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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

‘Freakonomics’ Was Neoliberal Bullshit

A look back at the bestselling book franchise that taught people to “think like economists,” by which it meant “think cynically and amorally.”

If you were alive and conscious in the early 2000s, you might recall a time when economics was just starting to bleed over from the arena of politics and policy (where it was already oozing over everything) and into pop culture. And if you were reading books, or if you had even a passing interest in what was topping off the New York Times best sellers list, or what Borders was putting on display at the front of their stores, you might remember one title in particular. Wedged between Malcolm Gladwell’s various works of counterintuitive sciencey-surprise and various books on economics was a volume of about 200 pages called Freakonomics.

Freakonomics straddled two publishing trends of the day. On one side, there were books that added an economics bent to just about everything. High on that list was Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty, a Russian novel-length tome that more or less said, “It’s the economy, stupid” to the poindexters at the World Bank and the various presidents and prime ministers of the developing world (people who, one assumes, had been thinking about the economy for their entire careers). The other trend, which Gladwell kicked off with his 2000 bestseller The Tipping Point and dominated for years thereafter, was about counter-intuitive applications for statistics and science, which brought forth copious books with subtitles that went something like “how prosaic-subject X is not what you think.”

Freakonomics was a kind of merger of the two trends—a counter-intuitive application of economics. The star of the book was Steven D. Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago—a priest at one of the high temples of the discipline. But Levitt wasn’t just any economist, his co-author and chief communicator, New York Times Magazine journalist Stephen J. Dubner, told us in the book’s subtitle. He was a rogue economist—a scholar who dared to cast his well-trained eyes beyond economics’ usual humdrum of deficits, trade deals, and job reports and onto everything, everywhere else. 

The result was a kind of a half-baked polemic on the centrality of economic thinking to any legitimate worldview, dressed up as a book of fun stories about a nerdy guy probing the world for secrets—a conflicted premise that was never so evident as it was in the original book’s introduction. Freakonomics was about “stripping a layer or two from the surface of modern life and seeing what is happening underneath,” the authors wrote in the book’s first pages, baptizing readers into their way of thinking. That sounded benign enough. But only a page later, the pair shared their actual thesis. 

“Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work— whereas economics represents how it actually does work.”

To young economics majors just beginning to grasp the power of invoking the dismal science to settle an argument, the whole of Freakonomics was manna from heaven. After the original title, there was a follow-up, 2009’s cleverly titled SuperFreakonomics, then a 2010 documentary (more or less the film version of the original book), followed by a couple more books and four podcasts under the banner “Freakonomics Radio.” 

It was (and is) an entire bag of source material of conversation-ending anecdotes to toss freely at any person who dared argue that economics was dreary, overrated, or undeserving of the attention it commanded, either on university campuses or in far away corridors of power. Economics, it turned out, applied not just to matters of money, but to everything. Why did every attempt to outlaw prostitution fail? Because making it verboten also made it more expensive, compelling more people to take up the profession, of course. Why did real estate agents pressure clients into selling their homes for thousands of dollars less than they sold their own? Because holding out for better prices took a lot of time for a marginal gain in commission … duh

The stories in Freakonomics, carved out of Levitt’s and some other peer academics’ research, made for useful fodder in an argument about many a subject— including some very controversial ones. In each story, they underhanded a question to themselves before describing an interesting and unconventional answer to it. The answers were always there, Levitt and Dubner told us. They were in the data

“Strip away the layers,” they wrote, and you could see the world as clearly as they did. 

The atom in the Levitt-Dubner model of the universe was a familiar term to anyone with a passing interest in economics: incentive. “If there’s only one element that’s there in almost everything that we do, it’s the idea that incentives matter, and if you can figure out what people’s incentives are, you have a good chance of guessing how they’re going to behave,” Levitt said in the 2010 documentary. 

“Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life,” they wrote in the original book. Making sense of people’s reasons for doing the things they did was “the key to solving just about any riddle, from violent crime to sports cheating to online dating.” For loyal Freakonomics followers, the new twist on old questions made the world plain. “Why won’t these girls respond when I ask them, repeatedly, to go out with me?” became “What are these girls’ incentives for ignoring me?” If an answer wasn’t obvious, an adherent could at least assure themselves they were going about understanding their problem in the most intelligent way possible. A young man perplexed by his own lacking romantic life didn’t need to consider his own role in his situation. He knew his own incentive for wanting to attract women. Knowing theirs would either get him what he desired, or, at the very least, grant him some comfort in knowing the truth. 

But even after taking Levitt and Dubner’s incentive-centric perspective to heart, it’s hard to see what some of their examples had to do with economics. 

Consider one particularly attention-grabbing anecdote from the first book concerning abortion and the 1990s crime drop in the United States. The reason for the drop, Levitt and Dubner argued, was because legalizing abortion nationally in 1973 prevented so many would-be criminals from being born.

Many of Levitt’s fellow economists lambasted the abortion theory, which Levitt first proposed in a 2001 paper, for failing to account for a number of reasons for a drop in crime, like reduced drug use and demographic shifts. Levitt was surely aware of these criticisms ahead of Freakonomics’ publication. He even wrote a rebuttal to them on his blog in May 2005, a month after the book launched. 

