The Blog

Freak Out!

Freakonomics, a new book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen Dubner, is as interesting as it is controversial.

12:00 AM, May 4, 2005 • By DEAN BARNETT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Happily, these prophecies of doom proved wildly off base. To paraphrase an old saying, failure is an orphan but success begets a thousand politicians vying for the credit. In this case, there were several seemingly plausible explanations for the non-explosion (and indeed reduction) of crime. Some experts said Rudolph Giuliani's and William Bratton's innovative way of implementing Jams Q. Wilson's "broken window" theory of sociology saved the day. Others pointed to tougher gun laws. Still others suggested more policemen or more widespread use of capital punishment deserved the credit.

While it was wonderful to believe that the aggressive removal of squeegee men or some other easily implemented--and therefore easily repeated--policy decision saved our society from the super-predators, perhaps the actual explanation for society's success in this struggle is more disquieting. Levitt convincingly argues that the fortuitous drop in crime of the late 1990s was due to 1973's Roe v. Wade decision.

Here is Levitt's theory boiled down to its essence: "Decades of study have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women most likely to have an abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade--poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions had been too expensive or too hard to get--were often models of adversity . . . Just as these unborn children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet." Levitt goes on to support this assertion with an almost unassailable statistical analysis (although given the discomfiting nature of his argument, it is likely to be vigorously assailed nonetheless).

Talk about courageous; it's hard to imagine who on the political spectrum is going to be comfortable with this theory.

But Levitt is careful to stress that he is just describing the world as it is, and not making normative prescriptions. As he says near the book's conclusion, "Freakonomics-style thinking doesn't traffic in morality . . . [I]f morality represents an ideal world, then economics represents the actual world."

In Freakonomics, Levitt has described aspects of that "actual world" with stunning originality and breathtaking audacity. How our society responds to these realities is of course an open question, but Levitt and Dubner have done their job. They have written one of the decade's most intelligent and provocative books.

Dean Barnett writes about politics and other matters at soxblog.com under his on-line pseudonym James Frederick Dwight.