- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Harry Truman longed for a one-armed economist who couldn’t tell him, “But, on the other hand …” As the economic mismanagement of the 1970s is forgotten and the profession’s confidence soars, however, the opposite has emerged: The two-fisted economist. These scholarly brawlers self-assuredly venture far beyond their traditional topics.

Steven D. Levitt’s 2005 pop economics bestseller, “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” featured his views on the Ku Klux Klan (he’s against it), real estate agents (they’re kind of like the KKK), sumo wrestling (it’s dishonest) and, most famously, the legalization of abortion in the 1970s (it reduced crime in the 1990s by, in effect, pre-emptively executing unwanted babies more likely to become criminals).

“Freakonomics,” which sold 3 million copies, included a half page of scandalmongering about rival economist John R. Lott Jr., author of “More Guns, Less Crime,” who had attacked Mr. Levitt’s abortion-cut-crime theory. Mr. Lott responded by suing Mr. Levitt for defamation. Now, Mr. Lott has struck back more constructively with his endlessly thought-provoking “Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works and Other Half-Baked Theories Don’t.”

Mr. Lott shows that Mr. Levitt’s popular abortion hypothesis fails some simple reality checks. Rather than Roe v. Wade making babies more “wanted,” the illegitimacy rate soared after 1973. And, among those born soon after Roe, their murder rate as 18-year-olds didn’t fall, as Mr. Levitt’s theory would predict; it more than doubled.

As the Economist reported in “Oops-onomics,” when two economists named Christopher Foote and Christopher Goetz redid Mr. Levitt’s statistical analysis, they discovered he had made two fatal technical errors. The New York Times didn’t mention Mr. Levitt’s humiliation, though, perhaps because they had already hired him as a columnist. (Someone should write “Celebrityonomics: Why Being Famous Beats Being Right.”)

Mr. Lott is an even more fecund generator of plausible explanations than is Mr. Levitt. For instance, he suggests in “Freedomnomics”:

{bullet} The big mark-up on restaurant drinks stems from customers tending to linger longer over beverages than food, tying up valuable tables.

{bullet} The introduction of secret ballots lowered voter turnout. Why? They reduced vote-buying and thus voting. Crooked political operators could no longer be sure they got the votes they paid for.

Mr. Lott offers so many fascinating theories that the “Freedomnomics’” ideas-per-page ratio is more daunting than that of the frothy “Freakonomics,” which Mr. Levitt’s writing partner, journalist Stephen J. Dubner, optimized to not tax tired travelers’ oxygen-deprived brains at 35,000 feet.

Is each of the hundreds of ideas in “Freedomnomics” true? Mr. Lott offers 63 pages of notes, but a more convenient solution would be for authors to post their footnotes on the Web with links to supporting papers.

Like Mr. Levitt, Mr. Lott is more an ardently creative thinker than a dispassionately judicious one. They are both apt to fall in love with their novel ideas and overlook alternatives. Yet, ultimately, so what? Ichiro Suzuki, the great singles hitter of the Seattle Mariners, doesn’t drive many runs home, but he gets rallies started. Similarly, while Mr. Lott and Mr. Levitt are better at provoking controversies than at magisterially resolving them, they play valuable roles.

Mr. Lott argues that Messrs. Levitt and Mr. Dubner “portray America’s free market as a cut-throat environment in which consumers are constantly swindled by so-called experts. Habitually attributing economic anomalies to some kind of scam, the pair don’t seem to realize that market forces exist that punish dishonest behavior.” This is somewhat overstated — “Freakonomics” is too attention-deficit disordered to have much of a theme beyond promoting Mr. Levitt as a “rogue” genius. Nonetheless, Mr. Lott’s chapter on how the market encourages good behavior by penalizing bad reputations is insightful.

Still, “Freedomnomics” raises a fascinating conundrum it doesn’t answer. If the free market is so wonderful, how did “Freakonomics” become the nonfiction publishing sensation of the decade?

Maybe the book market rewards truth-telling less than helping customers feel good about themselves? To paraphrase the famous quote by Adam Smith about butchers, bakers and brewers with which Mr. Lott launches “Freedomnomics,” “It is not from the benevolence of the economist, the journalist, or the publisher that we expect our cheesy bestsellers, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Steve Sailer writes for the American Conservative, VDARE.com and iSteve.com.