David R. Henderson  

Steven Levitt's "Daughter Test"

Replies to Critics on Cato Unb... What the Future Holds: A Hanso...
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.

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COMMENTS (31 to date)
Ben writes:

I'm with you up until the last sentence, when you dismiss a highly accomplished research and writer, (and also an entire economics faculty?) on the basis of one blog post.

John writes:

A pretty bad argument to make for the role of government, but it does seem to be how most people use government -- or at least petition government for legislation.

It amounts to:
1) I'm a very reasonable person, not a control freak, irrational or overly afraid of others.
2) Government should protect us from others unreasonable behaviors.
3) Those that don't see the world as I do are unreasonable, paranoid and/or control freaks.

Therefore it's okay for government to implement the controls I think are good.

David R. Henderson writes:

I don't dismiss him. I think some of his work is excellent and that he has had a huge net positive effect on economics. My point is only about his political beliefs.

Nat Almirall writes:

Why not go for the big one and just say,"I wouldn't want my daughter having sex"?

Tracy W writes:

I think he's talking about his comfort levels here, not a logically necessary argument - that everything he wouldn't like his daughter doing should be banned.

I know a bit how he feels - I'm opposed to banning smoking in restaurants, but it sure makes going out for a meal a lot nicer for me, so that particular government ban doesn't bother me on an emotional level, only on an intellectual one.

Nick J writes:

It's not clear to me from reading Levitt's post that he was condoning the "Daughter Test". I think he was being self-reflective in order to speculate on the motives of people who would ban internet poker and the arbitrary nature of some laws.

Dr Obvious writes:

I have a daughter test too. There are things I wouldn't want done to anyone's daughter. I wouldn't want anyone's daughter to be attacked, killed, stolen from, or defrauded. I wouldn't want anyone's daughter to be denied her chosen profession, her right to vote, or her security in her home or affects.

The difference between between listing what we are allowed to do and what we are forbidden to do is significant. It is the difference between liberty and control. I want his daughter to have liberty.

MikeDC writes:

When I read Levitt's post I was surprised at how different it was than what I expected to see after reading this post. I came away thinking him very tolerant.

His daughter test is no different than most sort of "veil of ignorance" tests. He probably could have clarified, but it's quite clear if you read the post that he's saying a he wouldn't interpret the test to outlaw much at all.

Online poker is ok because it's ok for his daughter to be a poker player. Working at a gas station would be too by the same logic.

The world needs gas station attendants. I'm with Levitt in that, although I understand the economic logic, I'm not convinced the world needs cocaine addicts and prostitutes.

Marcus writes:

MikeDC wrote, "I'm not convinced the world needs cocaine addicts and prostitutes."

And yet, it has them.

The reason to oppose anti-drug legislation is because of the harm the government does in the name of it.

Terrier Gamecock writes:

Wasn't Levitt's question "how he would feel if his daughter WAS ENGAGED in that activity" as opposed to "interested in that activity?"

I took his point of view as a statement that if his daughter is already engaged in an activity, then he would defer to her judgment. However, in some cases his daughter may be doing things that he would not want her to do, i.e. murdering or stealing.

In other words, Levitt would look at a price gouger in the wake of a hurricane by putting his daughter in the gouger's shoes.

Levitt's criterion does not seem as paternalistic or majoritarian as others are making it out to be.

Just a thought.

David R. Henderson writes:

You wrote:

When I read Levitt's post I was surprised at how different it was than what I expected to see after reading this post. I came away thinking him very tolerant.

My guess is that you think that because his post was a defense of allowing on-line poker. But that's why I wrote my post the way I did. As I wrote, it's easy to defend the rights of people to engage in activity that you approve of. Notice that in your own comment, you write that you're not convinced that "the world needs cocaine addicts and prostitutes." That's an interesting way of phrasing it. It suggests that we should pay primary attention to what the world needs. I don't even know what that means. Of course, the world doesn't need cocaine addicts and prostitutes. The "world" doesn't need anything. But individual people have desires to pursue things that, I'm guessing, you disapprove of. And although you didn't make it clear in your comment, your tone suggests that you would ban cocaine use and prostitution. If so, it's not surprising that you found Levitt "very tolerant."

