A Note on the Hancock Affair

Michael Hancock was elected mayor of Denver on June 7. On June 2 Complete Colorado courageously or irresponsibly (depending on one’s point of view) ran a story with the following headline, “Mayoral Candidate Hancock Linked to Prostitution Ring.” Soon after midnight today (June 11) the Denver Post published its own story on the matter, following stories by 9News, 7News, and other outlets.

Hancock said in a video released by the Post that he has never hired a prostitute.

The purported evidence allegedly linking Hancock to a local prostitution ring (now under investigation) comes from a former owner of the illegal service. Hancock’s (misspelled) name appears in the records along with his phone number.

If Hancock is innocent, then his lawyer is doing an excellent job making him look evasive. Assuming he is innocent, this is a serious frame-up, and I’d be interested to learn what sort of possible criminal penalties the framer might be facing if caught.

I can think of a couple of scenarios by which Hancock’s name and number might have ended up in the records (other than him hiring a prostitute). This is purely speculative and hypothetical on my part. But, conceivably, somebody could simply have forged the records, which would have been fairly easy to accomplish. Or, conceivably, somebody could have “borrowed” Hancock’s phone to set up the initial contact, then called from a different number to hire the prostitutes. As the Post reports, the records contain the line, “Calls from diff #’s (pay ph.).”

But here my purpose is not to try to figure out the correct scenario, for I lack the evidence to do that. Instead, I’d like to make a broader political point.

It is certainly not inconceivable that some city employee has hired a prostitute. Indeed, I’d be quite surprised if that were not the case, and so would everyone else. The same general investigation has already brought down a judge, Edward Nottingham. As the Post reports, the same prostitution records “are believed to include many elite Denver professionals.”

What I find disturbing about this is that Americans now expect a significant portion of the population, including a significant portion of elected officials, to knowingly break the law and then chuckle about it, whether it’s hiring a prostitute or smoking a joint. And yet these same laws we openly mock in some cases destroy people’s lives, whether through a nasty prison sentence, a fatal no-knock raid, or the inherent violence of the black market.

Now, as I have argued, I believe prostitution is immoral even though it should be legal. Where it involves consenting adults, it’s not the sort of thing over which we as a society should be launching criminal investigations or throwing people in jail. Where it does not involve consenting adults, it is a vicious crime that should be forcibly stopped.

I do think voters should weigh whether they want to support candidates known to have hired prostitutes, just as in our personal lives we should weigh whether we want to become friends with people who hire prostitutes. Generally the answer should be no.

But, again, if we wish to live in a free society, we must restrict the field of the illegal to a small subset of the field of the immoral. The only acts that should violate the criminal code are those that violate the rights of others (and I mean the actual rights, not the make-believe “rights” to tell everybody else what to do).

Outside prostitution, certain other sorts of “victimless crimes” can be perfectly moral even though illegal; consider brewing beer during Prohibition. Come to think of it, Denver’s former mayor, John Hickenlooper, now the governor of Colorado, made his name brewing beer, an activity once outlawed by the very state he now leads.

Ultimately, it does not actually much matter whether Hancock hired a prostitute. It does matter very much that whether someone becomes the target of a criminal investigation depends to a very large degree on arbitrary enforcement and blind luck.