David Henderson goes after Steven Levitt’s full throated endorsement of the nanny-state. Levitt’s remarks:

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.

Now, I am guessing that Levitt is not willing to take this to its fully totalitarian conclusion. If he wouldn’t want his daughter to become a Seventh Day Adventist, would he not mind the government passing a law forbidding people to join them?

Which highlights why these preceding remarks are so striking

I’ve never really understood why I personally come down on one side or the other with respect to a particular gray-area activity.  Not that my opinion matters at all, but despite strong economic arguments in favor of drug legalization, the idea has always made me a little queasy.

Conversely, although logic tells me that abortion as practiced in the U.S. doesn’t seem like such a great idea (see the end of the abortion chapter in Freakonomics for our arguments on this one), something in my heart makes me sympathetic to legalized abortion.

Putting those two together Levitt is basically saying: I’ve never really thought about why I support the policy regime that I do.

With all due respect, if vulgar paternalism as a normative framework is something of a revelation to Levitt its just not believable that he has ever engaged this question.

Yet, Steven Levitt is a celebrated social scientist at a legendary institution.

I am not even quite sure what to make of that.

On the one hand, perhaps its a good thing that someone is so engaged in positive social science that he or she has not even bothered to think about the ethical framework in which policy is embedded. I could imagine that this leads to less bias in his research.

On the other hand, its so foreign to my understanding of why we become social scientists that I can hardly wrap my mind around it.

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