Professor Levitt’s “Daughter Test”

Economist Steven Levitt said something dumb, and I’m not sure whether to be amused or disappointed. He wants online poker to be legal, but he draws the line at cocaine and prostitution. Here’s his explanation:

Levitt says he doesn’t usually get riled up over such issues, but then he realized why he got so angry: his daughter.

“It’s what I call the Daughter Test,” he says. “If the prohibited activity is something I’d think that would actually be good for my daughter to be able to do, then I am in favor of it being legal. But if the activity is something that I would feel terrible if my daughter did, then I would want it to be illegal.”

The economist provides an example: cocaine. Although he says the U.S. is better off legalizing and then regulating the drug, the thought of his daughter becoming an addict is enough for him to side with his paternal instincts.

Elsewhere he explains the Daughter Test:

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.

If Levitt is just telling a story about how his personal feelings conflict with his economic theory, then this is a harmless and amusing anecdote. But if he’s actually proposing this as some sort of test, he’s just not thinking very clearly.

First of all, Levitt’s daughter is only about seven years old, so let’s make it clear right now that no libertarian advocate of legalizing drugs and prostitution wants to make either of those things legal for children. If we’re talking about making these things legal for Levitt’s daughter, we’re talking about making them legal when she’s an adult.

Looking at it the other way around, Levitt is talking about making it illegal for his adult daughter to take drugs or become a prostitute. But why is he the only one who gets to decide these things? For example, maybe she’ll grow up to be really hot, and lots of guys will want to have sex with her. Why shouldn’t those guys be able to make it legal for Levitt’s daughter to sell herself to them?

For that matter, if Levitt is justified in using the coercive power of government to forcibly stop her from becoming a prostitute, why aren’t the guys who want to bang her justified in using the coercive power of government to force her to become a prostitute? Or a sex slave? These are the kinds of things you should think about before advocating that the government be allowed to control your daughter’s sexual behavior.

(You could argue that Levitt is in a special position with regard to his daughter and so his desires should trump those of the cads who want to bed her. That’s probably a good point, but remember that he also wants to apply this law to all the other women who are not his daughter.)

Remember too, that the law is not a magic spell. Criminalizing drugs and prostitution doesn’t make them go away, it just sets the stage for the government to capture and imprison prostitutes and drug users. If Levitt doesn’t want his daughter to be a drug addict or prostitute, how does he feel about her being a prisoner? (If you thought it was far-fetched of me to suggest that the government could force Levitt’s daughter into sexual slavery, keep in mind that prisons are rough places, and it’s not unheard of for the guards to rape the women.) At least if she were a prostitute or a drug user, she could stop whenever she wanted to. Prisoners are not so lucky.

Along those lines, here’s an alternative “Daughter Test”: If Levitt thinks that cocaine and prostitution should be illegal, would he be willing to see his own daughter thrown in prison for breaking those laws?

Also, to borrow a phrase from Hayek, Levitt has not realized how little he really knows about what he imagines he can design. He’s imagining his daughter as that little girl he sees across the breakfast table every morning. He’s imagining that she might someday want to become a professor or a lawyer or a doctor or a hooker, and he’d like to take that last choice off the list. But his daughter’s life might not turn out the way he wants it to. She might not have that many choices.

Levitt could die, along with his wife and everyone else in their families, except for his little girl. She could grow up alone in a system of state homes, destitute and alone. And then maybe she’ll meet some charming psychopath who beds her and knocks her up, then moves in, steals all her money, and beats her every weekend when he gets drunk.

Then one day, about the time her boyfriend starts looking at their daughter in a disturbing way, a friend might offer to hook her up with an escort service in another town. With that kind of money, she could get away and get her daughter away. If those are her only two choices — violently abusive boyfriend or prostitution — maybe prostitution is the lesser of evils.

I’m probably being a little too harsh about Levitt’s wish for his daughter to have a happy life. I certainly don’t begrudge him his feelings. But what about the other daughters in the world who aren’t lucky enough to have Professor Levitt as a father? What about daughters who are poor or uneducated and have few other job prospects? What about the daughters whose fathers rape them? What about the women who are are born in dreadful families — or dreadful nations — and seek to finance their escape through prostitution?

We don’t have to imagine such dire scenarios, though. What if his daughter simply likes cocaine? What if  she likes being a prostitute? Why is that not enough? It may not be what he wants for his daughter, but why should his desires be enshrined in law while hers are outlawed?

What it really comes down to is not what’s best for Professor Levitt’s daughter, but who should have the power to decide on her behalf. I presume he knows what’s best for himself, and I suppose it’s possible he knows what’s best for his daughter, but how dare he claim to know what’s best for everyone.

About Mark:
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.
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  1. GreginOz
    Posted June 7, 2011 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    G’day Mark (& Rogier, you sly wag, you;-). I hafta disagree coz if Ho’s & Drugs (H&D)were legalised then that would no doubt mean (“Noooooo!!!!, picturing blowup doll of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream) Gummint Licensing! Thus the actual PRICE of H&D would invariably go UP. Quality, of course, would go down…So I am wit da Perfessa on this. Keep H&D illegal coz Ah likes me H&D cheap, blackmarket & readily available!

    • Posted June 7, 2011 at 3:53 am | Permalink

      Uhm…You’re worried about government increasing the price of drugs and hookers? You realize that’s already happening, right? It’s called prison.

      When you buy, say, cocaine, you incur a risk of going to prison, and even though that cost isn’t denominated in dollars, it’s a real cost nonetheless, and you pay it every time. In addition, every time you buy cocaine, you also have to pay the dealer to compensate him (and everyone else in his supply chain) for the prison time he risks in order to get you the cocaine. All of this is over and above the actual production cost of the cocaine, just like a tax.

      It turns out the price of the prison risk is huge. What’s the street cost of an ounce of cocaine? It’s got to be at least $1000, maybe more, right? Well, cocaine is a schedule II drug, because it has a legitimate medical use as a topical analgesic during certain types of surgeries. You know how much one of those surgeons pays for an ounce of pure, legal, medical-quality cocaine?

      Thirty bucks.

      In other words, the government is currently jacking up the price of cocaine by more than three thousand percent. Nothing legal has a tax burden anywhere near that high.

  2. Posted June 7, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    So, presumably, Levitt thinks alcohol should be illegal as well? I doubt he’d want his daughter to become an alcoholic.

    • Posted June 8, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink


      I was so puzzled by the issue of which vices Levitt thinks are okay for his daughter and which are forbidden that I didn’t even address it. How about smoking? That can have some pretty terrible consequences. Or what about super-high-fat foods? If Outback Cheese Fries are allowed to remain legal, his daughter could become supermorbidly obese. He wouldn’t want that for her, would he?

      And if I had a daughter — or a son, for that matter — that would mean outlawing the DEA, ICE, and the TSA, since I wouldn’t want any child of mine involved with any of those organizations.

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  • By We Have A Serious Problem: Children. | Popehat on June 14, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    […] Mark took apart economist Steven Levitt’s “daughter test” — the admission that in considering what society should criminalize something, he thinks […]