Or “How people on opposite sides of an issue can all be simultaneously wrong.”
Part 1: The First Part
Stephen Levitt of Freakonomics fame wrote:
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.
You’re freaking out, you’re upset, I get it. We’ll get to that in a second. Just hit the morphine button and buckle in. In response, To Levitt’s post, Kevin Drum of hey-everyone-remember-me-I’m-that-guy-Kevin-Drum fame wrote:
There are lots of activities we AP-class types find acceptable — drug use, gambling, etc. — because we sort of assume that everyone has the same level of impulse control that we do. And if you have good impulse control, then drugs and gambling are just pleasant ways of filling in your free time. And even if you don’t have good impulse control, you probably have a decent support network to help you if things turn pear shaped. These things may have their problems, but they’re manageable problems.
But if you’re not part of the AP-class cohort, there’s a pretty good chance that your impulse control isn’t quite as good as all that, and an excellent chance that even if it is, you’re keenly aware that good impulse control isn’t exactly universal…You’d just as soon your daughter didn’t get involved with that stuff because you’ve seen too often the effect it has on people with moderate education, moderate to poor impulse control, moderate to low incomes, and non-great support networks.
I’m forced to use the ‘blockquote’ tag because there is no ‘blockhead’ tag. But here’s where it gets really fun. Feminist website Feministing (Get it? It’s like fisting only with- We got it.) responds with some sensible comments (“daughter test” vs. “son test”) but then ads this wee gem:
He thinks he knows better, is better than other people, and that policies should be imposed to protect them from themselves. He’d like to see government as the benevolent father teaching its kids right and wrong (yeah you can see how religious ideology falls into political views so easily here). I’d like to see government provide for the welfare of its people – you know, make sure we don’t go hungry or homeless…Look, I get it. I have super overprotective feelings about my baby sister (who is 22 so even the “baby sister” thing is problematic). But I know that doesn’t mean she needs to be protected by me just cause I feel that way.
Part 2: The Low-Hanging Fruit.
Watch how fast I can go:
Lazy Critique of Levitt: Your personal preferences cannot be used to dictate national law or policy. The fact that you are comfortable sharing what you consider to be your “reasonable” preferences and the fact that you may share preferences with enough other people to support passage of a law for or against gambling, prostitution, drugs (i.e. “vices”) suggest that what you are really doing is imposing a tyranny of the plurality, if not an outright tyranny of the majority. Why is the daughter test more restrictive than a son test? Would it be okay for your son to solicit prostitutes? Is that not as bad? Would it be okay for your son to be a prostitute? What about pornography? Cocaine is out, what about Prozac, Ritalin, Valium, Ambien, etc.? What’s in your medicine cabinet, Steven? Levitt’s attitude over father-knows-best because he is father is what Feministing correctly identified as paternalistic.
Lazy Critique of Drum: Not all AP-class types (nice high school reference-“sophomoric” thinking anyone?) see drugs and gambling as acceptable, (tyranny of plurality here again). Impulse control has nothing to do with the stated policy behind drug prohibitions, and absolutely nothing at all to do with laws re trafficking. And why are you equating “daughter” with moderate income, low education, and poor impulse control? Rich people don’t have impulse control problems, say like addictions to prescription drugs like percocet, valium, oxy, alcohol, etc.? Drum’s attitude is best summarized as patrician.
Lazy Critique of Feministing: You criticize Levitt for his paternalistic view of government as “benevolent father”, but one sentence later you take exactly the same view except of a benevolent maternal government; a super mommy that will “make sure we don’t go hungry or homeless”. And as for your overprotectiveness, you’re right that doesn’t mean she needs to be protected by you. It means she needs to be protected from you. The Feministing view is best described as oppositional.
Part 3: The Brutal Truth
The best criticism of Levitt’s “daughter rule” is this: Your opinion on the subject is irrelevant.. Because it is. He’s supposed to be an economist, right? If he has a policy idea, he should put it in a paper and submit to a peer-reviewed journal.
Oh, but see, he isn’t really an economist, not anymore. Now he’s an “economics expert.” The expert is that media creation that is supposed to deliver to the audience what the truth is from the perspective of a particular field. But in practice the expert functions to deprive the audience of the opportunity to disagree with the opinion the media outlet is presenting as fact. The expert says this is what the economic truth is. Who are you to disagree with economics?
So what’s the economic underpinning of Levitt’s position? Oh, right, there isn’t any. Read his entire post. It starts out with a complaint about the ban on online poker because it’s something he likes to do, and then he extrapolates to all vices. It isn’t that he doesn’t want his daughter to be a prostitute, it’s that he says he’d “love it if my daughter became a poker champion.” (Would you love if she went bankrupt doing it?) He even repudiates what he considers to be the conclusion dictated by economics (legalization), and offers his position on morality instead.
Which is the other problem with experts. Once someone is designated by the media as an expert in one area, the automatically become an expert everywhere. Levitt is an economics expert, so that qualifies his to hold court on morality. (This post was on the “official” Freakanomics blog, not some personal site he has on the side.) Likewise, Richard Dawkins is a biologist, but the media made him a “science expert” and from there it was a quick hop to getting to hold forth about the non-existence of God on television.
The question you should be asking throughout all of this is if experts are a creation of television media, why do we still have them on the internet? You can email any Ph.D. economics prof in the country a question about policy–hell, you can even email them all at once–and you’ll probably get a sober answer. But it won’t feel right to you, because it isn’t coming from an expert. A TV expert.
There is a dangerous trend at work here: the status conferred on the TV expert is working its way over to the internet, which was supposed to be decentralized, crowd-sourced, diverse, etc. Arianna Huffington created an internet empire by anointing bloggers with her TV expert status. And people flocked to it.
The reasons this is happening is that the ability to judge that was suppressed by TV through experts has atrophied from decades of disuse. Now that we have the opportunity to voice strong, thoughtful, insightful judgments on our own to the broader public, we can’t. We don’t know how to perform a rigorous and critical analysis without involving our visceral emotions, and we don’t know how to hold others to that standard when they present their conclusions to us. We’ve lost the ability to judge, to discern, to evaluate. So we turn to proxies to do it for us, and the obvious ones to turn to are the ones that are there when we turn on the TV.