The “Daughter Test” of Government Prohibitions (And Why I’m so Angry About the U.S. Internet Poker Crackdown)

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.

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.

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.

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  1. Twist says:

    As DPL says personal taste is a flimsy argument for laws. Also what if your daughter gets HIV because her boyfiend/husband cheats on her with an HIV+ prostitute? If prostitution were legal that prostitute would have a lower % chance of having HIV, and your daughter’s cheating partner would have been able to see some HIV tests before you know…he took the plunge.

    Also what would happen if, instead of experimenting once or twice with a potentially lethally laced street drug, your daughter bought drugs with a safety standard?

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  2. Steve Brecher says:

    You wouldn’t want your daughter to be an alcoholic; so I suppose you “wouldn’t mind” the resumption of Prohibition.

    This “daughter criterion” is useless and incoherent.

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  3. Adrian says:

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    • Dave says:

      If you look into this, you will find yourself being surprised. Poker is (a) a game of skill, with elements of luck (so is baseball, or golf, etc.) and (b) save for the “rake” that the house takes, it is a zero sum game. This means that as one player loses, another wins. There are many players who have consistently made money in the long run, over tens of thousands of hands. Just a quick bit of research on names like Tom Dwan, Phil Galfond, Eric Baldwin (among MANY others) should dispel this myth you’ve set forth.

      Online poker is surely a vice to some, but it’s also a hobby and leisure activity to many others, and is in fact a way of earning a living for many skilled, educated people as well. The fact that the US Government is one of the few entities that restricts its citizens from participating in the game is a sad reflection on our values and prioritization skills.

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      • Nick Malone says:

        Recreational drug use happens to be a hobby and leisure activity to many people, despite being a vice to some…and selling drugs is in fact a way of earning a living for many skilled, educated people as well.

        I realize you’re speaking in defense of poker, and I have no idea how you feel about drug use / sales…just wanted to point out the parallel.

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    • Dan says:

      >> I understand that there are factories of colluding players meaning the odds are stacked against law abiding competitors. <<

      That you 'understand' this doesn't make it true. In fact, while there is some amount of cheating (as there is in live poker rooms), online sites have become very proficient in catching colluders, much more than live poker rooms (since hand histories in online poker are available and last forever). And while you might be surprised, the truth is that there are *far* more online professional poker players than live professional poker players – my guess would be 20x more, but that's probably low.

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    • Steven says:

      “I would also be surprised if many successful professional poker players make their money online. I understand that there are factories of colluding players meaning the odds are stacked against law abiding competitors.”

      You are making assumptions based on hearsay about a subject you know nothing about. 50 000 americans have lost their main source of income due to online poker being shut down. They don’t make money through collusion, they make money because they are the people who take the time to study and improve at the game.

      There will always be people who try and beat the system, but in the long term it proves fruitless.

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      • FrankDrakman says:

        If you think trying to “beat the system” is “fruitless”, perhaps you can explain how Goldman Sachs prop desk is able to go an entire quarter without a single losing day. It’s ridiculous that the US gov’t is expending such an effort to shut down online poker, while allowing legal fleecing up and down Wall Street.

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  4. Psychohistorian says:

    This could be an excellent explanation for why older people are more conservative. Not having children, my reference class tends to be myself or my peers, or some generalized notion of “society.” While I have no real interest in doing drugs or being a prostitute, it bothers me that the government tells me I can’t, particularly since it doing so seems to cause active harm.

    It’d be interesting to test this phenomenon, if extremely difficult.

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  5. Graham says:

    So, in other words, you’re okay with the state being paternalistic, as long as its paternal policies are identical to your own, (regardless of the economic theory). I suppose that’s logically consistent.

    I REALLY hope this post is more of a personal reflection on your own values than a policy prescription. Please tell me you’re not suggesting that the government should enact policies according to your own preferences. After all, I’m far less concerned with my daughter smoking marijuana or trying cocaine than I am with her spending her time gambling online.

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  6. MikeT says:

    to be fair, Mr Levitt said “don’t mind it being illegal” not that he desired for it to be outlawed. There is a difference.

    I like the idea of drug legalization, but I’m not a drug user and my kids don’t seem partial to drug use so I don’t really care enough to “fight” for legalization. I suppose that means I don’t “mind” it being illegal. That doesn’t mean I want it outlawed.

    They’re erecting a toll road near where I live. I’m generally against toll roads when some of the cost is coming from my tax dollars (or is using public lands). However, this toll road doesn’t go anywhere I care to go and I can use other routes to get there if I ever have a need to. So I don’t “mind” that it’s a toll road (although others do, LOUDLY). That doesn’t mean I support the building of a toll road.

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  7. Anye says:

    I wholeheartedly disagree with this train of thought.

    The only things that should be illegal are actions that objectively injure others or deprive them of their rights.

    Anything else should be personal choice.

    I don’t want my daughter to work at a gas station. Should it be illegal?

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    • roseonpolitics says:

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  8. Joshua says:

    You make an interesting argument except for the fact that you are taking one behavior, taking drugs, and pushing it to a negative extreme, cocaine addiction, while for another, playing poker, you are pushing it to a postitive extreme, professional player.

    What if your daughter was an occaisional marijuana smoker or a degenerate gambling addict? Where does your daughter test land there?

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