If I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it, then I don’t mind passing a law against it!

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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.

Related posts:

  1. 8 Reasons To Hate Rich People
  2. Newstweek: if only they understood philosophy they way the understood technology

17 Responses to If I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it, then I don’t mind passing a law against it!

  1. BluegrassJack says:

    I also hold forth about the non-existence of God on television. At least the channels I can get.

  2. thefatalex says:

    Perhaps I am reading you wrong, but do you oppose all paternalism/maternalism by the government?

    If so, are you coming from libertarian or anarchist position? Or if you would have government, how would you justify its action?

    It isn’t a tragedy that these experts overstep the boundaries of their knowledge. The general public isn’t really interested in questioning the foundations of public discourse. If the cables were cut, and TVs flickered off across the nation, town halls wouldn’t debate first principles. Rather, society would resonate with the same emotional reactions that call for a dictatorship of the majority.

    Authority, along with hierarchy and power are inescapable. What came before these TV experts? The discourse must have a source, either in government or with the people generally. When has reason held sway?

    • sunshinefiasco says:

      Fair enough, but before, more sentences began with these phrases/were treated with these ideas in mind: I don’t know much, but I think ….
      These city boy experts say X, but we know…..
      Or more generally: I think X

      As opposed to, An expert says blah, which for the average equals SCIENCE says blah, which for many people means TRUTH (that I agree with based on emotion or a gut-check) is blah.

    • Jerboa says:

      In his “Advice to a Young Scientist”, Peter Medawar advises that a scientist should learn to get into the practice of saying, “Just because I’m a scientist, doesn’t mean I’m anything of an expert on [X]”. Unfortunately, his book was written in the early 1980s. I’m not sure that advice would fly with people today; it would certainly ruin the public career of many frequently-cited experts.

      In answer to your question of what came before, what came before was the enlightenment. In that time, if you were born into material resources it was possible to learn almost everything that was potentially knowable. In addition to political philosophy, Thomas Jefferson managed to design a new plow, and was the architect for his own house. Benjamin Franklin did original research on electricity, in addition to being a self-help writer. Back then it was possible for someone to have an informed opinion on every subject.

      Fortunately, those times are over. There’s enough knowledge in today’s world that it would take anyone tens of thousands of years to learn what is known now. That’s to our credit as a civilization. What isn’t to our credit is that we’ve decided to treat modern experts just like like the old-school ones.

  3. TheDevastator says:

    Anyone consider the possibility that Levitt was kidding? The whole Freakonomics thing is about finding hidden motivations. So Levitt is cleverly, or something, making a point about how people “really” form political opinions. The Daughter Test has exactly the same style as a lot of the findings in the Freakonomics book. It’s simple and surprising at the same time, and it explains an ostensibly important and impersonal subject in terms that are less dignified and more personal than usual. No way to be totally sure of course.

    The one hint in favor of this hypothesis is the way the “Daughter Test” is explicitly described. A person whose decision-making actually conformed to the Daughter Test would be the last person to actually realize that and say it out loud, right?

  4. Psychohistorian says:

    All this discussion misses Levitt’s point. He is not endorsing this as a moral framework. He is saying that it is how he thinks he functions. His blog post rather clearly fails to endorse it; it’s purely descriptive of his feelings. Since there are probably a lot of people who operate off of a very similar heuristic, it’s an insightful observation. If he were claiming that this is how we *should* decide policy, he’d be an idiot. But he’s not. He can presumably understand and evaluate arguments for drug legalization, even if the ultimate outcome goes against his gut instinct.

    • mwigdahl says:

      This is exactly how I read it. I’ve read a lot of Levitt in the past, and this interpretation seems pretty consistent with how he writes.

      It’s a little overaggressive, I think, to take a person who says “I’m weakly in favor of abortion being legal, even though I put a lot of value on unborn fetuses,” and then impute a simplistic moral ideology to the results of his introspection.

    • xiphoidmaneuver says:

      I read this the same way.

    • AndradaeSilva says:

      Well, I’ve read it the same way. But clearly a lot of people don’t read it like that, as you can see in the comment in his blog…

      Anyway, the rise of the “internet experts” still a interesting point.

  5. stavrosV says:

    …if you turn on a TV…

    I appreciate your intellect and insight and yet your typos diminish my confidence in your story.

    Keep up the good work. Editing is your friend.

  6. mwigdahl says:

    There is a dangerous trend at work here: the status conferred on the TV expert is working it’s way over to the internet, which was supposed to be decentralized, crowd-sourced, diverse, etc.

    “Supposed to be?” According to which authority?

  7. operator says:

    What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust – of course you can’t, it’s just people talking – but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV – a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make.

    Douglas Adams

  8. BHE says:

    “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.”

    This is singlehandedly everything that’s wrong with society.