But the competing theories never got a serious treatment in either the book or the documentary(which also considered the matter). For Levitt and Dubner, the purpose of hammering the abortion angle wasn’t that something (or, more likely, some combination of things) had caused crime rates to fall. It was that society had benefited because of something most people (even people who readily defend abortion access) would prefer not to talk about. 

The meanness embedded in that and some of Levitt and Dubner’s other stories not only added emphasis to that underlying point. Very often, it was the point. In a world besieged by pesky moral principles, the economist (or, at the very least, the persuaded Freakonomics reader) was a hero, courageous enough to stand up and speak of the world as it really was—not merely because they understood incentives, but because they had abandoned a sense of morality (or even a sense of decency) for some set of statistical analyses that might plausibly be called “economics.” 

The result was doublespeak around the subject Freakonomics was ostensibly considering in the first place. Any explanation of human behavior that put “incentives” at its center was economics in the truest sense, Levitt and Dubner told us. But any explanation that abandoned principle in favor of hard-edged rationality? That was economics, too. 

Probing the dual understanding of the word “economics,” we can see the underlying point of Freakonomics. It wasn’t just that economics, the field—that dreary occupation of academics at think tanks and universities around the world—offered an unconventional perspective on human society. It was that economics, the worldview that supplanted morality for statistical analysis and presumed every person alive to be a self-interested automaton looking to get ahead of everyone else, was foundational to any understanding of human society, and that anyone that saw things differently was just ignorant about how the world worked. 

“It is well and good to opine or theorize about a subject, as humankind is wont to do, but when moral posturing is replaced by an honest assessment of the data, the result is often a new, surprising insight,” the authors wrote in their first introduction to the first book. And by “honest assessment,” they meant one that was cynical by default. 

Freakonomics was notable for its enormous popularity, though not so much for its originality. Even as an introduction to a worldview, it wasn’t exactly pathbreaking. 

Though the word never appeared in any of Levitt and Dubner’s books, Freakonomics was a kind of apologetics for neoliberalism. In the way that C.S. Lewis set out to get youngsters interested in Christianity by telling them a story about a group of kids and a lion in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Freakonomics sold the world on one of the most pervasive ideologies of the day with stories about the incentive structure of drug dealers, sex workers, suicide bombers, and realtors. 

Despite what a lot of its proponents and even some detractors will tell you, “neoliberalism” is neither a made up word nor a mere synonym for capitalism. It’s an ideology that, like Levitt and Dubner’s declared area of coverage, touches every aspect of human society. Whereas laissez-faire economics advocated for a separation of markets and government, the core tenet of neoliberalism, spelled out by economists-cum-political philosophers like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and later by the social theorist Michel Foucault, was that society was better off when market forces dominated everything. 

Markets are fundamental in the neoliberal worldview. But just as Levitt and Dubner could be vague about definitions of foundational concepts like “incentives” and “economics,” economic thinkers (and neoliberals, in particular) have long been vague about what they mean when they invoke their own favorite term. As the philosopher Philip Mirowski writes in his 2014 book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, even classical economic thinkers have relied on a contradictory understanding of “the market,” describing it as something that is both made by human hands and also something that is “eternal and unchanging.” 

Neoliberalism, Mirowski added, resolved the contradiction by “erasing any distinctions among the state, society, and the market.” The market was always there, the ideology’s proponents said. It wasn’t just the basis of human society. It was human society, and human society was the market. And for all their differences in personality or perspective, people, by extension, were just “market actors”—avatars for their own transactions. Compare that way of seeing things with Levitt and Dubner’s position that incentives are “the key to understanding any riddle” of human existence, and you can see how Freakonomics was basically just a paean to the neoliberal worldview. 

Neoliberalism’s adoption at the highest levels of power forced a convergence of business and government that has made one largely indistinguishable from the other, subjugating the world to the wants of business and compelling ordinary people to refashion themselves into products to be bought and sold. For a generation that had no concept of neoliberalism except through their own experience living in a world already broken and remade according to its tenets, Freakonomics offered something approximating understanding. Of course the market is in everything, it told us: whether we wanted it that way or not, the market is everything. From Levitt and Dubner’s vantage, the ever-presence of market thinking and business speak in every aspect of modern life was just a byproduct of that inescapable reality. It wasn’t just market supremacy they were selling, it was market at the creation. The market wasn’t a social construct, and its intrusion into every aspect of our lives wasn’t the result of choices made, over and over, by politicians all over the world. The market was the collective embodiment of humanity, full stop. The ones who tried to carve out places for some aspect of human society to carry on outside the market’s reach were hopelessly naive. To refer back to that line from the first book, they were unable to get past the way they “would like the world to work.” 

When Margaret Thatcher subjected the United Kingdom’s social safety net to a destructive battery of neoliberal reforms, she said “there is no alternative.” In Freakonomics, that tenet was an embedded reality. “Duh,” it told us. “What’s in it for us?” 

Resisting neoliberalism begins with asking a different question: what is right? 

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