Refuting the Daughter Law

By Mike / On / In Personal

I’m a big fan of Freakonomics, but the latest entry on their blog is just silly. It’s like someone noticed a deadline looming and spat an idea onto the page without giving it a second thought.

The essay is about the U.S. government’s recent crackdown on online poker rooms, which rubs the author the wrong way. This leads him to muse on the nature of his reaction, coming up with a “daughter law” which goes like this: if you wouldn’t want your daughter doing something, the government should probably make it illegal. Conversely, if the government unduly limits your daughter’s choices, that’s bad law.

The essay gives several examples, which boil down to this: you wouldn’t want your daughter to be a prostitute, so that’s out, but you’d want her to have access to a safe, legal abortion, so that’s in. You don’t want your daughter to be a drug addict, so that’s out, but you don’t mind her being a poker champion, so that’s in.

Those decisions really seem bound to the way you phrase the question. I would want my daughter to have a safe way to deal with menstrual pain, so I want pot to be legal. That’s easy. What about hard drugs? I don’t want my daughter to be a drug addict, but if, heaven forbid, she became a drug addict, I would want to know her supply was safe, and that her downward spiral would lead to treatment and not prison. So in that sense, I want all drugs to be legal.

On the other hand, I don’t want to have my daughter spend her study time and tuition money playing online poker. I definitely don’t want her flunking out of school while racking up a huge debt to some overseas crime syndicate, who might force her to pay it off with her body. So, clearly online gambling should be illegal.

If that did happen, though, and your daughter did become a prostitute, wouldn’t you want that to also be safe and legal? On the other hand, you definitely don’t want her to become a traffic fatality, so we should probably talk about banning cars. You also want her to have clean air to breathe, which brings us back to banning cars.

Of course, that’s crazy, because it would impact a lot of people who are not your daughter. That’s why law is not based on what’s right for your daughter so much as what’s right for everyone. We call that idea the categorical imperative, which is what the daughter test is a wrongheaded version of.

I expect a lot of back-pedalling in the promised follow-up.