May 4, 2005

Gregg Easterbrook Falls for Levitt's Abortion-Cut-Crime Theory

Gregg Easterbrook Falls for Levitt's Abortion-Cut-Crime Theory: Easterbrook, who ought to know better, writes in the Washington Post:

Consider Levitt’s notion of a relationship between abortion access and the crime drop. First, “Freakonomics” shows that although commonly cited factors such as improved policing tactics, more felons kept in prison and the declining popularity of crack account for some of the national reduction in crime that began in about the year 1990, none of these completes the explanation. (New York City and San Diego have enjoyed about the same percentage decrease in crime, for instance, though the former adopted new policing tactics and the latter did not.) What was the significance of the year 1990, Levitt asks? That was about 16 years after Roe v. Wade. Studies consistently show that a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by those raised in broken homes or who were unwanted as children. When abortion became legal nationally, Levitt theorizes, births of unwanted children declined; 16 years later crime began to decline, as around age 16 is the point at which many once-innocent boys start their descent into the criminal life. Leavitt’s clincher point is that the crime drop commenced approximately five years sooner in Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York and Washington state than it did in the nation as a whole. All legalized abortion about five years before Roe.

No, youth violent crime started going up, not down, 16 years after legalization (1970 in cities where crack got started about 1986, 1973 in the rest of the country, where the bad stuff arrived about 1989).

A reader writes:

Regarding the press's effusive response to Levitt's theory that legalized abortion has cut crime rates:

Many members of the educated classes probably believed this about abortion long before Levitt ever formalized the argument. His book has just made it more acceptable to talk about the subject openly. Poking holes in Levitt's argument does not change minds among the educated elite because his theory happens to fit so well with their view of the world.

For the educated, the process of having a child activates the same decision making skills as making a major career move. They can't even imagine doing it without considering timing, finances, impact on their professional lives, and a host of other factors.

They realize that accidents happen, of course -- and that's where abortion comes in. Abortion corrects family planning mistakes. It also allows the careless lower orders to catch up with themselves, the responsible users of birth control.

The educated assume that, with abortion available to eliminate errors, live births surely must represent children that are planned (or at least actively wanted by the time they're born). Given these assumptions, it just seems obvious to elites that abortion must be cutting crime by reducing the number of babies in the "unwanted" category.

Maybe the chattering classes would find it less obvious if they could see the issue from evolution's point of view -- one in which planning and wantedness have nothing to do with reproduction.

As far as nature is concerned, producing offspring is the default position. It's just what living things do. Beating nature at her own game takes intelligence, foresight, and planning -- all of which tend to be in short supply at the bottom rungs of society and among the low IQ population.

Every means of avoiding baby production -- abstinence, contraception, abortion --requires some level of self control, active decision-making, or competence. By contrast, producing a baby requires nothing more than having sex and waiting.

Thus, it is almost inevitable that many babies will be born to women who are among the most impulsive, the least capable, and the least intelligent. How could it be otherwise? No need to even consider the issue of wantedness. It's just evolution winning again.

Inopportune pregnancy obviously has been around for a long time. During the 15th through 19th centuries, many European countries apparently dealt with the resulting babies by dumping them into foundling homes, where the vast majority died from disease and malnutrition. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy discusses this in horrifying detail in her book *Mother Nature,* where she estimates that millions of babies were abandoned throughout Europe. Some foundling homes even installed revolving barrels so that parents could drop off infants anonymously.

My guess is that the foundling home system, brutal as it was, probably was much more efficient than modern day abortion at culling the crime-prone and otherwise "least likely to succeed" babies.

In past centuries, women who failed to acquire adequate economic resources through marriage or work would also have failed to keep their offspring alive. Without welfare available, unwed or poor mothers would have had little choice but to give their infants up to the foundling home, and to likely death. Thus, most women who successfully raised children would have been at least minimally competent in a social and economic context.

By contrast, today's "abortion + welfare" system virtually ensures that many of the most incompetent and least intelligent women will give birth and raise their children to adulthood. The likely result is an increase in crime, not a decrease.

Many of those discussing Levitt's argument coyly refer to it as "controversial," while clearly thinking it's a bit of a giggle. I wonder if they would find it so amusing to see what a really effective "preemptive execution" system looked like.

Let me try to model this with numbers. The model that Levitt wants you to assume, even though he knows it's not true, is something like the following:

- Assume before the legalization of abortions that there are 100 conceptions and thus (ignoring miscarriages) 100 births.

- Assume that abortion is legalized and the 25 "most unwanted" pregnancies are aborted.

- Assume that "most unwanted" is roughly synonymous with "least promising."

- So, now only the 75 most promising fetuses are born and the 25 least promising never grow up to mug you. As J. Stalin liked to say while signing death warrants, "No man, no problem."

Now, it's easy to see the lack of realism is these assumptions. The assumption that the 25 who get aborted will be the 25 least promising is grossly over-optimistic. For example, women are seldom making decisions on abortion not based on where their unborn children would come out relative to the other 99 but on other, more personal grounds. There might be a certain tendency in that direction, but it's going to be attenuated.

But, that's just the surface of what's wrong with this model. It's actually radically fallacious because it doesn't account for the vast increase in unwanted pregnancies, which is ethically sleazy of Levitt, because he knows all about what actually occurred.

Here's what really happened, according to Levitt's own statement in Freakonomics: "Conceptions rose by nearly 30 percent, but births actually fell by 6 percent …"

Thus, what happened looked more like this.

- After legalization, there were now 129 conceptions, not 100, and 35 abortions, leaving 94 births instead of 100.

- But who were those 94 births? This is where it gets terribly murky.

--- Some of those births will be of the 29 who wouldn't have been conceived without legalization. Women got pregnant assuming, consciously or unconsciously, that they'd have an abortion, then didn't get one for any of a host of reason. Will these kids turn out better or worse than the ones who are getting aborted? Who knows?

The 94 births could have turned out more promising, less promising, or the same. Nobody knows, including Dr. Levitt.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

No comments: