By now, it should be clear that Freakonomics has had no “unifying theme.” The authors have moved back and forth between many different subjects. In the process, they’ve tried to encourage readers to challenge the conventional wisdom about everything. The more we look at the world, they say, the clearer it becomes that “experts” don’t always tell the truth. The authors acknowledge that they have sometimes offered hypotheses that might seem immoral or offensive. But economics isn’t about describing the “right thing” or the ideal world; it’s about describing how the real world works.
The authors conclude their book by reiterating one of their most important themes: economics and morality have very little in common. An economist’s job isn’t to offer politically correct, moral-sounding conclusions about the world. Rather, a good economist will entertain many different hypotheses, even if these hypotheses sound offensive or even barbaric. Economists describe the real world as it is, “warts and all,” instead of trying to suggest how the world should be.
Another important thing to keep in mind about Freakonomics is that statistics and economic analysis can never predict how individual people are going to behave with complete accuracy. The authors now return to the two hypothetical children they discussed in Chapter Five. One was black, and grew up with an abusive father in Florida. The other was white, and grew up with loving parents who encouraged his math abilities. But in fact, the authors say, these two students weren’t hypothetical at all. The black child is Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist. The white child also studied at Harvard. “But soon after, things went badly for him. His name is Ted Kaczynski” (i.e., the Unabomber).
Surprisingly, the two hypothetical children discussed earlier in the book turn out to not be hypothetical at all. The white child, Ted Kaczynski, grew up to be the Unabomber, one of the deadliest terrorists in American history. The fact that a child with almost every advantage in life (at least on paper) could turn out to be a dangerous criminal suggests some of the limitations of economics. Economists can study the data and predict how children will and won’t behave on average, but there is always an element of randomness in human behavior. No economist could have predicted the Unabomber. So perhaps we should take Levitt and Dubner’s studies of human development with a grain of salt. Economics can tell us a lot about the average behavior of large groups, but it can’t predict how individual human beings will behave.