One man’s freedom is another’s man’s licence; one man’s licence is another man’s degeneracy. Where does one end and the other begin? If you ever wonder about this, Amsterdam can provide a useful visual aid.
Some 23 million overnight tourists will have visited the place this year, and one is tempted to compliment their good taste.
The city has some of the world’s best residential architecture, a beautiful frame for the picturesque canals. The Rijksmuseum’s collection is a pilgrimage site for lovers of 17th century art. The Van Gogh Museum is a magnetic attraction for lovers of, well, Van Gogh. The nearby Keukenhof tulip farm is a revelation for lovers of exuberant floral creativity.
No wonder all those lovers of 17th century art, Van Gogh and tulips flock to Amsterdam in such numbers. Those highlights are simply not to be missed.
Oh well, they do flock. But in nowhere near such numbers, and any compliments on the tourists’ good taste would be premature. For the 23-million horde is mainly made up of dissipated youngsters attracted by the window brothels of Amsterdam’s red light district and the drugs freely served in designated cafés.
Walk through the Oudekennissteeg, the oldest part of central Amsterdam, and a parade of variously hideous half-naked prostitutes will be smiling at you seductively from every window. They do get plenty of custom, though their commitment to fair trade is distinctly understated.
As a former colleague of mine found out the hard way, or not so hard as the case was, what you see in the window isn’t necessarily what you get when you step inside (I’ll spare you the details). In fact, those scantily clad young ladies often relate to the actual goods the way an ad for a cheap car relates to its road performance.
I started going to Amsterdam more or less regularly some 35 years ago, to visit friends. Yet even back then, during a more hormonally active period of my life, I couldn’t imagine being attracted to such tawdry promises of gratification.
But then I wasn’t what admen call the target audience. That group, on purely visual evidence, consists of young, tattooed, facially-metalled chaps either drunk or high on drugs or typically both. Judging by their accents, most of them come from Britain’s northern counties, although I can’t claim access to the relevant statistics.
Once, again in the company of my advertising colleagues, I peeked into one of those coffee shops that specialised in things other than coffee. My visit lasted about a minute, which is how long it took me to make a mental note that the place looked just like the opium dens Sherlock Holmes patronised.
The barely lit room was full of people, mostly but not exclusively under 40, smoking cannabis or munching hash cookies. They were like spooky mirages floating in and out of the dense smoky fog. Even if I used drugs, which I never did, I wouldn’t have wanted to do them in such a place, for the same reason I wouldn’t have wanted to partake of the goods advertised in window brothels.
My problem with such places isn’t so much moral as aesthetic. They are fine to look at from afar, as a way of satisfying one’s morbid interest in skirting around the seedy part of life. Yet no one with a modicum of taste would want to swap the role of casual spectator for that of active participant.
Prostitution and drugs inevitably become the foundation on which a vast criminal superstructure is built. Pimps, thuggish bouncers, pushers of harder drugs than cannabis, muggers, pickpockets all buzz around the red light district like bluebottles around a cowpat.
That creates an air of decadence cum degeneracy, so much more jarring against the background of beautiful terraces of 16th and 17th century houses lining scenic canals. Harm and charm fighting each other, with the former winning.
My friends who live there hate seeing their city overrun with mobs of drunk, drugged up Britons howling through the night and throwing up on the towpaths of the scenic canals. Yet my friends accept that outrage with stoic acquiescence: such things just are. The way of the world, in Amsterdam at any rate, or in any other port city.
Yet Femke Halsema, the mayor of Amsterdam, has found a solution, or so she thinks. She wants to get the prostitutes out of the windows and put them all into an ‘erotic centre’ skyscraper elsewhere in the city.
That would act as a sex factory or one-stop shopping centre for prostitution, pornography, erotic aids, pole dancing, live sex shows and everything else a juvenile vulgarian may desire. All very modern, industrialised, centralised, privately owned but state-controlled – a sort of exercise in below-the-belt corporatism.
The idea isn’t without its merits, especially if that complex is built somewhere in the outskirts. At least the oldest part of Amsterdam would be less befouled with herds of tattooed youngsters who can’t get laid in any other way, nor obtain drugs without courting trouble with police in their native habitat.
Nevertheless, there is something too orderly and, well, Germanic about this project. In general, whenever Northern Europeans start out doing eroticism, they end up doing sleaze. And institutionalised sleaze is somehow even sleazier than the chaotic variety.
Still, that’s the Amsterdammers’ problem. They are the ones living there, whereas we have the option of going elsewhere for a weekend.
Yet the city does raise certain thoughts about the paradoxical conflict between liberty and libertarianism, with the latter sometimes leading to the denial of the former. Libertarians have a simple solution to all problems: let the people do what they want, provided they don’t hurt others.
Alas, the problem with many simple solutions is that they are simplistic and therefore not especially clever. Actions have consequences, and when it comes to complex social organisms, most consequences are unforeseen.
Hayek used that fact as an argument against an activist, meddling state: since no one can calculate the outcome of any action, it’s best to do nothing unless absolutely necessary. But this argument also works the other way because letting people do as they please may also produce unpredictable ricochets — not least by denying people’s right to live in a clean, safe place.
For example, how do you calculate the social consequences of legalising drugs and prostitution? The libertarian argument would be that a wide demand for a commodity will guarantee its steady supply even if it’s illegal.
Indeed, the inability to stem the flow of drugs even in prisons, in conditions of maximum unfreedom, would suggest that’s indeed the case. And female prison guards happily break every regulation by copulating with male inmates – and vice versa.
So yes, drugs and sex will be sold even if such activities are banned. But laws aren’t there just to stop an undesirable practice. For even if they are unenforced and unenforceable, they also express society’s attitudes; they draw the lines society sees as uncrossable.
If drugs and prostitution are legalised, they can become more or less widespread – I don’t know, though I’ve heard arguments either way.
But I am certain that such legalisation causes great moral and aesthetic damage, for it’s society’s way of saying all is permitted, nothing is immoral, tawdry and tasteless. That cauterises the finer sensibilities of one generation after another by smudging the line between beauty and ugliness, taste and tastelessness, morality and immorality.
And then great cities are turned into dens of iniquity, with their whole atmosphere reeking of dissolution and depravity. If you don’t believe me, visit Amsterdam, see what you think.