidneys, and special body right like sex trading), as the most special right among given rights, are most prone to force. Exploitation includes being driven by the environment such as bad financial conditions. Under these conditions, governments or other equity organizations should be ready to help rather than letting one suffer, from the lawmaker's perspective.

Yes, we are living in an imperf... (read more)

Legalizing X doesn't just mean you can do X if you want to. Legalizing X helps normalize X, and gives other people license to expect you to do X. When child labor was legal, society could expect the poor to rent their children to mines and factories. Were the poor forced to rent their children at gunpoint? Well, no. They were coerced by economic circumstance, as usual.

If you legalize a way to mitigate desperate poverty, then the desperately poor can be expected to do that. And those who refuse will be seen as unsympathetic and unworthy of assistance. After all, how can you say you're really poor? You have an idle ten-year-old and a perfectly good spare kidney!

5Brendan Long1y
Do you have evidence of this happening? Poor people can already sell platelets and I've never heard someone say "This person doesn't deserve help because they haven't sold platelets," even though platelet sale is much easier than kidney sale. Why would you assume that in a world where people feel strongly enough about this to ban kidney sales that they'd sudden do an about-face and try to force kidney sales? It's the same people before and after. Your child labor example gets to exactly the problem the post mentions. People didn't send children to work in the mines because it was normalized, they did it because they needed the money! People don't do that anymore because we're much, much richer now and don't need to. Banning child labor in the 1800's would have been very bad because starvation is worse than working in a mine.

How about slavery? Should that be legal? Stealing food, medication? Age limits?

There are all sorts of things that are illegal which, in rare cases, would be better off being legal. But the legal system is a somewhat crude tool. Proponents of these laws would argue that in most cases, these options do more harm than good. Whether that's true or not is an open question from what I can tell. Obviously if the scenarios you provide are representative then the answer is clear. But I'm not sure why we should assume that to be the case. Addiction and mental illnes... (read more)

The kinds of enslavement most people are familiar with is the enslavement of African-Americans. As far as I understand, they were originally enslaved as part of inter-tribal warfare and raids in Africa. This is a sort of force/expropriation, which seems distinct from the sorts of "bad options" talked about in the post, in that they aren't really options, they are forced. Also, this kind of slavery has been exceptionally brutal compared to other kinds of slavery. I'm not super familiar with other kinds of slavery historically. As I understand, it has often been debt slavery.
The numbers you find on the internet are that currently there are more slaves in the world than there were slaves in America at the time when all African-American were slaves.  It's not merely a historic problem.
Slavery and theft harm others, so they are not relevant here. Age limits would be the most relevant. We have age limits on certain things because we believe that regardless of whether they want to, underage people deciding to do those things is usually not in their best interest. Similarly, bans on sex for rent and kidney sale could be justified by the belief that regardless of whether they want to, people doing these things is usually not in their best interest. However, this is somewhat hard to back up: It's pretty unclear whether prostitution or homelessness is worse, and it's easy to think of situations where selling a kidney definitely would be worth it (like the one given in the post). I don't want to live in that world either, but banning sex for rent doesn't resolve the issue. It just means we've gone from a world where women have to prostitute themselves to afford rent to a world where women just can't afford rent, period. What I said here is wrong, see this comment You don't think having to sell your kidneys and have sex for rent to get by is bad enough to get people to protest/riot? Also, it seems like you've implicitly changed your position here. Previously, you said that when someone sells a kidney/trades sex for rent it would usually not be in their best interest, and that those options would usually only be taken under the influence of addiction or mental illness. Now, when you say that people would do those things "to get by" it sounds like you're implying that these are rational choices that would be in peoples' best interest given the bad situation, and would be taken by ordinary people. Which of these do you agree with?
1Dumbledore's Army1y
Just so you know, there are a lot of people disagreeing with me on this page, and you are the only one I have downvoted.  I'm surprised that someone who has been on LessWrong as long as you would engage in such blatant strawmanning. Slavery? Really?
Saying "It looks like your argument would also justify Terrible Thing X" is not (necessarily) strawmanning. If people had the option to sell themselves into slavery, then some would take it, just as if people had the option to sell their kidneys, then some would take it. So far as I can see, there is nothing in the OP that says "this business about taking away people's least bad options only applies when that option isn't too bad" or that gives any concrete reason why "don't take away the option of selling yourself into slavery" would be wrong while "don't take away the option of selling a kidney" is right.

Also, selling a kidney by no means needs to be a bad option, by the lights of the seller. The most serious proposals for a legal kidney market compensate the seller to the tune of many tens of thousands of dollars, provide lifelong checkups and health care, screening processes to give them an out if they’re being pressured into selling, and more.

Laws about "must do so" will never be more effective than "mustn't do so". There will always be cases that the purchaser refuses to provide the required service, even if law-enforcing departments take compulsory measures. Cashing out every property purchaser has and still being unable to fulfill what laws have demanded, then there will be problems. Not to mention the potential coverage limit law-enforcing departments could have, and bureaucracy problems when dealing with those types of cases.
1Dumbledore's Army1y
Agree, which makes it even more heinous that governments prevent people from doing it. 

Except Iran. Why is a theocracy the only country capable of being rational about this?

I've heard that the 1980s economic sanctions were so severe that Iran didn't have dialysis machines, so they desperately needed other treatment options for kidney disease.

One thing I keep wondering about the sex-for-rent case: does banning it decrease the amount of horny landlords (because now owning land is no longer incentivized for horny people), increase the amount of horny landlords (because now horny landlords can no longer 'waste' their wealth on sex and instead acummulate wealth), or does the rate stay the same (because the transactions go through anyway, just outside the housing market)?

