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.


dpl

Although I appreciate your honesty, personal taste is a bit of a flimsy argument for/against the legality of something. If we were establishing law on the basis of what fathers wanted for their daughters it would probably be illegal to marry a poor (and/or black) man.

Nick Malone

So you can't imagine your daughter becoming a successful retailer of legal drugs, rather than an addict? Or a gambling addict who can't cover her expenses, rather than a professional card hustler?

Mmmmm, that's good confirmation bias!

roseonpolitics

They did not totally outlaw online gambling, you can still login and play with fake money. Yes, I know, not as much fun.
The Feds shut it down because the companies were laundering the money people were supposed to be able to play with. So while I'm not old enough to have a daughter and have her grow up to to be a professional poker player (which I agree would be cool), I don't think I would want to have to worry about her losing all her winnings.

Miguel

In other words, you have no solid argument, relying just on your own biases.

Would you feel okay if your daughter was driven to bankruptcy while playing online poker? Then maybe you should want it to be banned. (Mind you, I don't think this argument is cogent, and I favor legalization.)

By your argument, if you were against your children drinking coffee, Starbucks should be outlawed. Frankly, your line of reasoning is quite lame: I'm astonished by the fact that you thought it good enough to make a post out of it. The only way I see it as Freakonomics material would be if you wrote a post describing it, and then tearing it down and rejecting it for being irrational.

Tito

Really? That is your guide as to what should be legal?

There a ton of things that I won't let my daughters do, that should continue to remain legal. For starters: eating nothing but ice cream and watching 5 hours of TV a day. I'm not ok with either of them becoming an alcoholic, but I think alcohol should be legal.

What about all the parents that would be horrified if their daughter (or son) started playing poker? Irresponsible gambling can ruin lives, just like irresponsible drinking/drug use, irresponsible video game playing or irresponsible sex.

If you want to enjoy your particular vice (gambling), then it is important to accept (and fight for) other people's vices, even ones you don't choose yourself.

Government is not and should not be "a parent".

Tony Arko

I like the thought process. I have a daughter and that is a good way of looking at it except when you think about alcohol. Would you mind if your daughter was an alcoholic? Just because she would have access to cocaine or marijuana doesn't mean she would be an addict.

Mitch

Do stripping and tattoos pass the daughter test? If not, do you feel they should be outlawed?

Eric Sun

To the comments - He wasn't trying to use the "daughter test" as an argument of why the poker crackdown should not have happened. It simply was a explanation for why he would unknowingly fall on a certain side of an issue (despite the logical/rational arguments that he knew supported the other side).

As a professional poker player, it pleases me that you could accept if your daughter chose that career path! Many other parents, due to preconceptions and the bad connotation of risk (especially when it comes to gambling) feel differently than you. I can infer that you recognize poker as a game of skill and not simply roulette or another game of pure chance. Which it most certainly is - please contact me if you want to discuss this deeper!

No need to ask my stance on the poker crackdown (currently have a fair share of money in limbo), but hopefully this can lead to positive future changes. Entertaining article, bookmarked!

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Twist

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?

Steve Brecher

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.

Adrian

" 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."

Seems to me that you need to spend some time with the families of drug addicts or the victims of their crimes. Alternatively the families/victims of gambling addicts. 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.

Psychohistorian

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.

Graham

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.

MikeT

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.

Anye

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?

Joshua

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?

Gary

Interesting criteria. Although your daughter (or my son for that matter) might make a father proud to become a successful gambler, quite the opposite if they ruin their fortunes by trying. This is different that say, a kid who wants to be a golf-pro. That doesn't usually mean a lifetime of financial ruin.

I agree that emotions should play a crucial role in decision making. That's what makes us human and to leave out that factor results in idiotic, zero-tolerance policies.

Alexander Kidd

The daughter test, more or less is an ethical assumptions and theories. So from your perspective, failing the daughter test represent relativism, in which having your daughter as a successful poker player = increase of net wealth (in cases where daughters are filial), you're for it. And if your daughter wants to be a prostitute, then you're against legalizing it. If you're theological about all these issues, then you're going to caught in an ethical dilemma where your standpoint varies with your self interest.

Arguing against the government using a relativist standpoint is perhaps ineffective and ineffectual; the government is trying to appeal to its absolutist view, condemning poker is an issue of morality after all. All I see is that politicians need a platform to appeal to the public's interest, and this is a mere means to an end.

If the US government considers its citizen mature enough to own a gun, how is poker more pressing and dangerous if the said mature people enjoys it?

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Clancy

Don't be to harsh on Levitt. Don't you realize how hard it is for a Chicago School Economist to admit that anyone make decisions for any reason other than rational maximization?
He's not suggesting that we should make decisions this way, he's just discovered a pattern for predicting irrational bias (or at least a useful heuristic).
I do find it somewhat telling that the worst outcome of legaized gambling is his daughter becoming a successful poker player. Gambling addiction works through the same neurochemical channels as cocaine (dopamine) If you can be a cokehead, you can be a problem gambler.

Tom Maguire

Should the Drug Legalization discussion be broken up into subgroups? Marijuana Legalization seems a vastly different issue than Cocaine, Meth or Heroin Legalization.

In other words, how do you feel about your daughter smoking pot? Or going to jail because of that?

Either way, The Daughter Test is a great way to think about it. Thanks for the insight.