July 4, 2007

More from my review of Lott's "Freedomnomics"

Here's another excerpt from my review in the Washington Times of economist John R. Lott's Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works and Other Half-Baked Theories Don't.

Dr. Lott is an even more fecund generator of plausible explanations than is Dr. [Stephen D.] Levitt [author of the bestseller Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything]. For instance, he suggests in Freedomnomics:

- The big mark-up on restaurant drinks stems from customers tending to linger longer over beverages than food, tying up valuable tables.

- The introduction of secret ballots lowered voter turnout. Why? They reduced vote-buying and thus voting. Crooked political operators could no longer be sure they got the votes they paid for.

Dr. Lott offers so many fascinating theories that Freedomnomics' ideas-per-page ratio is more daunting than that of the frothy Freakonomics, which Dr. Levitt's writing partner, journalist Stephen J. Dubner, optimized to not tax tired travelers' oxygen-deprived brains at 35,000 feet.

Is each of the hundreds of ideas in Freedomnomics true? Dr. Lott offers 63 pages of notes, but a more convenient solution would be for authors to post their footnotes on the Web with links to supporting papers.

Like Dr. Levitt, Dr. Lott is more an ardently creative thinker than a dispassionately judicious one. They are both apt to fall in love with their novel ideas and overlook alternatives. Yet, ultimately, so what? Ichiro Suzuki, the great singles hitter of the Seattle Mariners, doesn't drive many runs home, but he gets rallies started. Similarly, while Dr. Lott and Dr. Levitt are better at provoking controversies than at magisterially resolving them, they play valuable roles.

Dr. Lott argues that Dr. Levitt and Mr. Dubner "portray America's free market as a cut-throat environment in which consumers are constantly swindled by so-called experts. Habitually attributing economic anomalies to some kind of scam, the pair don't seem to realize that market forces exist that punish dishonest behavior." This is somewhat overstated -- Freakonomics is too attention-deficit disordered to have much of a theme beyond promoting Dr. Levitt as a "rogue" genius. Nonetheless, Dr. Lott's chapter on how the market encourages good behavior by penalizing bad reputations is insightful.

Still, Freedomnomics raises a fascinating conundrum it doesn't answer. If the free market is so wonderful, how in the world did Freakonomics become the nonfiction publishing sensation of the decade?

Maybe the book market rewards truth-telling less than helping customers feel good about themselves? To paraphrase the famous quote by Adam Smith about butchers, bakers, and brewers with which Dr. Lott launches Freedomnomics, "It is not from the benevolence of the economist, the journalist, or the publisher that we expect our cheesy bestsellers, but from their regard to their own interest." [More]

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

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