- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

With the success of Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” it didn’t take a genius (or an economist) to predict a deluge of similar pop-econ books. Steven Landsburg’s “More Sex is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics” stands out, though, both because Mr. Landsburg preceded Mr. Levitt to the genre, and because the title and lead thesis are so shocking.

A decade before “Freakonomics” hit the market, Mr. Landsburg dropped “The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Experience.” The “More Sex” thesis: If prudes occasionally slept with strangers, it would slow the spread of STDs.

Here’s how it works. One such prude walks into a bar, and he’s uninfected. If he takes home an uninfected woman, great — he distracted her from a potential disease carrier. If he gets herpes, that’s also great, because he’s sexually conservative and won’t pass the infection along very often. Better him than someone with less self control.

Either way, society benefits when the chaste open up slightly. “Slightly” is key, because too much “openness” spreads more disease than it diverts. After studying AIDS in England, Harvard’s Michael Kremer put the cutoff at 2.25 partners per year.

From here Mr. Landsburg introduces the concept that ties virtually all these essays together — people should feel their actions’ effects. A sexual conservative considers the harm to himself, but not the benefits to others, of catching a disease. One could call it a behavior-consequence gap.

Sound logic, but Mr. Landsburg takes it as license to propose a number of state solutions, saving until the book’s end the obvious counterargument that bigger government is a risk in itself. He seeks, essentially, to pay the chaste to risk STD infection.

The trick is to offer an incentive that only appeals to prudes, so the already-promiscuous don’t increase their prowess as well. Before you know it, he’s considering a government dating service that charges used condoms as admission.

Or a voluntary Internet database, accessible from bars and clubs, of STD screen results. It would make things easy for sexual conservatives with clean tests, and to Mr. Landsburg that’s “such a good idea that [he] can’t figure out why nobody’s doing it.”

Not only does the essay become outlandish in a hurry, but it neglects some important factors in its cost-benefit analysis. For example, he mentions that more promiscuity means more pleasure, but he fails to note that random encounters have negative as well as positive emotional effects.

Also, Mr. Landsburg gets through the whole chapter without using the word “pregnancy.” More sex might mean lower STD rates, but it most certainly does not mean fewer unwanted children. Illegitimacy fits the notion of a behavior-consequence gap so well it’s uncanny — accidental parents certainly face burdensome responsibilities, but it’s the child who grows up in a home that wasn’t ready for him.

The other essays, even the daffy ones, do a similarly good job of provoking thought. Mr. Landsburg posits that we should value random strangers equally, regardless of where they live, striking at the very concept of national identity. For fighting grade inflation, he suggests colleges ration A’s among professors.

He also discusses the jury system at length. He’s right that juries should hear all the available evidence, including past convictions: The government already trusts juries to sort out pertinent from irrelevant facts, so more information can’t hurt. If juries can’t put a defendant’s (or even accuser’s) history in perspective, we shouldn’t have juries.

But then he suggests rewarding and punishing jurors when later evidence proves they were “right” or “wrong.” The first problem is, it’s absurd to judge someone on information they didn’t have.

The second: Juries don’t decide whether a person is innocent or guilty. They decide whether the prosecution has demonstrated guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The system — as Mr. Landsburg explains and decries in a later essay — releases the guilty on short-of-damning evidence. And in rare cases, it’s possible to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt when the defendant is innocent.

Mr. Landsburg might concede these flaws if they were presented him, but he doesn’t address them in the text. There is still a case that the Landsburg jury would be better than the average one today.

Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is that many of these essays, including the “more sex” one, are recycled from Mr. Landsburg’s Slate.com columns. But the book reads fast and provides plenty of intellectual red meat. It’s thoughtful, enraging and insightful.

In short, it’s worth reading.

Robert VerBruggen is assistant book editor of The Washington Times.

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