Abortion vs. Crime?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

I'm blogging this mainly to remind myself to get this book. Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt. It looks interesting and was reviewed today in the Wall Street Journal.

If Indiana Jones were an economist, he'd be Steven Levitt. The most recent winner of the John Bates Clark award for the best economist under the age of 40, Mr. Levitt is famous not as a master of dry technical arcana but as a maverick treasure hunter who relies for success on his wit, pluck and disregard for conventional wisdom. Mr. Levitt's typical quarry is hidden not in some exotic locale but in a pile of data. His genius is to take a seemingly meaningless set of numbers, ferret out the telltale pattern and recognize what it means.

It was Mr. Levitt who nailed a bunch of Chicago public-school teachers for artificially inflating their students' standardized test scores. I'm dying to tell you exactly how he did it, but I don't want to spoil any surprises. His account of the affair in "Freakonomics" reads like a detective novel.
The reviewer, Steven E. Landsburg, gives a few examples of what this numerical sleuth has been able to unearth from piles of data. Perhaps the most interesting is this:
Back in 1999, Mr. Levitt was trying to figure out why crime rates had fallen so dramatically in the previous decade. He was struck by the fact that crime began falling nationwide just 18 years after the Supreme Court effectively legalized abortion. He was struck harder by the fact that in five states crime began falling three years earlier than it did everywhere else. These were exactly the five states that had legalized abortion three years before Roe v. Wade.

Did crime fall because hundreds of thousands of prospective criminals had been aborted? Once again, the pattern by itself is not conclusive, but once again Mr. Levitt piles pattern on pattern until the evidence overwhelms you. The bottom line? Legalized abortion was the single biggest factor in bringing the crime wave of the 1980s to a screeching halt.
I'd be interested to see his method of analysis, although it's not terribly hard to speculate on why this came out of the data.

The narration sounds good and the findings interesting. If there is anything I suspect I will dislike about the book, it might be its author's attempts to discuss ethical issues, as with abortion.
Mr. Levitt repeatedly reminds us that economics is about what is true, not what ought to be true. To this reviewer's considerable delight, he cheerfully violates this principle at the end of the abortion discussion by daring to address the question of whether abortion ought to be legal or, more precisely, whether the effect on crime rates is a sufficient reason to legalize abortion. He doesn't pretend to settle the matter, but in just a few pages he constructs exactly the right framework for thinking about it and then leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions.
In my experience, most economists should stick with talking about "what is true," not that they all do such a hot job of that. Note the context for asking whether abortion should be legalized, though: He "dar[es] to address the question of whether abortion ought to be legal ... [in order to lower] crime rates...." Do I detect the sick, sweet smell of utilitarianism here? I hope that's not the "framework" the reviewer is speakintg of! Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised on that count, but I doubt it.

In any event, the reviewer likens the read to a, "hot fudge sundae." It can't be all bad, but if it is, you can count on me to complain about it vociferously here some time!

-- CAV

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just fininshed "Freakonomics" and I think it has value but as an Objectivist, I found it frustrating. The author is an empiricist as opposed to a rationalist. He seems to like analyzing data to find unconventional explanations but he is adamantly anti-principle. He does't delve deeper to criticize or expose the altruist policies which are the subject of so much of his research.

He is also a modern economist. This is important to remember because modern economics is steeeped in what they call "value-free" economics. They don't believe that morality belongs in economics at all. So the authors of Freakonomics perpetuate the moral/practical dichotomy.

But the value of the book, especially for Objectivists, is that it shows empirically that altruism and collectivism don't work, and to the extent that pro-freedom policies are institued (like abortion), positive consequences result. So it show statistically much of what we already know on principle. Therein lies its value.

You will have to put up with the detectable liberal bias of its authors (one is the former editor of New York Times magazin - so his bias is clear) and the annoying tendency to equate capitalism with crime and theft. But I think you will get overall value from the book. Also, it is a fast read. I finished it in two days.

Keep up the great blogging.