Meet the newest MOMocrat, Grace.
Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame recently wrote that he bases his decisions on whether to support government prohibitions on what he calls the "daughter test":
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 these 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 to be legal, even though I put a lot of value on unborn fetuses.
That this is utterly ridiculous ought to be so obvious as to need no elaborating. Do we want legislators making laws based on what they would personally want for us as parents, or based on respect for people as human beings with equal rights and autonomy? This shouldn't be a difficult question to answer. Yet a bunch more white dudes similarly privileged as Levitt have since weighed in to debate whether or not his test is reasonable.
It's also no coincidence that the examples Levitt offers of behaviors he supports criminalizing -- sex work and drug use -- fall along gendered and racialized lines. There's a privileged assumption of entitlement to government policing of women's bodies and communities of color, and an equally casual disregard for (or ignorance of) the real, devastating effects of such policing on women and people of color. America's endless "War on Drugs" has produced, for example, a racist culture of mass incarceration rivaling Jim Crow in its targeting of urban minority communities and disenfranchisement of people of color, especially black men. Levitt effectively claims that this is all worth it so long as his daughter is deterred from using hard drugs.
Ross Douthat, unsurprisingly, concurs with this breathtaking assertion of white male privilege as a proper basis for legal philosophy:
The idea behind the daughter tests, as I see it, is to clarify which vices seem so profoundly self-destructively [sic] that they merit sanction in law as well as culture...and which are merely regrettable life choices that even the most meddlesome parents must accept as part of the warp and woof of a free society....thinking 'what if I my [sic] daughter did this/were in this position?' is a way to take an argument from the abstract to the viscerally real, and to bring moral and legal gray areas into a sharper focus...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 Hare Krishna, tells me something important about what kind of legal regime I should support.
One wonders what, exactly, Douthat imagines "involving the police" entails. Are we to believe that he and Levitt would honestly want their daughters to go to jail if they were sex workers? More likely, they can so glibly discuss the prospect of their children being caught up in the criminal justice system because they have no reason to imagine such a thing could ever happen. They and their children are far less likely than minorities or the poor to face serious legal consequences for any criminalized activities they might participate in.
In short, these are incredibly privileged white, upper class men, sitting around engaging in fanciful thought experiments about how laws should apply to people who are not them. They have the luxury of pretending that laws are neutral, effective, and universal deterrents against crime, rather than part of a criminal justice system that perpetuates inequitable distribution of power and resources - measures levied disproportionately again women, against the poor and the brown.
On top of all that, they're championing a "test" that prioritizes privileged voices and individualistic perspectives on the law - what I would want for my daughter - over a metric that takes into account the diverse experiences and perspectives of all Americans. Implicit in this commentary is the unquestioned assumption that "streetwalkers" (really, Ross Douthat?) should have no say in what the nation's laws should be, even though they and other marginalized groups are the ones for whom criminal laws have the most serious ramifications. Heaven forbid that people who aren't straight, financially secure white men be seen as full citizens with an equal right to civic involvement and representation.
It shouldn't have to be said that the law is not meant to be an extension of parental authority, real or imagined. A legal philosophy based on imagining oneself as the parent of fellow citizens is textbook paternalism, and especially egregious coming from men who are highly unlikely to suffer the serious negative consequences of enforcing paternalistic laws. Rather than a "daughter test," why not an empathy test - imagining how a legal regime might materially impact other people or communities? Or better yet, a test based on respecting the rights of others to autonomy and equal citizenship, one that allows other people and communities an equal voice and platform to speak to their own experiences with and perspectives on the law?
Levitt and Douthat's self-centered and entitled "daughter test" is sadly representative of the paternalism and lack of equal representation that characterizes American political leadership in general. This is precisely why we need more female politicians, more politicians of color, and more politicians who aren't millionaires many times over.
Grace is a writer, academic, and black queer feminist. She blogs about recovering from growing up in white fundamentalist Christian churches, and race, gender, and sexuality issues in fundamentalist Christianity at Are Women Human? and can be found on Twitter as @graceishuman.