Commentary Magazine


Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Morrow. 242 pp. $25.95

During my many years of lecturing on crime, invariably the first two questions I would be asked were: “What do you think of the death penalty?” and “What do you think of gun control?”

No more. Now the first question is whether I believe that legalized abortion has cut the crime rate. For this I can thank Freakonomics, the weirdly named book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner that has been high on the New York Times best-seller list for weeks now. My answer, by the way, is no: I do not believe the evidence shows a causal link between legalized abortion and our reduced crime rate.

Levitt, an acquaintance of mine, is an immensely talented economist whose restless mind has inquired into all sorts of fascinating topics. The book, written with the journalist Stephen J. Dubner (who in 2003 published an admiring article about Levitt in the New York Times Magazine), is a popular account of the many studies Levitt has done on subjects as diverse as real-estate agents, schoolteachers, sumo wrestlers, drug dealers, parenting, and the names given to black and white children. Also on abortion and crime.

The problem with a journalistic book about a serious scholar is that journalism does not tell you much, if anything, about the techniques the scholar has used, the challenges to his data that others have raised, or the scholar’s response to those criticisms. While I am glad this book has exposed Levitt to a broad audience, I hope that anybody who is excited by it will go to his original studies and examine them carefully. Luckily, most of what he has written is quite accessible to the general reader.

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Back to abortion and crime. Levitt’s argument is that, with the legalization of abortion by the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, many fetuses were killed in America that would otherwise have led to the birth of unwanted children. Such unwanted children, receiving little affection and guidance, would have been more likely to commit crimes when grown. Ergo, their removal from the population had something to do with our lowered crime rates.

Why should we think such children would have been unwanted? Because, Levitt contends, they would have been born to thousands of poor, single, teenage mothers. Levitt conspicuously refrains from saying so, but a very large fraction of these poor, single, teenage mothers would have been African American: over 60 percent of all black children are born out of wedlock, and the abortion rate is roughly three times greater among black than among white women.

To prove that abortion reduced crime, Levitt and his coauthor on the original paper, John Donohue, examined crime rates 15 to 18 years after the Roe decision, and found a drop. Moreover, they pointed out that five states had already legalized abortion three to four years before the decision; in these early-legalizing states, crime rates fell sooner than in states that did not permit abortion until Roe.

You would never know it from this book, but not only have these claims been criticized but several scholars have offered rival theories. On the issue of abortion rates alone, the economists John Lott and John Whitley have written that, even before Roe, many anti-abortion states allowed abortion if the life or health of the mother was at risk; in these states, there were at least as many abortions per 1,000 live births pre-Roe as in states that had made abortion legal. Why, then, attribute falling crime rates to legalized abortion?

Levitt and Donohue have rejoined that, in those states where abortions were still nominally illegal, it was well-to-do white women who mainly availed themselves of the loopholes in the system. But there is no evidence of this; to the contrary, black women were over-represented among those having abortions in such states.

Now look at homicide rates by the age of suspected offenders. In the late 1990′s, roughly a quarter-century after Roe, the murder rate was falling for offenders aged twenty-six and older—a class of offenders much too old to have been affected by Roe one way or the other. As for the youngest offenders, those between sixteen and twenty, their murder rate had jumped up in the early 1990′s, probably because of involvement in the crack cocaine trade. Again, no Roe effect.

George Akerlof, Janet Yellen, and Michael Katz have argued that legalized abortion actually increased the number of out-of-wedlock first births—because the availability of abortion, along with the advent of new contraceptive devices, rendered sex “cost-free” for men but not necessarily for the women they impregnated. Were the children who were increasingly likely to be born to unmarried women “unwanted”? Perhaps they were, but we do not know; Akerlof and his colleagues have not given us sufficient evidence.

As of now, no one is entitled to decide who is correct in this matter, whether Levitt or any of his critics. But it is certainly premature to say that Levitt is right, and positively disconcerting to take the word of an enamored journalist that Levitt must be right.

On another controversial matter, however, Levitt is clearly right, and I am his victim. I once wrote that the proportion of juveniles in the population was going up and that therefore the crime rate would go up. Levitt correctly takes me to task for this unwarranted assertion, which was later proved wrong. His criticism reminds me of something my Ph.D. adviser once said, no doubt quoting someone whose name I have forgotten: social scientists should never try to predict the future; they have trouble enough predicting the past.