Blakeney writes:

I believe people should be free to engage in absolutely any activity that I approve of.


Pandaemoni writes:

I reads to me like he is merely laying out the basis for his emotional affinity for certain policy positions and aversion to others, not that he is setting forth a rule by which all policies should actually be judged.

I don't like strip clubs conceptually, I have an emotionally-derived aversion them (and certainly would not want my daughter "on the pole"). That creates an emotional bias in me. On balance, I understand that it would be bad policy for society to conform to my personal predilections on that topic (let alone to cater to everyone's individual predilections). Still, I have to admit, if the government banned strip clubs, I'd have difficulty mustering up any great outrage.

He is talking about the source of his "outrage" not setting forth a principle on which all policy should be decided.

I do wonder though, why he thinks his daughter would be a "professional poker player" and not a "online gambling addict." In the same way, I'd be less troubled if my daughter merely owned a strip club, than if she were a stripper. It seems like there is a substantial degree to which framing issues enter the picture.

David R. Henderson writes:

"I'd have difficulty mustering up any great outrage"--your statement--is different from "I don't mind"--Levitt's statement.
That said, one of my goals--call me Don Quixote--is to get people to have "great outrage" against violations of freedom that don't affect them personally.

Pandaemoni writes:

I am not sure that any rational argument, however cogent, can convince people to feel an emotion. If my daughter met a man for her and I could muster many arguments for why she should fall in love with him, none of that is ever going to make her fall in love with him.

"Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."
(David Hume)

Noah Yetter writes:

Freedom means letting other people do things you don't like.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

You can quote Hume if you like, but I don't think it is the argument itself that will convince people to be outraged. That is the causal chain does not jump straight from reasoning to passions. What happens is that the argument changes how we perceive violations of freedom that don't affect us personally, namely we view them more like ones that do affect us personally. As much as you can claim reason is slave to the passions, every act we engage in as a mind is slave to our perceptions.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Kevin Driscoll,
Well put. Better put, in fact, than what I was going to answer. But I'll add my answer to Pandaemoni: "Fake it til you make it." Translation: write a letter to the editor, something fairly low cost, arguing that prostitutes and drug users and dealers should not be punished. Send the letter. If it's not published, send it elsewhere. When it's finally published, notice if you feel any different afterward.

Matt writes:

I don't have a daughter, but I don't want your daughter talking smack to 49ers. I think there should be a law against it.

Phil writes:

Why not just turn it around? An activity should not be illegal if you wouldn't mind your daughter doing it.

That leaves unanswered the question of what happens if you DO mind your daughter doing it, but it takes care of the poker question just fine, nonetheless.

jiriki writes:

Government intervention ends up having perverse consequences. It is just not the question whether society should be intervening in these things or not.

For example, prediction market company Intrade.com is located in Ireland because US poker laws prohibit it for working in US. Anyone who has read Robin Hanson understands how much rational decision making would become if prediction markets became more popular. You don't need even need to read Hanson, understanding of the market's social function as an aggregator of information explains it aswell.

"Still, I have to admit, if the government banned strip clubs, I'd have difficulty mustering up any great outrage."
This is exactly the explanation for government expansion; exactly because of thinking like this regulators don't have natural enemies. Here is a good article by a medical researcher:


As you can see, there is little political resistance to these ideas because "nobody would want children to get harmed", "which monster would refuse fill a form to prevent etc." etc. and you end creating unnecessary bureaucracy which rises the price of health research and care for all, and prevents god knows how many useful ideas of happening.

Likewise, I remember listening to Thomas Woods about front-loading and political engineering which is used to fund very expensive and useless military spending. Since military spending receives substantially less criticism, it goes completely under radar in political discussions.

Government, also known as monopoly of violence, is such a blunt instrument that good-meaning people can do massive harm to others.

MikeP writes:
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.

Surely Steven Levitt must recognize that equal suffrage means that established law under this rule would be the union of all things that all people wouldn't want their daughters to do.

Levitt doesn't mind his daughter's being a poker addict, but does mind her being a recreational cocaine user, so there should be a law against the latter but not the former. The guy down the street doesn't want his daughter going out of the house with an uncovered face, so there should be a law against that too.