Taking a bad option away might be worse for a person, but will be much better for the people. These regulations (no selling organs or sex) exists, becuse in a free market there would be a race-to-bottom which would not increase human values.

Suppose we allow selling sex for rent. The number of rentable apartmants stays the same; however, there will more demand for them, because some people can now pay for them by non-monetary means. Because of this, the rent prices will increase, and that would just accelerate the rent-problem.

While exchanging kidneys for m... (read more)

2Brendan Long1y
These arguments seem to come from misunderstandings of why prices changes. This is written in a way that hides the important fact that rents rise in this situation because more people have housing, and more people having housing is good. You can write a fully-general argument against anything good like this. "Suppose we give poor people food. The amount of food stays the same, however, there will be more demand for it because some people don't have to pay for it. Because of this, food prices increase, and that will just accelerate the problem." The problem of high prices is that some people can't get the thing, but if prices are increasing because more people can get the thing then pointing at the higher price as bad doesn't make any sense. I'm confused about what this even means but isn't this a fully general argument against money and/or trade in general?
No, they don't. Greater demand with a fixed supply leads to a a price increase. The supply need not increase in order for the price to rise.

I believe this is not just out of ignorance. This usually further helps the elites while hurting both middle and lower classes. The lower classes will have their options taken, while the middle class will lose out on a lot of beneficial trades. The elites have access to alternative, possibly illegal, deals so they benefit instead. Elites might even control these alternative channels themselves, and so directly benefit from the government induced monopoly.

Another example is vaccine challenge trials. Obviously Covid isn’t as bad for someone like Trump who gets access to expensive experimental treatments, while it devastated the middle and lower classes.

I believe this is not just out of ignorance. This usually further helps the elites while hurting both middle and lower classes. The lower classes will have their options taken, while the middle class will lose out on a lot of beneficial trades. The elites have access to alternative, possibly illegal, deals so they benefit instead. Elites might even control these alternative channels themselves, and so directly benefit from the government induced monopoly.

Another example is vaccine challenge trials. Obviously Covid isn’t as bad for someone like Trump who gets access to expensive experimental treatments, while it devastated the middle and lower classes.

Nitpicking the landlord case: Banning sex for rent drives down prices. 

Suppose the market rate for a room is £500 or X units of sex. Most people pay in money but some are desperate and lack £500 so they pay in sex. One day the government bans paying in sex. This is an artificial constraint on demand, some people who would have paid at the old sex rate are being prevented from doing so. When you constrain demand on something with relatively inelastic supply, prices fall. Specifically, the rooms that would have been rented for sex sit empty until their ... (read more)

4Brendan Long1y
This argument ignores why the price (hypothetically) goes down. The price only goes down in this situation because you just made some people homeless! If your people who were paying for rent with sex all pay for rent with money instead (and thus don't become homeless), the price stays the same.
Not if the people paying in sex are poor! Imagine that 10% of housing is reserved for the poorest people in society as part of some government program that houses them for free, and the other 90% is rented for money at a rate of £500/month (also this is a toy model where all housing is the same, no mansions here). One day the government ends the housing program and privatizes the units, they all go to landlords who start charging money. Is the new rate for housing lower, higher or the same? The old £500/month rate was the equilibrium that fell out of matching the richest 90% of people with 90% of the housing stock. The new equilibrium has 10% more people and 10% more housing to work with, but the added people are poorer than average, supply and demand tells us that prices will go down to reflect the average consumer having less buying power. If you think of paying the rent with sex as "getting housing for free" and "government bans sex for rent" as "ending the free housing program", this model applies to both cases. Assuming that people paying the rent in sex are of exactly average wealth then the new equilibrium might also be £500/month, but if they are much poorer than average it should be lower (and interestingly, if they're richer than average, it would end up higher).
2Brendan Long1y
Ah that makes sense. It still feels like the mechanism here is that you reduce house prices by making people poor though (you're reducing the buying power of these people by $500 and relying on side effects to also reduce house prices).
Wouldn't those who are willing to exchange sex for rent still be able to do so by selling sex to other people than their landlord and using the money from that to pay the landlord? Seems like that should prevent it from changing the demand much.
Basically, your argument is that the law doesn't prevent any homelessness contrary to what you argued in the OP because the woman can just prostitute themselves and pay the landlord?  It is worth noting that if they prostitute themselves with another person that person is going to have less power over them and thus has less ways to exploit them. The justification for the law is that the power balance is a problem. Given how easily you change from "the law is going to leave woman homeless" to "the law isn't going to leave anyone homeless because the woman can just engage in normal prostitution" that suggests you have a predetermined conclusion and haven't really thought much about the effect of the law.
I think the middle paragraph of this comment is a very good point, and could easily be enough to justify the law. (The tenants has nowhere to go if the landlord gets pushy or aggressive.) However, the last paragraph I think is a bit uncharitable. The OP makes no secret of the fact that they have a certain class of laws/restrictions that they are arguing against, with this being just one example, and that loophole is specific to the example.
I'm not the OP.
Sorry. My mistake. 
Good point. I feel like it shouldn't happen much but I agree the simple economic model predicts it should. I could resolve it within the model as some kind of market friction argument (finding someone to sell sex to is not trivial, the landlord makes it easier to go into prostitution by providing himself as a "steady employer"), but I think my real intuition is that this is a place where homo economicus breaks down so I shouldn't be trying to apply simple economic models. Also, even if my initial argument does work, this is basically a novel form of rent control, so the standard arguments against rent control should apply (supply isn't completely inelastic, constraining demand will reduce future supply, which we don't want).
If the simple economic models break down, it might be worthwhile to think about what other models apply. And also to think about how we know that the simple models break down.

More examples:

  • Prostitution
  • Suicide