1966, the Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu passed a law banning abortions. In part, the ban on abortions was designed to increase the Romanian population. Before this point, Romania had one of the most liberal abortion policies in the world, such that abortion was the single most common form of birth control in the country. At the same time, Ceauşescu banned sex education in schools. Within one year, the birth rate in Romania had doubled. Twenty-three years later, a popular movement (made up largely of students in their late teens and early twenties) rose up against Ceauşescu and had him executed by firing squad. Ironically, many of these young Romanians would never have been born had it not been for Ceauşescu’s abortion law.
The history of modern Romania is a good example of how public policy can have completely unexpected consequences. The dictator of Communist Romania had no idea that his abortion reforms would effectively “create” an entire generation of political opponents. The Ceauşescu anecdote will be important to the argument of the chapter, since it reinforces the idea that abortion reform can have a huge impact on a country’s demographics.
The history of crime in the United States is like the history of Romanian abortions, told in reverse. Beginning in the 90s, crime fell at a startling rate in American cities. As the authors suggested in the Introduction, one reason for the sudden fall in the crime rate was the legalization of abortion in 1973.
The authors have already discussed the effect of abortion reform on crime in the Introduction to the book (in order to provide a provocative lead-in, probably), but in this chapter they’ll study the issue in more depth.
The authors identify eight popular explanations for the falling crime rate of the 1990s: 1) innovative policing strategies, 2) increased reliance on prisons, 3) changes in crack and other drug markets, 4) aging of the population, 5) tougher gun-control laws, 6) a strong economy, 7) more police officers, and 8) all other explanations, including capital punishment, concealed-weapon laws, gun buybacks, etc. In this chapter, they will look at these explanations one-by-one.
Chapter Four consists of a question—why did the crime rates suddenly go down in the U.S. in the 1990s?—and eight potential answers to this question. The authors will use economic analysis—factoring out their own political and moral biases—to determine which explanations do and don’t hold water.
The first possible explanation for declining crime rates is the strong economy. A good job market can decrease people’s incentives for committing crimes, since there is strong legal alternative to committing the crime (namely, getting a job). However, this rationale only applies to crimes that have a strong economic incentive, such as burglary or robbery. In the 90s, homicide fell at a faster rate than almost any other kind of crime—suggesting that the strengthening economy didn’t truly cause the declining crime rates.
If economic growth encouraged people to commit fewer crimes, one would expect that crimes like robbery and embezzlement would decline at the fastest rate. But in fact, murder—a crime that’s often committed for non-financial reasons—is what decreased at the fastest rate.
Another possible explanation for declining crime rates is increased reliance on prisons. To analyze this possibility, we might ask ourselves, “Why did the crime rate rise so dramatically in the 70s and 80s?” Beginning in the 1960s, the Supreme Court strengthened the rights of suspected criminals—for instance, after the 1960s, police officers had to inform arrested people of their right to remain silent. As a result of these reforms, conviction rates and incarceration time went down. In short, the incentives for committing crimes went up—thus, the crime rate increased.
During the 1960s, the Supreme Court, presided over by Chief Justice Earl Warren, made a series of rulings that strengthened the rights of suspected criminals. (The concept of “Miranda rights,” for instance, comes from a 1966 Supreme Court ruling that requires police officers to inform people of their right to remain silent.) The authors don’t editorialize about whether or not these rulings were morally good or bad—they just argue that, insofar as the negative economic incentives for committing crimes decreased, the crime rate went up.
In the two decades following the criminal rights reforms of the 1960s, many government officials and criminologists have tried to decrease incentives to commit crimes with harsher prison terms. There has been a lot of debate over whether or not harsher prison terms can deter crime, however. Some criminologists, for instance, have argued that crime rates tend to be high when imprisonment rates are high—therefore, lowering imprisonment rates could lower the crime rate. This argument, Levitt and Dubner, maintain, wrongly confuses correlation with causation. They compare the argument to a sports fan who notices a correlation between a sport team’s victory and the team’s fans’ celebration, and thinks that he can cause the sports team to win by instructing the fans to celebrate before each game. So it would seem that—regardless of the moral problems with sending people to jail for long periods of time—increased incarceration rates are effective in lowering the crime rate.
The authors maintain that incarceration rates are an important crime deterrent: by threatening potential criminals with years in jail, prisons influence people to commit fewer crimes. The authors ridicule criminologists for suggesting that incarceration rates don't deter crime, accusing them of confusing causation and correlation. But it’s worth noting, for the sake of fairness, that there are many eminent criminologists who have argued that high incarceration rates don’t actually deter crime. One of the most persuasive arguments against high incarceration rates is that spending time in jail can push minor criminals into a life of serious crime—once they’re in “the system,” it’s hard to get out.
