Steven Levitt's "Daughter Test"
By David Henderson
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.
This is from Steven D. Levitt, “The ‘Daughter Test’ of Government Prohibitions (And Why I’m so Angry About the U.S. Internet Poker Crackdown).”
What if I followed that test? I wouldn’t want my daughter installing a nose ring. So if I followed Levitt’s test, I wouldn’t mind the government passing a law against nose rings. I could multiply the examples. The fact is that I’m fairly conservative in my tastes. So if I followed Levitt’s test, I would not object to a whole lot of things governments want to do to people.
What’s missing in Levitt? The whole idea of tolerance. It’s easy to tolerate people doing what you would do and approve of. It’s harder to tolerate what you don’t approve of. It’s even harder to tolerate activities and behaviors that you find disgusting. Levitt has just confessed that he’s intolerant or, at least, that he won’t object to a government that’s intolerant. That’s disappointing. I had expected better of him.
After writing the above, I thought that I should at least check the comments on Levitt’s blog. Surely my point, though well worth stating, is obvious. And I’m heartened to see that it is. Many commenters saw how flimsy and uncaring Levitt’s criterion is. One of my favorites is by Anye, who wrote, “I don’t want my daughter to work at a gas station. Should it be illegal?”
Actually, I would love it if my daughter worked at a gas station. She learned more about money, people, and reward for productivity working at a restaurant than at any other job she ever had and even talked respectful smack to an overly picky customer who was one of the highest paid San Francisco 49ers. I bet she would learn a lot working at a gas station too. Anye feels differently. But that’s the point. In a tolerant, read “free,” society, we can all have our tastes and preferences as long as we’re practicing them peacefully. If Levitt is par for the University of Chicago nowadays, how sad that he is in a department that housed the mighty–and tolerant–Milton Friedman.