Saturday, June 11, 2011

The daughter test

...also known as one of the more offensive and stupid ways of thinking about policy I've heard. Offered, surprisingly, by Steven Levitt who co-authored Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics:
Most of the time there is broad agreement as to which activities should be made criminal. Almost no one thinks that theft or violence against innocents is socially acceptable. There are, however, a few activities that fall into a gray area, like illicit drugs, prostitution, abortion, or gambling. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether it is appropriate to prohibit such activities, discourage them through taxation or other means, or simply let them flourish. A common feature of these gray-area activities are that they are typically “victimless” in the sense that, unlike a theft or murder, there is no easily discernible victim of the activity. When a drug dealer sells to an addict, both are happy to have carried out the transaction. 
I’ve never really understood why I personally come down on one side or the other with respect to a particular gray-area activity.  Not that my opinion matters at all, but despite strong economic arguments in favor of drug legalization, the idea has always made me a little queasy. Conversely, although logic tells me that abortion as practiced in the U.S. doesn’t seem like such a great idea (see the end of the abortion chapter in Freakonomics for our arguments on this one), something in my heart makes me sympathetic to legalized abortion. 
It wasn’t until the U.S. government’s crackdown on internet poker last week that I came to realize that the primary determinant of where I stand with respect to government interference in activities comes down to the answer to a simple question: How would I feel if my daughter were engaged in that activity? 
If the answer is that I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it, then I don’t mind the government passing a law against it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be a cocaine addict or a prostitute, so in spite of the fact that it would probably be more economically efficient to legalize drugs and prostitution subject to heavy regulation/taxation, I don’t mind those activities being illegal. 
On the other hand, if my daughter had good reasons to want an abortion, I would want her to be able to have one, so I’m weakly in favor of abortion being legal, even though I put a lot of value on unborn fetuses.
This position isn't even internally coherent. Of all of the things you could say about it, and Ed Brayton and Jennifer Abel have pointed out many, the first thing that jumps out is that Levitt's argument doesn't even agree with itself. It conflates too many things. First it conflates what he would want his daughter to have/do, and what he would want her to have if she needed it. Nobody, even the most pro-choice of us, wants their daughter to have an abortion. We want daughters-- and every woman-- to have that option available should she need it, in the same way we want people to be able to have surgery after a heart attack, or an air bag in the steering wheel of their car to inflate in the event of an accident. That doesn't mean we want abortions, heart attacks, or car accidents for our daughters or anyone else.

Is that linguistically picky? Fair enough, but how about the fact that he also conflates doing something with doing it to excess?  It's not uncommon for people to assume that all use of recreational drugs is tantamount to abuse, but most don't feel the same about alcohol. Not everyone who has a glass of wine is an alcoholic. Nor is every poker player a compulsive gambler, but they might become one. Does Levitt acknowledge this in his acceptance of gambling but not drugs? Not in the slightest.  Why is he content to equate cocaine with addiction and therefore be okay with banning it, but not poker?

These are logical inconsistencies that make Levitt's position grating, but they aren't offensive. What's offensive is, as Abel points out, the fact that "if he doesn't want his (cute young) daughter doing it, anyone who does belongs in prison." It is not uncommon for people who have not thought very much about prostitution at all to conclude "I wouldn't want my daughter to do it; therefore it should be illegal." However, Steven Levitt is not a person who has not thought very much about prostitution at all-- there is a large section discussing it in Superfreakonomics, including data about dangers that prostitutes experience in large part because of the occupation's illegality.  This does not automatically lead to a position on whether it should be legal or not, but you would think it would have occurred to him at some point that if his daughter did decide to become a prostitute, she would be better off if it were legal (just as if she need an abortion, she would be better off if she could have access to one). Less likely to be attacked by clients. Better recourse if such a thing should happen, because she could go to the police without further endangering herself by admitting to illegal activity. Safer from disease if brothel standards in Nevada are anything to go by, since they are very strict about testing and protection in the interest of protecting the health of both workers and clients. There is no question that prostitutes would be better off if it were legalized. But Levitt does not care, because he doesn't want his daughter to become one in the first place.

Oh yes, his daughter. His adult, presumably mature daughter, capable of making decisions for herself in accordance with her own happiness. Maybe instead of becoming a prostitute, she wants to work at McDonald's for the rest of her life. Enter the Army and go on an extended and highly dangerous tour in Afghanistan. Join a polyamorous cult and live in a commune. Live as the de facto slave of an overbearing husband. Become a lobbyist with a dim view of everything Levitt himself stands for, attempting to have it banned. All perfectly legal. And one hopes Levitt would support these things being legal, even if he also wouldn't want his daughter to choose any of those options for her life.

A person could not formulate a better standard for policy that defines paternalism if they tried. His stance is literally paternalistic, and it's hard to escape the characterization of misogyny as well. He doesn't just reserve this particular outlook for prostitution, by thinking of his daughter. He applies it across the board to all of us, for all "gray-area activity." We are all to be treated in the eyes of the law as if we were Levitt's daughter, and he the government. Nanny state, meet Daddy Levitt state.We are all daughters in need of guidance.

No thanks; I'll pass. As Abel remarks,
As a writer, few things annoy me more than penning something favourable about a public figure who later says something so asinine that I feel compelled to mumble excuses for my prior support: "Um, yeah, about that…"
Right. Levitt himself admits that he has "never really understood why I personally come down on one side or the other." Perhaps he ought to think on it some more.

1 comment:

  1. I have always believed there is a strong argument for the legalization of prostitution for all the reasons you mention regarding it's success in Nevada. Whatever consenting adults choose to do is nobody else's business unless someone is directly harmed in the act.

    As the father of three daughters, I want them to have no restrictions on the choices available to them. It is not required that I like their choices, I love my daughters first and foremost.


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