Thomas M writes:

Your criticism is overblown. Steven says explicitly that his "daughter test" only applies to the gray area, where "reasonable people can disagree as to whether it is appropriate to prohibit such activities". Working at the gas station does not fall into the gray area.

I agree that it is a poor rule even for this gray area. But it is not meant to be as intrusive as your post makes it look like.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Thomas M,
Good point. That takes care of the gas station example.
How about my example? I find nose rings disgusting. Do reasonable people disagree? I'm not one of those people who would ban it because it's disgusting, but that's my point. It's because I believe in freedom.
I bet you could find people who would ban them and whom you would regard as reasonable. And if you don't regard them as reasonable, on what basis would you do so? You would have to have some criterion. I bet it would be in part because they want to ban nose rings. Levitt doesn't supply any criteria. The only one he supplies is his "daughter test." So we're back to square one.

Tom West writes:

If we're going to read between the lines, I think Levitt is really talking about banning self-destructive behavior. This is trickier because given our society's commitment to our citizenry (and the general human tendency to have other's suffering reduce our happiness), other people's self-destruction *does* cost us personally.

Thus, it's not simply a matter of tolerance - we *are* made worse off by those behaviors.

So in a selfish calculus, we might weigh

(1) the benefit those behaviors bring (the individual gains great pleasure from smoking)
(2) the cost of banning (the enormous cost in both human lives and dollars), and
(3) the cost or reducing an abstract liberty (i.e. a liberty we will not personally use).


(A) the reduction in our unhappiness because of the (presumably) decreased amount of self-destruction that occurs.

(B) the reduction in our unhappiness because much of the self-destruction is now concealed or confined to more lawless areas.

The trouble is that I suspect we generally devalue (1), underestimate (2), and most hold (3) at almost zero. However, I think people rarely publicly acknowledge the benefit of (B), when it may well be a major driver of such legislation.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
Well put.

Shane writes:

This is a misunderstanding of Levitt's point.

He is not saying that he wants the government to prohibit things he finds uncomfortable imagining for his daughter. Rather he's examining his own biases. He recognises that his emotional inclinations towards banning one thing and allowing another are irrational.

So I salute Steven Levitt for having the courage to explore his own blind spots and admit them in public.

Again, he's not advocating the "daughter test" as a sensible way to decide what practices to prohibit. He's simply showing a healty introspection, exploring his own attitudes towards controversial topics and realising that an emotional bias lies at the heart of his views.

We're all emotional beings and should all take time to explore how biases affect our own political and economic views.

Philo writes:

Levitt's attitude is typical, and it may be more defensible than you allow. First, people naturally feel worse about the government's prohibiting activities they regard as of positive value; they are rightly less concerned to protect worthless or actually harmful activities. Second, people are concerned to protect their children (especially daughters?), whose judgment they consider unreliable. Generally, libertarianism seems workable for a society of adults, but when children, even adolescents, are involved the situation is less clear. One must find a positive element in government prohibition of an activity that he would rather his children not have the option of engaging in, even if he would tolerate another adult's engaging in it.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

My daughter test: Would I incarcerate my own daughter for years in jail for breaking a particular law? If not, then the law is stupid.

The war on drugs would end overnight if police had a 100% crackdown on all drug use and dealing at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and every student (including the daughters of Senators) was prosecuted to the full extent of the law (including getting a criminal record, no plea bargains), and all fraternity/sorority/secret society property seized to the full extent of the law.

The Man Who Was . . . writes:

I find nose rings disgusting.

This isn't really in the gray area either. The vast majority of people don't mind that much if their daughter has a nose rings.

Sam Schulman writes:

Tom West:
How do I know that your ability to identify behavior that is self-destructive is reliable, or that your idea of how to remedy it is correct or efficient? Your numbering system assumes that it is perfect. I suspect that it is (C) abysmal.
The Man Who Was:
People who don't mind if their daughters have nose rings should have their daughters taken away from them. Who cares if they're the majority - Tom West tells me the idea that nose rings are no big deal is hugely mistaken.

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