I was outraged a few weeks back when the U.S. government cracked down on internet poker. It took me a while to figure out why.
One of the most important roles of government is establishing a set of rules under which society will operate. Governments determine property rights and coordinate the provision of public goods. Some frowned upon activities are deemed illegal (e.g. homicide); other favored activities are encouraged through subsidies (e.g. home ownership, education).
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.
The “daughter test” makes it clear why I find the U.S. government’s stance against internet poker so ridiculous. When I imagine my daughter growing up to be a professional poker player, my reaction is to think that would be a great outcome! Maybe not the absolute best outcome (like her being a great economist or professional golfer, two things I’ve always dreamed of being), but certainly not a bad outcome at all.
More on the idiocy of trying to prohibit internet poker soon.