‘Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything’ by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner explores some of the everyday mysteries of life through the prism of economics, understood in the broadest sense as the study of incentives. Economics as a subject generally doesn’t inspire much enthusiasm but here is where you might be surprised.
The authors of ‘Freakonomics’ pose seemingly unanswerable questions such as ‘Why do drug dealers still live with their mothers?’ and ‘What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?’. Levitt and Dubner certainly have unconventional, entertaining, occasionally rambling, sometimes controversial and mostly persuasive ways of answering these questions. For example, one of the more provocative claims in the book is that the legalisation of abortion in the US following the Roe v. Wade decision has contributed to a significant drop in crime. Personally, while I found Levitt and Dubner’s presentation of their argument very compelling, I still believe that crime rates are subject to an infinite number of other factors and that it cannot be wholly explained by this. In spite of the writing and overall content being relatively light, ‘Freakonomics’ actually provokes more questions than it succeeds in fully answering which is no bad thing. ‘Freakonomics’ definitely made me think a lot about how the use (and abuse) of statistics which is appropriate given that I am currently putting together a dissertation proposal in the field of social science research.
Even though I knew this book was a popular science take on economics and that it was never going to be a particularly academic work, I was still surprised by how little ‘real’ economics was in the book. I thought it was much more about the sociology of human behaviour and the bonus material reveals that a lot of other people had the same view. I recommend reading the expanded edition as the bonus material is where Levitt and Dubner address some of the criticisms that have been directed towards the arguments they propose in the first edition of ‘Freakonomics’. The original text isn’t particularly long so the expanded edition provides a bit more depth and is ultimately more satisfying.
Overall, ‘Freakonomics’ is highly readable and unashamedly populist but still provides some food for thought. Economics will never look the same again.