Freakonomics
Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt
Contributed by Marshall Raine
Chapter 4
Summary

Many would consider this section as the most controversial in this book as the authors discuss in details the causes of the dramatic decline in crime in the 1990s. In this chapter, Levitt and Dubner expand on the topic of the association between abortion and lawbreaking as previously addressed in the introduction. The authors start the chapter with an anecdote about Nicole Ceausescu, a Romanian ruler who banned abortion in 1966, in which it was the primary form of birth control. To add insult to injury, Nicole established a Menstrual Police force that regularly rounded women in their places of work administering pregnancies tests. In fact, women who failed to conceive repeatedly would be mandated to pay an abrupt "celibacy tax" (106). The authors argue that Nicole's incentives generated desired effects since, within a period of one year, the number of births doubled. According to Levitt and Dubner, parents gave birth to children and brought them into a nation, where, unless one belonged to Nicole’s clan, life was agonizing. Arguably, these kids were likely to test lower in school, have fewer skills to meet the demand of the labor market, and more possible to become criminals (106).

Levitt and Dubner state that the Romania abortion case is the opposite of the American crime situation. While crime rate in Romania was increasing, the United States was experiencing a drastic decline in crimes like homicides. Contrary to what analysts had predicted [dramatic increase in crime], the country’s crime rate was diverting in an opposite direction (107). To explain the faulty forecast, experts started providing various reasons while criminologists like James Fox begun justifying their predictions. Many newspaper articles published the causes of crime reduction as follows:

  • Inventive policing tactics
  • Increased dependence on prisons
  • Transformation in drug and crack market
  • Increase in the elderly population
  • Restrictive gun control regulations
  • Increased economic boom
  • Raised number of the police force, and
  • Improved utilization of capital sentence, gun buybacks, and concealed weapons (108-109)

Levitt and Dubner state that among the eight reasons only three contributed to the decline in crime, however, and that one major cause for the dramatic reduction in crime was not mentioned (109). The authors posit that innovative policing tactics and increased number of police had a very little impact in crime reduction rate in the 1990s (115). To support their argument, Levitt and Dubner assert that crime rates were reduced not only in New York where enforcement strategies and increasing police force were adopted but also in other cities such as Los Angeles, a city famously known for poor policing (118). Citing from previous research, Levitt and Dubner state reduction in crime was neither attributable to an increase in elderly population nor gun control regulations. The era of crack cocaine led to increased crimes in the 1980s, however, the decline of the crack cocaine market accounted to about 15% of the crime rate decline in the 1990s. Levitt and Dubner argue that this was attributable to the smaller profits gained which did not justify the risk of facing a jail sentence (123).

Levitt and Dubner revisit the moment in Romania when illegalization of abortion become part of the law, thereby increasing the likelihood of kids born during the ban of abortion to become criminals compared to children born earlier. The authors further indicate that according to research, instances when a woman has been prohibited abortion, she is more likely to hate her child and lack the means a decent home to raise them in, thereby increasing the chances of such a baby becoming a criminal (124). Contrary to Romania, in the U.S. the abortion story was different when several states began to permit abortion under critical situations, such as rape and incest. However, the authors assert that the United States Supreme Court ruling in favor of Roe vs. Wade [to legalize abortion] had a significant impact on crime reduction. Arguably, after the first year of legalizing abortion, 750,000 women aborted in the U.S. and by 1980, the number of abortion accounted to 1.6 million (126). Before legalizing abortion, only daughters of upper and middle-class families could afford the illegal abortion. Nonetheless, legalizing abortion made it easier for all women regardless of economic class to obtain an abortion for less than a $100. According to Levitt and Dubner “legalized abortion led to less unwantedness: unwantedness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime” (127). The writers acknowledge that people prefer linking casualty with tangible things instead of linking them with abstract phenomena. As a result, it becomes comforting to believe the conventional wisdom that reasons such as gun control, elevated number of police, and law enforcement strategies led to crime reduction. However, Levitt and Dubner sum up this chapter by stating that the crime reduction was an unintended gain of legalized abortion (129).

Analysis

The meaning of this chapter is that causes behind effects are not always what they seem. In the case of  crime reduction in the 1990s, the true cause of this change was the legalization of abortions. More broadly, the authors' intent in sharing this fact is to show how experts sometimes conceal the truth and misinform the public. As a result, people infer future trends without comprehending the underlying causes. Evidently, the crime rate in the U.S. was rising for several years and experts started declaring the worst in the future, nonetheless, despite being proven wrong they remained confident in their ability to project future trends.

Importantly, this chapter intends to make readers view things in a disparate way, thereby, changing one’s perspectives and views of things thought to be insurmountable or to have no correlation. The authors use Romania's case to show the power of incentives. Arguably, forcing women to pay celibacy fees and taking away birth control methods culminated to more births. The same case applies to crack market whereby the availability of crack cocaine leads to reduced profits, which in turn led to reduced crimes since people hardly, risked their freedom for less money. Similarly, in the case of U.S. legalizing abortion allowed women to have the freedom of deciding whether to bring a baby into the world and this aided in crime reduction because of reduced birth rates. Thus, the authors posit that when it comes to cause and effects, people tend to embrace causes, particularly emanating from experts proclaiming the truth in which they can benefit from. Therefore, people should learn to dig deeper for information and not rely only on experts.

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