Paperhouse reads: Freakonomics


There’s loads of surprising stuff contained in Freakonomics, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner’s romp through the application of economic principles to sociological data.  The thesis that legalised abortion leads directly to lowered crime rates – that’s pretty shocking, even if you’re someone (like me) who thinks that abortion should be legal and that one of the strongest arguments for its legality is the unhappy circumstance of unwanted children. Or the analysis of cheating by sumo, which cleverly presses the data from sumo wrestlers’ championship bouts to discover the circumstances under which a wrestler seems to be willing to hand the win to his opponent. The data are structured to account for variables, interrogated for controls, analysed – and the outcomes are often revelatory, not so much for the conclusions, but for the implicit argument that something as seemingly ineffable as human behaviour can be measured in this way.

There’s an argument, pushed by Meghan Falvey for n+1 magazine, that the book is too tightly focussed on a cost-benefit analysis and incapable of accommodating outcomes which fall outside of the financial, but I don’t think that’s a fair representation of Levitt and Dubner’s work. As a commentary on their method, it’s roughly acceptable: analysis requires that an approximate value can be set on the input and output of a transaction, and some things (money, lifespan, crime per capita) are easier to quantify than others (happiness, love, the dappling of sunshine on treetops). But Falvey’s ethical objection – that Freakonomics espouses a narrow view of human behaviour as reward-driven and rational, and so falls into the service of stakeholder-society welfare restriction – seems simply wrong.

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