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Friday, June 03, 2011  

Passing the 'Daughter Test'

It's always fun to watch modern economists try to account for the kinds of moral judgments that some of them, like normal people, have about this or that economic activity, so when I saw that Steve Leavitt acknowledges a 'daughter test' for vice legislation, I wanted to check it out:

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.

This via Douthat, who concurs in part:

The fact that I would want to be able to involve the police if my daughter became a streetwalker, but not if she became a Hari Krishna, tells me something important about what kind of legal regime I should support. (There’s a touch of Kantianism in it: One’s (legal) preferences for one’s daughter should become a universal law …)

In principle I tend to agree with Douthat here, insofar as we're talking about the intangible impulses that shape our common life.* But his particular phrasing reveals a problem with the dilemma. Douthat, of course, is assuming that his hypothetically streetwalking daughter will be rescued from her bad decisions or life circumstances by the involvement of the police. As Leavitt's own research has suggested, however, streetwalkers (as distinct from people involved in other aspects of the sex trade) are likelier to be raped by police--that is, to have sex extorted in exchange for lenience--than to be arrested by them. And as is well established by now, street-level prostitution is not driven by individual choices so much as by factors, most prominently addiction and abuse, that are quite distinct from the morality of selling sex for money. Surely Douthat would not want his daughter to suffer the kinds of pointless abuses and indignities that attend upon criminalized streetwalking. When one is accustomed to being handled with some care and deference by the institutions of law and justice, one can well imagine a criminalized vice regime coming to the rescue of one's own kith and kin. Take away that assumption and the thought experiment changes dramatically.

This, I think, is the context in which we should view the report of a blue-ribbon panel of world leaders on the failure of the drug war and the moral and practical necessity of decriminalizing the non-violent trade and consumption of drugs. I certainly don't want my children to be heroin addicts and to that end I really don't want them to dabble in that drug or any other hard substances. But if my own moral guidance and support and the social capital I hope to provide for them does not prevent it, I most definitely don't want them to be shunted into overcrowded, abuse-ridden prisons for the sake of saving them. I would want them to get treatment. America has involved itself not only in an endless, hopeless 'war' against something that no force in the world can stamp out, it has completely confused the social costs of a vice with the practice of it. No one wants to have open-air drug markets on their block (believe me, I've had them). No one wants burglaries and communities rife with junkies; no one wants murders and street shootings over drug-selling turf. But America's drug policy has tended to avoid the narrow focus on these externality costs of the drug trade in order to pursue people who sell and use behind closed doors without the mediating role of gun violence. The Supreme Court just made it much easier to do this kind of pointless knock-and-crash search in pursuit of vice that is as privately practiced as any vice can be.

Considering the 'daughter test' in this light, I'd encourage a very Quixotic Ross Douthat and Steve Leavitt to attack the culture that allows and promotes prostitution. A slightly less romantic approach would be to go after the johns, and a still more realistic approach would be to go after pimps (who, like the streetwalkers themselves, are without much standing in our society but who play a critical role in the trade). It's hard to see what good purpose is served by locking women up, when they actually do get locked up, unless the whole point is to punish and stigmatize them. That's not something I would want for my daughter, and I'm sure it's not something Douthat or Leavitt want for theirs.

[Gambling, which Leavitt also discusses, is an interesting case study. The arguments against its widespread, commercial legalization are strong--if mostly moot at this point--but the arguments in favor of busting down doors to break up private dice games or to keep people from betting in a bar over the outcome of a sporting match are not even bothered with. To take an even more extreme example, it's striking that some right-wing talker thinks that the way to shut down the pornography industry--which a lot of people don't like--is to 'pass [and] enforce laws against fornication,' which everybody does.]

* And I'd argue that the 'daughter test' should apply to much more than vice legislation. Would Ross Douthat want his daughter to go without health insurance because she lacked a job or had a pre-existing condition, as his favored politicians are currently (and always) arguing she should? My daughter (fictive though our kinship may be) is actually under threat of this sort of thing if Paul Ryan's Medicaid proposals are ever made law. If our daughters' nether regions are a fit object of moral legislation, than surely their wheezing lungs and their nutrition and their working conditions and their housing are as well. Asking 'what if a member of my family were to suffer it' is the first step toward a broad ethic of social solidarity, which I don't think Douthat would discount but which he doesn't take any trouble to square with his political positions.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:47 PM
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