Would I Let My Daughter Do It?

Stephen Levitt of Freakonomics has a little test he applies to public policy questions and they involved his daughter:

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.

I would love it if my daughter became a poker champion (iStockphoto)

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.

Ross Douthat thinks this is a good way to think about policy:

…thinking “what if I my daughter did this/were in this position?” is a way to take an argument from the abstract to the viscerally real, and to bring moral and legal gray areas into a sharper focus. It isn’t a mathematical proof, or a system of inputs that spits out an automatic, universal answer: For instance, more pro-life father would take a different view of the abortion question that Levitt does. (Or to take the example that kicked off Levitt’s riff, one could imagine someone else saying that Internet gambling doesn’t pass his daughter test, because a gambling addiction can be as destructive as cocaine.) But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a useful way of thinking about public policy. The fact that I would want to be able to involve the police if my daughter became a streetwalker, but not if she became a Hari Krishna, tells me something important about what kind of legal regime I should support. (There’s a touch of Kantianism in it: One’s (legal) preferences for one’s daughter should become a universal law …) And the fact that Wilkinson disagrees doesn’t prove that he believes in logic and reason, whereas I believe in raw emotion. It just proves that his answer to the daughter test is — for now, at least — different from my own.

One thought on “Would I Let My Daughter Do It?

  1. Elf M. Sternberg

    I think a good counter-argument is the libertarian one: “Would I want an agency with the power of the gun to be able to tell my daughter she can’t do X?”

    Taken from that point of view, the sex-worker angle looks more palatable. When we’re describing the authority of an agency with the unrestrained right to use deadly force, we should think very hard about whether or not we want that gun pointed at our own children.


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