Another possible explanation for declining crime rates is increased use of capital punishment. Capital punishment rates in the U.S. increase by a factor of 4 throughout the 1980s. However, supporters of capital punishment miss the point that there are only a small number of capital punishments each year, and nobody who sets out to commit a crime believes that he’ll be executed for committing that crime. It’s difficult to imagine a criminal being deterred from committing a crime by the thought of capital punishment—such forms of punishment aren’t prevalent enough to influence his behavior.
Because relatively few people are executed for crimes, it’s unlikely that these rare executions would inspire criminals to stop committing crimes. A criminal who’s thinking about committing murder is unlikely to factor the possibility of capital punishment into his or her decision.
Another possible explanation for declining crime rates is the increased numbers of police officers. While the influence of an increased police force on the crime rate is often exaggerated, it’s possible to show some causation between police force and the crime rate. In the 1980s, the number of police officers per crime decreased by a stunning fifty percent—a mark of both the declining number of police officers and the increasing number of crimes. Police officers per capita increased by about 14 percent in the 1990s. These additional officers provided the manpower to arrest criminals who might have gone unpunished otherwise.
The authors suggest that the growing police force did help to lower the crime rate in the 1990s. This makes a certain amount of sense—for example, ten police officers would have a much easier time catching ten criminals than one police officer would.
Another possible explanation for declining crime rates is the use of innovative policing strategies. This was a very popular explanation, particularly in New York City. In the mid 1990s, Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York City, enacted a series of policies designed to fight crime in the city. Giuliani was a proponent of the so-called “broken window theory,” the idea that minor crimes like broken windows encourage serious crimes by signaling that law enforcement is weak. Giuliani’s policies were widely viewed as successful, but the book’s authors maintain that they had little effect on declining crime rates. The crime rate in New York City began declining in 1990. Giuliani didn't become mayor until 1994, at a time when crime had already fallen more than 30 percent. The more significant cause of New York’s lowering crime rate was simply the increased number of police officers, not innovative policing strategies.
The broken window hypothesis remains one of the most popular explanations for the declining crime rates of the 1990s—for instance, the author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called The Tipping Point in which he argued for the effectiveness of broken window policy. But Levitt and Dubner take a rigorous, mathematical approach to analyzing the effects of Giuliani’s policies in New York, and find that broken window policy probably didn’t have a large effect on crime—if it did, then why did crime go down thirty percent in the years before Giuliani’s election?
Another possible explanation for declining crime rates is tougher gun laws. This is a very controversial issue. Some claim that America is a violent place because there are more guns than there are adults. Others point to countries like Switzerland, which has the highest number of guns per capita of any country on the planet, and which is also one of the safest places in the world.
The authors don’t attempt an in-depth analysis of gun control, but they do acknowledge that there are many competing points of view, bolstered with some fairly persuasive examples.
In 1993, Congress passed the Brady Act, which required background checks and a waiting period before customers could own handguns. But the Brady Act probably had little if any effect on gun possession, or the crime rate, since it’s so easy to buy a gun on the black market. Other measures, such as gun buybacks, have been shown to be equally ineffective. Most buyback programs exchange guns for 50-100 dollars, a small amount for anyone who actually plans to use a gun. Some have even argued that the solution to the gun violence problem is more guns, not less. One vocal proponent of this idea is John Lott. Lott claims that the government should pass “right-to-carry laws.” The authors maintain, “When other scholars have tried to replicate [Lott’s] results, they found that right-to-carry laws simply don't bring down crime.”
In this section, the authors take a quick look at gun control policies in the United States (a subject that merits a whole book). The authors don’t offer any specific conclusions about gun control policy: they remain agnostic about whether gun control policies increase or decrease gun-related crime, as there is little evidence that either liberal or conservative gun policies influence the crime rate. The passage is a good example of how the authors remain even-handed when dealing with controversial issues (although one could argue that this “even-handedness” suggests a willingness to accept the status quo).
Another possible explanation for declining crime rates is the bursting of the crack bubble. Crack cocaine caused a major crime epidemic in the U.S in the 1980s: there were “turf wars,” robberies, and various other violent crimes stemming from the control of crack cocaine. Although crack arrests have remained almost the same since the 1980s, crack has become less profitable to sell in this country. With different gangs trying to outsell one another, the average price of crack has been going down for many years. With crack becoming less desirable, the number of violent crimes associated with crack has gone down, too.
The crack epidemic of the 1980s had a tremendous influence on the crime rate of that decade—as we saw in the previous chapter, dealers were willing to kill to protect their business. But when the economic incentives for selling crack decreased in the 90s, murders and other crimes associated with crack decreased accordingly.
