Today, responding to Bill Bennett's controversial citation of his theory that legalizing abortion cut crime, economist Steven D. Levitt, co-author of the bestseller Freakonomics, asserted on his blog that "Race is not an important part of the abortion-crime argument that John Donohue and I have made in academic papers and that Dubner and I discuss in Freakonomics." Indeed, Levitt left out any mention of the much higher abortion and crime rates found among blacks from his best-selling book. However, his 2001 academic paper with John J. Donohue contains this passage:
Fertility declines for black women are three times greater than for whites (12 percent compared to 4 percent). Given that homicide rates of black youths are roughly nine times higher than those of white youths, racial differences in the fertility effects of abortion are likely to translate into greater homicide reductions. Under the assumption that those black and white births eliminated by legalized abortion would have experienced the average criminal propensities of their respective races, then the predicted reduction in homicide is 8.9 percent. In other words, taking into account differential abortion rates by race raises the predicted impact of abortion legalization on homicide from 5.4 percent to 8.9 percent.
[Thanks to James Taranto --SS.]
In other words, race accounts for 39% of the putative Levitt Effect on supposedly reducing homicides. You can judge for yourself whether 39% is "not an important part."
So, in the wake of the crucifixion of Bill Bennett for mentioning one of the major aspects of Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory, I'd like to ask how come the entire respectable world gave Levitt's Freakonomics book tongue-baths last spring, praising him for his "courage" in pushing his abortion-crime theory. For example, the NYT gave his book two rave book reviews, a rave op-ed column, and they hired him to write a regular "Freakonomics" column for the NYT Magazine!
So, why didn't the Levitt Effect actually happen in the real world? Why didn't this conventional piece of eugenic and/or eucultural reasoning work? First, as I pointed out to Levitt in 1999, the crack wars happened in between the data points he looked at in 1985 and 1997. (Ironically, on the rare occasions when Levitt now deigns to answer his critics, he emphasizes the impact of crack, which he was barely cognizant of until I explained it to him in our Slate debate.) The Levitt Effect, if it even exists, was overwhelmingly swamped by much more powerful forces.
But, it's quite possible that legalizing abortion boosted the black violent crime rate among those youths born after legalization in 1970-1973. To see why that's quite possible, it's important to focus on the realism of that assumption Levitt made in 2001 when he wrote:
Under the assumption that those black and white births eliminated by legalized abortion would have experienced the average criminal propensities of their respective races ...
What if, instead, among blacks, aborted fetuses had instead been more likely to grow up in well-run homes and become solid law-abiding citizens? To a white college professor like Levitt, that seems inconceivable, but it actually is rather plausible. As I told him in 1999:
[Your] logic implies that legalized abortion should reduce illegitimacy. And since illegitimacy is closely linked to crime, therefore abortion must reduce crime. Right? Yet, abortion and illegitimacy both soared during the '70s, and then the youth violent-crime rate also soared when the kids born during that decade hit their teens. How come?
In theory, legal abortion reduces murder by being, in effect, "prenatal capital punishment." But, first, it's not very efficient. Like Herod, we have to eradicate many to get the one we want. While genes and upbringing do affect criminality, there's so much randomness that predicting the destiny of individual fetuses is hard.
Second, what if besides a contraceptive-using bourgeoisie and an abortion-using working class, there also exists an underclass to whom, in the words of Homer Simpson, "Life is just a bunch of things that happen"? What if in the '70s members of the underclass didn't effectively use either contraception or abortion, but, being too destitute or distracted or drunk or drugged, they just tended to let s*** happen all the way to the maternity ward? And what if the legalization of abortion gave them an excuse to be even less careful about avoiding pregnancy? In fact, in your paper you cite evidence that 60 percent to 75 percent of all fetuses aborted in the '70s would never have been conceived without legal abortion. If that's what happened across all classes, the increase in careless pregnancies specifically among the underclass might have been so big that it negated the eugenic or euculturalist effects of abortion.
Thus, legalizing abortion would have thinned the ranks of the respectable black working class but not the black underclass. Its cultural influence would therefore have mounted. Just compare the working-class black music of the '60s (e.g., Motown) with the underclass gangsta rap of the late '80s, which spread the lethal bust-a-cap code of the East Coast and West Coast crack dealers across America.
Third, legalizing abortion finished off the traditional shotgun wedding. Earlier, the pill had shifted responsibility for not getting pregnant to the woman. Then, legal abortion relieved the impregnating boyfriend of the moral duty of making an honest woman out of her. This would drive up the illegitimacy rate.
Finally, even more speculatively, but also more frighteningly, the revolution in social attitudes that excused terminating the unborn may also have helped persuade violent youths that they could be excused for terminating the born.
One of my readers who was an inner city social worker strongly endorses this theory that abortion hollowed out the black middle class. She says that in her experience, the black women who had abortions tended to be the "strivers," while the ones who had children out of wedlock instead were the less intelligent, less organized, and less ambitious
Recently, she pointed out to me that some data reported by Charles Murray in the September 2005 issue of Commentary from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth contradicts Levitt's assumption:
Now I'm soooooo confused! As you point out, Charles Murray in his article "The Inequality Taboo," has "calculated that 60% of the babies born to black women who began participating in the National Longitudinal Study of Youth in 1979 were born to women with IQs below the black female average of 85.7. Only 7% were born to black women with IQs over 100."
But wait, weren't all those [low IQ, lower class] women having abortions? That's what genius economist Steven Levitt says in his super-brilliant book *Freakonomics,* where he tells us that abortion cut crime substantially because it kept hordes of little ghetto marauders from being born. Well, OK, Levitt doesn’t exactly put it that way, but we all know what he means (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).
If we are to believe Murray's figures, then it would seem that the black women who had abortions must actually have been the *brighter* ones -- whose children (had they been born), would statistically have been less likely to commit crimes than those born to lower-IQ women.
Could this mean that Levitt is, ahem, wrong?