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Themes and Colors
Incentives Theme Icon
Irrational Behavior, Experts, and “Conventional Wisdom” Theme Icon
Morality and Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Thinking Theme Icon
Nature vs. Nurture Theme Icon
Crime Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Freakonomics, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Crime Theme Icon

More than half of the chapters of Freakonomics take some form of crime as their subject. Throughout the book, the authors use case studies of crime as examples of important economic principles. But crime is more than just an illustration of economic ideas—it’s an important theme of Freakonomics in its own right. In general, the authors’ impartial, behavioral arguments have the effect of removing the stigma of crime and humanizing criminals.

One of the authors’ most important points about crime is that crime can be a rational behavior. For people who live in impoverished neighborhoods with few job opportunities, crime can be the best way to lead a productive, happy life. Thus, people often turn to crime because of their ambition, intelligence, and optimism, not because of their innate “badness,” as conventional wisdom would have it. Indeed, close analysis of criminal practices like the drug trade reveals the sale of crack cocaine to be structurally identical to the sale of McDonald’s hamburgers. As the authors show, criminals “manage” drug gangs in the same way that managers run fast food franchises. The shallow stereotype that criminals are innately bad people neglects an important economic truth: people respond to incentives. Often, criminals are simply responding to economic incentives to steal, sell drugs, etc., just as other people respond to economic incentives to pay taxes, go to work, etc.

Even when crime isn’t an entirely rational behavior, it still has a lot in common with ordinary, law-abiding behavior. Crime is dangerous, and many criminals lose their lives while breaking the law—a fact which leads many people to conclude that criminals must be somehow inhuman or suicidal. But, as economic analysis can verify, criminals risking their lives to sell drugs aren’t very different from aspiring actors moving to Hollywood, or dedicated weight lifters who wake up at dawn to train. In all three cases, humans have the capacity to sacrifice their own happiness and safety for the sake of their ambitions (becoming a powerful drug kingpin, a movie star, or Mr. Universe, respectively).

In general, the scientific methods and impartial tone of Freakonomics suggest an important conclusion about crime: crime isn’t inherently evil; on the contrary, it’s often a normal human response to a harsh economic situation.

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Crime ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Crime appears in each Chapter of Freakonomics. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Crime Quotes in Freakonomics

Below you will find the important quotes in Freakonomics related to the theme of Crime.
Introduction Quotes

And the millions of women most likely to have an abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade—poor, unmarried, and teenage mothers for whom illegal abortions had been too expensive or too hard to get—were often models of adversity. They were the very women whose children, if born, would have been much more likely than average to become criminals. But because of Roe v. Wade, these children weren't being born. This powerful cause would have a drastic, distant effect: years later, just as these unborn children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet.

Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

In the introduction to the book, Levitt and Dubner discuss the declining crime rate in the United States during the 1990s. Although hundreds of explanations have been proposed for why crime went down so greatly in those years, few people have considered the possibility that Levitt and Dubner discuss here: the crime rate went down because of the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortions in America. Because abortions were now legal, millions of working-class mothers who would have otherwise been forced to raise unwanted children aborted their unborn children. Furthermore, studies show that children with negligent parents are significantly more likely to commit crimes as adults. Therefore, it follows that Roe v. Wade decreased the number of children that fit such a description, decreasing the crime rate in the process.

The authors’ conclusions might seem surprising, callous, or even barbaric. But Levitt and Dubner are simply doing their jobs as economists—analyzing the data (crime statistics, as they correlate with abortions) and suggesting conclusions based on the data. Levitt and Dubner aren’t saying that abortions should be used to fight crime; rather they’re just interpreting the data as it stands. The distinction between interpreting data and advocating a specific plan of action is very important to understanding Freakonomics, and defends the authors from unfair accusations of immorality and callousness.


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Chapter 1 Quotes

Is it possible, then, that an 8-6 wrestler might allow a 7-7 wrestler to beat him? A sumo bout is a concentrated flurry of force and speed and leverage, often lasting only a few seconds. It wouldn’t be very hard to let yourself be tossed.

Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

In this part of Chapter 1, the authors apply the theory of incentives to an unlikely walk of life: sumo wrestling. Levitt and Dubner try to test a hypothesis—that sumo wrestlers will respond to strong economic incentives, even if doing so requires them to occasionally throw a match. In order to test their hypothesis, the authors study matches between two different kinds of wrestlers: wrestlers who have a 7-7 record going into the 15th and final round of a tournament, and wrestlers who have an 8-6 record (and have little economic incentive to win the match, since they already have a positive record, and will move on to the next round).