Another possible explanation for declining crime rates is the aging of the population. Overall, young people are more likely to commit crimes than elderly people. As a result, some criminologists have pointed to the increasing average age of American citizens since the 1980s as a cause of the lowering crime rate. The problem with this idea is that even if elderly people are much less likely to commit crimes, the average age in this country has increased far too slowly to explain the sudden, dramatic decrease in crime.
While the notion that an aging population commits fewer crimes is popular, the data simply don’t support such a conclusion. A small increase in the average age of the country couldn’t trigger such an enormous decrease in the crime rate.
To understand what is perhaps the single most significant cause of the decline in crime in the 1990s, the authors say that we have to look to the abortion rate. After 1973, the Supreme Court mandated that women had the right to abort fetuses in the US. Often, the women who choose to have abortions have excellent, material reasons for doing so: they don’t have the money to support a child; they’ve fallen out with the child’s father, etc. After Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortions, abortions became relatively cheap and affordable for women of all economic backgrounds. Abortions became most common among negligent, working-class women—women who, statistically speaking, would have been particularly likely to give birth to children who would go on to commit crimes.
The authors have already studied the influence of the abortion rate on the crime rate in the Introduction. Mothers who want to abort their children, but can’t, are likely to be negligent parents. They’re also likely to be impoverished (especially because they have another child to feed), meaning that there is a strong chance that their children will grow up with an incentive to commit crimes. This argument might seem callous or even prejudicial, since it makes major assumptions about how children will grow up. Nevertheless, the authors maintain that the data supports their conclusions.
In the early 90s, the first cohort of children born after Roe v. Wade was reaching its twenties. Had the Supreme Court not legalized abortions, this cohort would have included a significant number of children who would go on to commit crimes. So the crime rate fell through the 1990s likely as a result of an absence of young people who were highly likely to commit crimes.
If parents who try and fail to get abortions are somewhat more likely to raise children who grow up to commit crimes, then it follows that allowing these parents to have abortions will eventually result in a decrease in the crime rate—which is exactly what happened in the ‘90s.
The abortion theory of crime has met with a lot of criticism, particularly because it seems to identify a correlation, rather than causation, between the abortion rate and the crime rate. One way to study the causational power of the abortion rate, however, is to look at crime rates in states where abortion was legal before 1973, such as New York, California, and Washington. Sure enough, the crime rates began to fall in these states in the late 80s, about two or three years before the national decline in the crime rate.
Like good economists, the authors consider other points of view and potential objections to their arguments. Here, they consider—and partly refute—the criticism that their study measures correlation rather than causation, by showing that abortion rates seemed to influence crime rates on the local as well as the national level.
The idea that abortion could have an effect on the crime rate may be shocking to some people. But regardless of what one thinks of the morality of abortions, the declining crime rate was an unambiguous “unintended benefit” of the Supreme Court’s decision.
Having refuted some of the mathematical and scientific objections to their argument, the authors turn to moral objections. But they never claimed that their arguments would be morally palatable—whatever one thinks of abortions, it’s hard to argue that the increased abortion rate decreased crime.
Economists have tried to measure the precise impact of abortion on crime by looking at the “relative values” of fetuses and human lives, an exercise that might strike some people as barbaric. Some would say that a fetus has exactly the same “value” as a life—the “ratio” of their values is 1 to 1. Others would say that a fetus is not alive and has no value, meaning that the “ratio” is 0 to 1. There might be other people who say that a fetus has some limited value. Such a person might say that a newborn baby is “worth 100 fetuses.” For such a person, this would mean that the 1.5. million abortions performed in this country every year are equivalent to the murder of 15,000 human lives. It has been shown that the legalization of abortion rates in this country is responsible for a decrease in the murder rate of far less than 15,000 lives per year. So, speaking in strictly economic terms, one could say that the legalization of abortion has been an extremely inefficient way of decreasing the crime rate, if one assumes that fetuses have some limited “life value.”
This passage is very precise and mathematical, and also somewhat shocking (perhaps deliberately). The authors try to “test” the idea that abortions fight crime by placing a mathematical value on human life. In the end, the authors conclude that abortions would be a highly inefficient way to fight crime. Once again, Levitt and Dubner never mention morality; instead, they speak in strict, economic terms. Levitt and Dubner’s assumptions in this section are fundamentally utilitarian—that is, based on the idea that human life can be measured and valued as a statistic. So perhaps it’s not fair to say that Levitt and Dubner are being “barbaric.” Instead, they’re applying economists’ rules to the study of human life—an approach that could be considered useful or morally nonsensical, depending on one’s point of view. The authors are also arguably trying to shock readers into taking a more objective approach to the study of the world, or at least to make them keep reading.