John Donohue and Steven Levitt’s scholarly study, “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime,” has attracted a large amount of public attention relative to that for other economic studies published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. That’s not difficult to understand. In the U.S., abortion has been the subject of extensive, contentious public discussion for decades. So too has crime. Economic analysis of the effect of abortion on crime is well-positioned deliberatively to attract public attention.
Donohue and Levitt’s study and criticisms of it contribute badly to public discussion in several ways. First, a large component of the discussion involves regressive estimates of elastiticities of crime. Such estimates don’t provide a good basis for public discussion. They involve reasoning that, if not highly constrained, appears unreasonable. Second, like analysis of the effects of prisoners’ deaths on deterring crime, analysis of the effect of abortion on crime contributes little to considering any feasible public policy choices. Abortion in the U.S. has become a matter of constitutional law. A highly technical estimate, implicitly dependent a variety of circumstantial details, isn’t likely to contribute significantly to constitutional law.
Donohue and Levitt’s study is best understood in relation to the Timothy Ferriss‘ books. Ferriss, like Donohue and Levitt, appears to be a highly intelligent, hard-working person. His first book, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich (2007), concerned ideas — working less and being financially rich — that are highly attractive in discussion, rather than in actual behavioral practice. The 4-Hour Workweek became a best-selling book. Ferriss’ second book, The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid-Fat Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman (2010), expanded his “4-Hour” brand to the topics of weight loss, sex, and exercise. What abortion and crime are to politics, weight loss, sex, and exercise are to mass communication. The 4-Hour Body also became a best-selling book.
Steve Levitt’s potential as a best-selling author cannot be in doubt. Levitt co-authored the best-selling books Freakonomics:A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (2005) and its sequel Superfreakonomics:Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance (2009). Levitt achieved this success as a highly regarded academic writing about entertaining topics for the demographic that reads the New York Times. While becoming a best-selling author is a highly distinctive achievement, Levitt achieved that success along a well-recognized path in the book industry. In terms of attracting public attention, Freakonomics, like “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime,” presents nothing out of the ordinary.