The Daughter Test is Creepy and Misogynistic

Posted on May 12, 2011


In a recent post on the Freakonomics blog Steven Levitt outlined the basic principle behind why he cannot bring himself to accept legislation against online gambling:

“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.

On the other hand, if my daughter had good reasons to want an abortion, I would want her to be able to have one, so I’m weakly in favor of abortion being legal, even though I put a lot of value on unborn fetuses.”

Okay. Makes sense. Except for the part where that’s totally fucked up. Not the part about online gambling-I agree with him there. But what Levitt has done is to rely on the state to ensure his daughter grows up to be the kind of person he wants, rather than the kind of person she wants. I’m sure that Levitt is a wonderful and loving father. He probably recognizes that his daughter has her very own personality and volition, but it’s creepy that he can so casually gloss over that fact in his professional writing. This, in addition to Levitt’s ethical illiteracy on health care, is an excellent example of why economists tend to make crappy ethicists.

The daughter test is not unique to Freakonomics, however. It also appears in tabloid journalism. Before being recently given a Fox News show, Brian Lilley used the same reasoning to show why sex work is ‘just wrong‘.

“It may not be enlightened to put things so bluntly but it’s true. No one that I know looks at their children and says: “One day they’ll run their own whorehouse!” Parents hope for better in their children and we should hope for better in our society.”

This post is not about prostitution, and so I must point out that while not being an abolitionist, I realize (mostly thanks to Maija), that there are good reasons to want sex work to remain illegal. The creepy legislative paternalism shared by Lilley and Levitt is, however, not one of them.

The fact that the daughter test has any relevance at all in legal, ethical or political discussions is a reflection of a form of sexism that goes back a long way. Daughters, traditionally, are intended to be controlled. That’s why brides are traditionally handed off to be married by their fathers, and it’s why it’s considered socially acceptable in some circles for the father of a teenage girl to physically threaten her boyfriend, lest they have consensual physical contact. Had I, as a teenage boy, ever sufficiently overcome my teenage awkwardness to have a girlfriend, I would not have had to put up with that kind of controlling bullshit from my parents, because it is understood that once a son reaches a certain age, they are free to make their own choices and mistakes. Young women, on the other hand, have to put up with being cast as an entirely passive subject in weak ethical arguments.

Fatherhood is an experience which remains foreign to me, and so I must grant that there are emotional aspects of it that I do not understand. The feeling of obligation to ensure that one’s children have the best possible future is, by all accounts, completely overwhelming. But once they reach independence, children should be able to plan a future for themselves. Parents can and should shape their childrens’ lives in childhood though good parenting and in adulthood through good parental advice, but it’s weird and creepy to expect the state to get involved. The purpose of the law is not to act as an extension of parental authority over daughters who are too old to be grounded.