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The Abortion-Crime connection takes up only a small portion of this book; I have dallied on it because it has drawn so much attention, and because it may be symptomatic of a general disposition on the part of Levitt or his coauthor to avoid being thought politically incorrect. For just as this book’s discussion of abortion ignores race, so its chapter on the gap in educational achievement between blacks and whites soft-pedals some indisputably important facts.

The chapter begins by considering how little influence parents may exert over their child’s personality, given that half of the difference among personalities can be attributed to genes. This is quite correct. But genes also account for well over half (in some studies, as much as three-quarters) of differences in intellectual ability. If we are to explain the black-white gap in educational achievement, we cannot turn away from the fact that on average, African Americans have a lower IQ than white Americans.

There are, of course, many highly talented blacks and many really stupid whites. But these important individual differences are not relevant to explaining the average difference between black and white school achievement. That difference is not the product of racist innuendo; the matter has been measured for decades, often by means of tests that do not require the use of words.

It is true enough that black IQ scores have risen—owing, one suspects, to improvements in the social condition of blacks over the last several generations. But the black-white gap in educational attainment has not narrowed. In Freakonomics, the authors assert that this gap is the result of differences in incomes between blacks and whites. Such differences certainly exist. But income differences are themselves in large measure the result of differences in intelligence, so one cannot explain the gap in IQ-based school scores by “controlling” for income.

The best test of this was done by Sandra Scarr and Richard Weinberg. They looked for changes in the IQ scores of black children who had been adopted by white families, mostly middle-class and well-educated. Over a ten-year period, there was no significant gain in the IQ’s of the adopted black children. (Nor was there any gain in the IQ’s of adopted white children.) The data strongly suggest that parental environment, even in well-to-do families, has only a modest and probably short-lived effect on educational ability.

If you bothered to look up Levitt’s original paper on the black-white test gap, written with Ronald G. Fryer, you would find that the authors are indeed aware of the many other studies that have been done of this issue. But they also think that once one “controls” for socioeconomic status, black and white schoolchildren become “observationally equivalent.” Observationally, perhaps; but not actually. As they themselves note, moreover, the gap between black and white test scores increases as children get older, and this widening gap cannot be explained by socio-economic differences in the quality of the schools the children attend. Experts on genetics have long known that heritability increases with age, and so, as a result, will the average gaps in school achievement between white and black children.

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After wrongly minimizing the role of IQ, Freakonomics returns to the issue of parental influence on educational achievement. Here, Levitt and Dubner make some excellent points. Whether a mother works, whether the neighborhood is depressing, whether the child watches a lot of television, whether he or she attends a Head Start program—all of these factors have next to no educational effect. The fact is that parental behavior has a limited impact—which means that many of the villains allegedly responsible for our children’s low school achievement are not villains at all.

There is much else to praise in this book as well, and much to learn from Levitt’s observations. Did you know, for example, that real-estate brokers get more money for their own homes than they do for others’? That sumo wrestlers and some Chicago schoolteachers cheat? That swimming pools are more dangerous than guns? That drug dealers live at home with their moms? That people select names for their children in ways that differ tellingly by race and social class?

In general, the great strength of Levitt’s work is that he asks interesting questions and searches hard for facts that can help answer them. Since he is an economist, he is not telling people how they ought to behave, only trying to explain how they do behave. And unlike some economists, he does not believe that human behavior can be understood simply on the basis of how much money people earn. In 1976, on the bicentennial of American independence, I recall talking to a friend who later won the Nobel Prize in economics. He refused to accept that the Revolutionary war had cost Americans heavily in higher taxes and a depreciated currency. If we looked hard enough, he assured me, we would discover that we Americans started the Revolution in order to become economically better off.

Levitt does not make mistakes like that, which is one reason I urge people to read this book, even though much that is crucial has been left out or ignored. My advice is this: if you find something that intrigues you in Freakonomics, do not rely on the book to give you a full explanation of it. Instead, look up in a college library or on the Internet the articles Levitt has written, and study them. I wish he had assembled these articles and published them as a book. He would have made much less money, but his ideas would have been much clearer and, even in their scholarly form, easier to deal with.

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About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.




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