October 2, 2005

New Facts Undermining the Freakonomics Abortion-Crime Theory

There are two problems with Steven D. Levitt's popular theory (brought back into prominence by Bill Bennett's remarks) that legalizing abortion lowered the crime rate: it didn't work in historical reality and it doesn't even work in theory.

His theory, at least in the expunged version presented in Freakonomics (as opposed to the more race-based eugenic version in his 2001 academic paper) rests on the claim that abortion is more likely to get rid of "unwanted" fetuses, who would be more likely to grow up to be bad guys.

One difficulty with this theory is that legalizing abortion greatly increased the number of unwanted pregnancies (by almost 30%, according to Levitt), and not all of those ended up being aborted, so what the net effect was in terms of "pre-conception wantedness" is extremely uncertain.

But the second problem is the question of "unwanted by whom?" I've argued since 1999 that the use of legalized abortion is more likely to appeal to upwardly mobile women, and thus will tend to make society more, not less, underclass. Studies by the team of Katherine Trent and Eve Powell-Griner support my intuition. A criminologist writes me:

I am surprised that there isn't more research examining the predictors of abortion. I wonder if academics avoid it because the truth takes away from the "Cider House Rules" myth of abortion-users being incest victims. What little research I can find portrays abortion as a choice of an economically-minded woman. ... Kathy Trent looked at 500,000 pregnancies and found that risk of abortion rises with education among single women... She did find that, whereas unmarried blacks keep their babies more than unmarried whites, married black women are more likely to get an abortion than married whites. Trent suggests that married black women are more likely to be breadwinners than married whites--babies get in the way of bringing home the bacon. These findings do not seem consistent with Levitt's assumption that abortions are concentrated among those people most likely to produce criminals.

Trent and Griner's research, along with other studies undermining Levitt's central argument, was pointed out to Levitt by CCNY economist Ted Joyce in his response to Levitt & Donohue in the Journal of Human Resources, which was entitled "Did Legalized Abortion Lower Crime?" Joyce summed up two reason why Levitt's theory didn't work. The second was:

Second, analysts, I being one, have tended to overestimate the selection effects associated with abortion. A careful examination of studies of pregnancy resolution reveals that women who abort are at lower risk of having children with criminal propensities than women of similar age, race and marital status who instead carried to term. For instance, in an early study of teens in Ventura County, California between 1972 and 1974, researchers demonstrated that pregnant teens with better grades, more completed schooling, and not on public assistance were much more likely to abort than their poorer, less academically oriented counterparts (Leibowitz, Eisen, and Chow 1986).

Studies based on data from the National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) make the same point (Michael 2000; Hotz, McElroy, and Sanders 1999). Indeed, Hotz, McElroy, and Sanders (1999) found that teens who abort are similar along observed characteristics to teens that were never pregnant, both of whom differ significantly from pregnant teens that spontaneously abort or carry to term.

Nor is favorable selection limited to teens. Unmarried women that abort have more completed schooling and higher AFQT [the military's IQ test for applicants for enlistment] scores than their counterparts that carry the pregnancy to term (Powell-Griner and Trent 1987; Currie, Nixon, and Cole 1995).

In sum, legalized abortion has improved the lives of many women by allowing them to avoid an unwanted birth. I found little evidence to suggest, however, that the legalization of abortion had an appreciable effect on the criminality of subsequent cohorts.

Surely, Levitt must have read Joyce's response to his paper. If so, Levitt knew that his central theoretical argument was extremely dubious, but he didn't mention any of that when he pushed his "unwantedness" theory in Freakonomics this year, to vast acclaim and buckets of money. (Freakonomics is currently the #2 bestseller on Amazon.com).

Isn't it about time for the economics profession to conduct an inquiry into the professional ethics, such as they are, of Dr. Steven D. Levitt? How much ethical leeway should a scholar have in intentionally misleading the public in order to make money and become a celebrity?

So, what are the odds that the Golden Boy will ever be put on the spot by his profession or the media over his theory? A million to one? Too many important people have too much invested in the maintenance of Levitt's glamour. Levitt's media apotheosis is the most exciting thing to happen to an economics professor in years, so the profession has a vested interest in preserving his reputation.

In the unlikely event that Levitt is ever pinned down and forced to explain, Levitt's defense, logically, would have to be that his theory is still plausible because of raw racial eugenic logic: Sure, when all else is kept equal, the women who got abortions were more likely to raise law-abiding children than their equivalents who went ahead and had the babies, but (to quote Levitt and Donohue's 2001 paper):

"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."

In other words, Levitt would have to argue that: Even though the quality of the upbringing of the next generation of black youths went down because of legalization, the brute fact is that legal abortion still reduced the ratio of black births to white births. If you assume that blacks from upwardly mobile families are still more criminally inclined than whites from downwardly mobile families, then even though legalization lowered the average quality of the black population, it decreased the quantity of blacks so much relative to the quantity of whites that the average quality of Americans overall went up because abortion reduced the black share of the population!

Personally, I think legalization was bad for America overall because of the impact it had on lowering the quality of African-American upbringings. An awful lot of black kids who would have been raised to be strivers got aborted, so the ones who got born had more careless upbringings on average. Thus, legalization contributed, in some measure, to the the decline in African-American culture, symbolized by the popularity since the late 1980s of an entire musical style devoted to boasting about how murderous the rapper is. Interestingly, both gangsta rap and the crack business that it celebrated, emerged in the late 1980s out of the two major states that legalized abortion in 1970: California and New York. Coincidence? Maybe ... maybe not.

The bottom line is that we're all in this together, white and black, and something that lowers the quality of one of our communities, such as legalized abortion apparently did to blacks, hurts all of us.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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