As an economist, Steven Levitt says he has an underdeveloped moral compass. In the past, the University of Chicago professor and Freakonomics co-author has tricked colleagues into drinking cheap wine and opined that drug dealers in Sao Paulo would do a better job keeping communities safe.
But his moral compass went spinning when the U.S. recently cracked down on the top three online poker companies, resulting in 11 indictments. The federal government accused PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker of running their operations illegally, including paying banks to secretly process transactions.
“I think it makes no sense at all,” Levitt says. “Most things that are made illegal, everyone agrees on: homicide, theft–there’s a general agreement. And then there are these other activities that fall into a gray area. I think poker is so obviously on one side of the gray area relative to legality that it just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
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.
But what if she wants to become the next Annie Duke?
“How would I feel if my daughter wanted to grow up to be a professional poker player? I think, ‘Well, that wouldn’t be so bad.’ I mean, I would rather have her be a great economist or a professional golfer, but if she had to be something, a professional poker player wouldn’t be a bad thing for her turn out to be. And in the realm I think, why in the world should we make any activity illegal if a father says, I’d actually be happy?”
On Marketplace, hear Levitt and Tess Vigeland talk about how the government should approach regulating online poker.
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