White Male Privilege and the Daughter Test

Jun 24, 2011 by

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 no accident that Levitt, who does in fact have a son, uses a daughter test rather than a son or child test. He’s tapping into widespread sexist beliefs that girls and women need to be protected — by men, of course — from the big bad world. The US has a long, ugly history of “protective” government measures based on spurious, bigoted claims that women and other marginalized groups are incapable of self-governing. The recent rash of state laws requiring ultrasounds, waiting periods, anti-choice counseling, and so on before abortions are the products of such paternalistic assumptions (echoed in Levitt’s statement that he supports his daughter’s right to terminate a pregnancy if she has a “good reason” for doing so).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.

Related Posts


Share This


  1. Rick Massimo

    Hey Steven? Ross? How would you feel if your daughters were laid off and couldn't find jobs for nearly two years and turned on the TV and heard some Republican shouting that her unemployment benefits should be cut off because she's obviously not looking for work because she's happy living large off the hardworking taxpayers?

    Their little "thought experiments" never get that far, do they?

  2. You do realize that any one with any brains treat Douthat as a joke, right? Douthat is so puritanical he'd fit right in with Cotton Mather.

  3. CaphillDC

    Would they want their daughters to go to jail for 24.5 years unless the President commuted their sentence, be denied access to federal education benefits, give birth to children in prison all because they were a peripheral figure in a drug ring that their boyfriend was involved in? Yep, I'm pretty sure that Kemba Smith's father, Mr. Gus Smith (a truly great man who liquidated their family home to fight for Kemba's release), would never have written something like this.


    What astonishing jerks those NYT writers are.

  4. W. Kiernan

    Slightly shorter Levitt/Douthat: If I wouldn't want to do it, then I don't mind the government passing a law against it.

  5. acoolerclimate

    They do have one "Son" test I can think of. They wouldn't want their son to be gay, so it's no problem to them if it's a crime to be gay.

  6. FThumb

    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.

    So assuming he wouldn't want his daughter to be an alcoholic, does this mean he would support prohibition? Ha. As if.

  7. I want my daughter to be able to live her life on equal footing with men. So we'll have to outlaw folks like Levitt et al.

  8. dr. bloor

    So what happens if I don't want my daughter to ever write a book as insipid as Freakonomics?

  9. Rob

    So, if your daughter does start fooling around with cocaine and she gets caught by the cops, do you want her thrown in prison? Of course not, you just want other people's daughters thrown in prison on the off chance it might stop your daughter doing something you don't want her to do.

  10. I wouldn't want my daughter to become a Yankee fan.

  11. jawbone

    I wouldn't want my daughter to be a conservative Republican.

    Can we outlaw that political party?

  12. Catbus

    Yeah, yeah, it's fun to pile on, but another way to interpret his "daughter test" is that, by employing it, he forces himself to think of the people affected by the law as "somebodies" rather than as anonymous "nobodies." If you can think of every person as someone as important and worthy of respect as your own flesh and blood, you'll make much more humane decisions, won't you?

  13. Kathleen

    Always nice to see another spot-on evisceration of the silly Levitt. Thanks, Grace.

    Catbus — the problem is that (1) Levitt needs to 'force himself' and (2) even so, he picks a figure cast as a helpless underling. Why is it so impossible for him just to think of his fellow adult citizens empathetically?

  14. So, are we going to outlaw XY chromosome pairs, because we don't want our daughters to have them? (If I had a daughter with XY chromosomes, I'd call him my son.)

  15. CKat

    My daughter's an adult. She can do what she will, whether I like it or not. Do these guys really think their daughters will remain little girls all their lives?

  16. ManOutOfTime

    As a father of five girls aged 14, 13, 4, 3, and 2, I can tell you I completely and unequivocally disagree with the idea that abortion ranks anywhere near narcotics or prostitution as a social ill to regulate to the point of making it illegal. I do not favor anyone's daughter (or son) being a prostitute, but at the same time I might expect it would be possible to regulate it and make it a safe, even moderating, element of society. Same with marijuana and I imagine other chemical mood enhancers. Our society is awash in heterosexual pornography and alcohol. There are people who would like to ban those, too. They're called the Taliban.

    I want abortion – and all forms of contraception and family planning services – to be safe and legal without restrictions except as would be the case with any medical procedure. Sex is about enjoyment and connection and personal satisfaction. I am in no hurry for my daughters to become promiscuous adults, but I don't see why they shouldn't have every bit as much sexual freedom as the horny little boys trying to get into their pants.

    In the end, this is about control over our own bodies, control over whom we love and how. The anti-choice crowd is anti-woman. If they were to ban all abortion, they would be coming after contraception next. After that, it's burkhas and walking ten feet behind the men. Anyone who does not see that is either in denial or not paying attention.

    As far as I am concerned, abortion should be a frigging sacrament!

  17. Horus

    Cotton Mather was a fine leader and an influential thinker. Why insult him by comparing a nitwit like Douthat with Rev. Mather? Furthermore, Douthat is not a Puritan at all. He is a hypocritical busybody like most "conservatives" are. Puritans, for all their bad PR in the modern age, were a pretty decent lot. It's true they were against "fornication" but they were hardly opposed to sex. They had enormous families averaging 8-10 children.