Book review: Freakonomics


It may be asked why an economic treatise is discussed here. The answer of course is that economics like is an art and science that falls in the social sphere and, indeed the tools economics provide can be used to answer some military questions. Levitt and Dubner, however, don’t dabble with matters military. But they do ask some interesting questions which, when considered by thinking soldiers, help exercise the mind.

For example, do higher police force levels help in the fight against crime? Does more refined tactics? Does increased incarceration? Does the death penalty? Then, Dubner asks, if drug dealing is so profitable, why do most US dealers live with their grandmothers? And the questions continue: Do Sumo wrestlers cheat? Whose interests does an estate agent serve? Etcetera.

But to return to the crime rate. In 1995 US criminologist James Alan Fox wrote a report that detailed a massive increase in crime in that country. Other criminologists, political scientists and similarly learned forecasters then climbed on the bandwagon and laid out a similarly gloomy future. “And then, instead of going up and up and up, crime began to fall,” Levitt and Dubner noted. “The crime drop was startling in several respects. It was ubiquitous, with every category of crime falling in every part of the country. It was persistent … and it was entirely unanticipated – especially by the … experts.”
“Even though the experts had failed to anticipate the crime drop – which was in fact well underway even as they made their horrifying predictions – they now hurried to explain it. Most of their theories sounded perfectly logical. … There was only one problem: they weren`t true.” Says the authors: “These theories made their way, seemingly without friction, from the experts` mouths to journalists` ears to the public`s mind. In short course, they became conventional wisdom,” a term coined by economics sage John Kenneth Galbraith.”

Conventional wisdom is pernicious and Galbraith wrote that “we associate truth with convenience… with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal wellbeing or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocations of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem.” So, conventional wisdom is simple, comfortable and comforting – but not necessarily true.

The authors add that once created, conventional wisdom can be hard to budge, such as the contention that smart policing as exemplified by the “broken windows” concept most closely associated with New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Says Levitt and Dubner: “It would be churlish to argue that smart policing isn`t a good thing. [NYC police chief] Bill Bratton certainly deserves credit for invigorating New York`s police force. But there is frighteningly little evidence that his strategy was the crime fighting panacea that he and the media deemed it.”

The authors also discount the impact of a growing economy and the death penalty. They found no link between a growing economy and a decrease in crime. Regarding the death penalty, economist Isaac Ehrlich in 1975 guestimated that one execution translates into seven less murders; but even in America`s busiest death house, the Texas death row, only two percent of inmates are killed a year. This compares with the seven percent chance drug dealers face of dying on America`s streets. “if life on death row is safer than life on the streets, it`s hard to believe that the fear of execution is a driving force in a criminal`s calculus.”

Levitt and Dubner finds that increasing the number of cops on the beat in fact does help. They credit it with dropping crime by 10%. Locking up more people accounted for roughly one third of the drop in crime. Gun control also helped. However, the biggest single factor – the one none of the experts cited – was Roe v Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court judgement that legalised abortion in the US. (Abortion became legal in South Africa around 1995.) “Researchers found that in the instances where the woman was denied an abortion, she often resented her baby and failed to provide it with a good home. Even when controlling for income, age, education, and health of the mother, the researchers found that these children were more likely to become criminals.” Childhood poverty and single-parent households “are among the strongest predictors that a child will have a criminal future.” So does having a teenage mother and a mother with a low level of education.

Levitt and Dubner found that the type of mother most likely to abort an unwanted child was the same one whose child, had it been born would have had a high propensity to commit crime. The 1990s when children born after 1973 were entering their late teens – the years during which young men enter their criminal prime – was marked by a massive fall in crime across the board in the US. “What this cohort was missing, of course, were the children who stood the greatest chance of becoming criminals.” Legalised abortion, they aver, led to less unwantedness; unwantedness leads to crime; therefore legalised abortion leads to less crime. This theory may not be politically correct but it has been confirmed by similar studies in Canada and Australia.

The authors say the prime lesson to be drawn from this is that we need to be wary of embracing “faulty causes, usually at the urging of an expert proclaiming a truth in which he has a vested interest” – perhaps netcentric warfare or 6×6 armoured personnel carriers – because we have a tendency to link causality to things we can touch or feel, not to some difficult or distant phenomenon.

Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner


Penguin Books