Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The source of our policy views – an honest opinion from Steven Levitt

Freakonomics-author Levitt recently posted on why he strongly opposed the US ban on internet poker, while weakly preferring drug prohibition (despite the good arguments against it) and legalized abortion.

I’ve never really understood why I personally come down on one side or the other with respect to a particular gray-area activity.  […]

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.

Some express disappointment in Levitt for this comment:

What's missing in Levitt? The whole idea of tolerance. It's easy to tolerate people doing what you would do and approve of. It's harder to tolerate what you don't approve of. It's even harder to tolerate activities and behaviors that you find disgusting. Levitt has just confessed that he's intolerant or, at least, that he won't object to a government that's intolerant. That's disappointing. I had expected better of him.

Personally, I find this a misreading of his point. I don`t think he`s saying that he believes this is how it should be – just that this seems to be the way it is. If anything, the fact that he has tried to reflect on the source of his opinions and their possible basis in emotions makes me trust the guy more.

Seems to me that we often have  a strong feeling or “intuition” that something is good or bad, and that the smarter we are the better we`re able to convince ourselves that this is due to logical arguments. There`s a host of good stuff on the psychological mechanisms driving our attitudes towards sources of risk in Dan Gardner`s book “The science of fear.” There`s a host of good stuff on how easily we trick ourselves in Kurzban`s “Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite”. Who hasn`t been in a discussion with intelligent, informed people who dig themselves deeper and deeper into a hole while trying to defend some ridiculous opinion. (And who hasn`t at times been that very same person themselves?)

Note: I`m not making the argument that we can`t learn and modify our views when confronted by evidence. But I am making the claim that this is frequently difficult to do, and that someone able to reflect on their feelings and biases (as Levitt does here) seems more open to changing his views than somebody who ignorantly imagines him- or herself to be a rational, evidence-based and principled logic machine.