The passage is a good example of how economists can use the theory of incentives, coupled with rigorous scientific methods, to study human behavior. As the passage suggests, it is almost impossible to prove to a certainty that specific sumo matches are rigged (since it’s so easy to cheat convincingly). Therefore, the only way to study cheating is to look at the large group of sumo wrestlers and study their overall behavior. In effect, the authors are conducting an experiment, analyzing the overall behavior of a large group of sumo wrestlers, and controlling for factors like talent, motivation, and economic incentive. Ultimately, the authors conclude that it’s very likely that a significant number of sumo wrestlers accept bribes to throw rounds.

Chapter 3 Quotes

So how did the gang work? An awful lot like most American businesses, actually, though perhaps none more so than McDonald's. In fact, if you were to hold a McDonald's organizational chart and a Black Disciples org chart side by side, you could hardly tell the difference.

Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, the authors study the structure of crack gangs in Chicago’s South Side. In doing so, they conclude that the structure of crack gangs has a lot in common with other, more legitimate businesses. For instance, a crack gang is a lot like a McDonald’s franchise. Just as local businessmen must pay the McDonald’s corporation for the right to operate under the McDonald’s name, a crack gang in Chicago must pay the most powerful gang in the city, the Black Disciples, a “cut” of the drug profits in return for the Black Disciples’ protection and approval. Similarly, the profits for selling crack—just like the profits for selling hamburgers—flow from low-level workers up to the “top of the pyramid.” Thus, the leader of a small local crack gang makes a six-figure salary, while the lowest-level drug sellers make less than minimum wage.

The authors aren’t saying that it’s morally acceptable to sell crack, or morally unacceptable to work at McDonald’s. Rather, the authors are simply making a descriptive point about the way drug gangs operate—at a structural level, they’re like any other business. Such a descriptive point has some political ramifications, however. Levitt and Dubner’s research challenges the stereotype that drug dealers are innately evil people by showing that drug dealers use the same basic methods to sell drugs that ordinary businessmen use to sell other products. Whether selling crack is moral or not, drug dealers are trying to make enough money to succeed in life—an economic incentive that any working adult should be able to understand.

So if crack dealing is the most dangerous job in America, and if the salary was only $3.30 an hour, why on earth would anyone take such a job?
Well, for the same reason that a pretty Wisconsin farm girl moves to Hollywood. For the same reason that a high-school quarterback wakes up at 5 a.m. to lift weights. They all want to succeed in an extremely competitive field in which, if you reach the top, you are paid a fortune (to say nothing of the attendant glory and power).

Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the authors try to explain a seemingly inexplicable phenomenon: why do so many people want to sell crack on the streets of Chicago, considering that they have a 1 in 4 chance of being murdered for doing so? Such behavior seems to contradict every instinct of self-preservation in the human body. And yet, as the authors show, human beings are capable of irrational behaviors of all kinds, so long as they’re convinced of the potential rewards for their behavior. The drug dealers who work on the streets for minimum wage sell crack so that they can potentially “climb the ladder” and become powerful drug lords later in life.

Like many of the other points the authors make in this chapter, the explanation for why drug dealers risk their lives for the sake of money is both a descriptive, amoral point, and an argument with potentially major political ramifications. For decades, the War on Drugs has demonized drug dealers, accusing them of destroying neighborhoods and families, perpetuating the achievement gap, etc. Levitt and Dubner don’t deny these points at all, but they do insist that drug dealers are “still people,” subject to the same motives and incentives as any other human beings.

DuPont had pulled off the feat that every marketer dreams of: it brought class to the masses. In this regard, the invention of nylon stockings was markedly similar to the invention of crack cocaine.

Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

The passage makes a potentially surprising comparison between the sale of nylon stockings and the sale of crack cocaine. Nylon stockings were popular in the early 20th century because they replicated the look of high-class, expensive silk stockings, but for a small fraction of the price. Similarly, crack cocaine became popular in America because it mimicked the effects of cocaine, a drug that was widely seen as a symbol of power, glamor, and wealth.

The passage makes an important point about why people buy things: often, people make purchases to boost their social prestige. Even if two products have the same price and are equally satisfying in a material sense, people will often prefer the product that is perceived as being “classier” and more socially prestigious. In such a way, the consumption of crack cocaine is a powerful reminder of the power of social incentives: people desire the approval of other people, and therefore, they desire products that other people desire.

Chapter 4 Quotes

First, the drop in crime in New York began in 1990. By the end of 1993, the rate of property crime and violent crime, including homicides, had already fallen nearly 20 percent. Rudolph Giuliani, however, did not become mayor … until early 1994.

Related Characters: Rudolph Giuliani
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, the authors look at a long list of hypotheses for why the crime rate went down in the 1990s. One possibility they consider is that new policing techniques, such as the broken window theory, influenced the American public to commit fewer crimes. The broken window theory hypothesized that by monitoring seemingly minor crimes, such as vandalism and graffiti, law enforcement officers could prevent people from committing much more serious crimes, essentially sending a message that crime of any kind would not be tolerated. While the broken window theory has been celebrated as an extremely effective deterrent to crimes of all kinds, the authors conclude that there’s almost no statistical basis for such celebration—in New York City, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani instituted broken window policies in the mid-90s, crime was already going down well before Giuliani’s tenure as mayor, suggesting that other factors caused the crime decrease.

The passage is a particularly good example of how economic methods can be used to study complicated phenomena. Depending largely on one’s political and moral beliefs, the broken window theory could be interpreted as a highly effective way to fight crime, or a disastrous failure. It might be tempting to believe that broken window policies lowered the crime rate, regardless of the facts. But Levitt and Dubner cut through the “conventional wisdom” and use facts to disprove the effectiveness of such policies.

Growing up in a single-parent home roughly doubles a child’s propensity to commit crime. So does having a teenage mother. Another study has shown that low maternal education is the single most powerful factor leading to criminality.
In other words, the very factors that drove millions of American women to have an abortion also seemed to predict that their children, had they been born, would have led unhappy and possibly criminal lives.

Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the authors reiterate some of the points they made in the Introduction about the relationship between the abortion rate and the crime rate in America. Statistically speaking, there is a high correlation between one’s likelihood of committing a crime and one’s family circumstances: mother’s age, being in a single-parent household, mother’s educational levels, etc. So it follows that legalizing abortions would have a profound negative influence on the crime rate: indeed, by the 1990s, the crime rate had gone down dramatically, supposedly reflecting the legalization of abortion in 1973.

This argument can be unpleasant, because it involves saying that people from certain backgrounds are more likely to commit crimes. Furthermore, Levitt and Dubner have come under a lot of fire for suggesting that abortions played a major role in the lowering crime rate. Yet they’re not saying that abortion should be used as a tool to fight crime, nor are they necessarily suggesting that abortion was the only factor in the lowering crime rate. Their duty as economists is to describe and interpret the data in an unbiased manner, even if their conclusions don’t please everyone.

So even for someone who considers a fetus to be worth only one one-hundredth of a human being, the trade-off between higher abortion and lower crime is, by an economist's reckoning, terribly inefficient.

Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the chapter, the authors double down on their controversial position on abortion, and make an even more controversial argument for measuring the “effectiveness” of the abortion rate’s influence on crime. The premise of their argument is that a fetus is worth one one-hundredth of an infant baby’s life. Therefore, it follows that economists can measure the “net” effectiveness of the abortion rate on crime, factoring in the premise that abortion is a form of murder (or rather, one hundred abortions are equivalent to the murder of one child). Overall, then, the abortion rate has been a highly “inefficient” way of fighting crime.

The authors’ argument could be interpreted as provocative, since it puts human life in overly mathematical, material terms, and judges these lives with bloodless words like “efficient” and “inefficient.” It’s likely that Levitt and Dubner know they’re being provocative by making observations about abortion—perhaps they are trying to rouse readers away from the conventional wisdom and toward a more objective, rational way of talking about the real world, or at least trying to keep them reading the book.

Epilogue Quotes

The second child, now twenty-eight years old, is Roland G. Fryer Jr., the Harvard economist studying black underachievement.
The white child also made it to Harvard. But soon after, things went badly for him. His name is Ted Kaczynski.

Related Characters: Roland Fryer , Ted Kaczynski
Related Symbols: The white child and the black child
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

The book concludes with a description of the two “hypothetical” children discussed in the earlier chapters. As it turns out, these children weren’t hypothetical at all: the black child was Roland Fryer, while the white child was Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, one of the deadliest terrorists in American history.

On paper, Kaczynski had every conceivable advantage in life: whiteness, maleness, a brilliant mind, loving parents, an affluent background, etc. By contrast, Fryer had tremendous disadvantages: an abusive father, a poor neighborhood, racial oppression, etc. But where Kaczynski squandered his advantages and ended up becoming a dangerous murderer, Fryer overcame obstacles and became a great success at Harvard University. In all, the examples of Kazcynski and Fryer illustrate some of the limitations of economics. Economics is good at describing how, on average, a large group of people will behave. But when dealing with a small “sample size”—in this case, only two people—economics can’t predict what people will do. Kaczynski cannot be “explained” in terms of his background, his IQ, or other metrics. There is a limit, in short, to how much economics as a whole can tell us about people, and on the individual level there is always a level of randomness and other unknown factors that cannot be measured.