As I mentioned some time ago, I love Freakonomics. Steven Levitt, an economics professor at Chicago University, and Stephen Dubner, a journalist, teamed up to write two books—Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics—which explore “the hidden side of everything.” Levitt brilliantly manipulates and interprets statistical data in order to find why things happen the way they do in everything from teacher’s cheating on their students’ tests to realtors selling your home for less than they could to drug dealers choosing to live at home with their parents. There’s no doubt about it, these books are fascinating.
As Levitt examines these situations, he feels compelled to go where the data leads him. In at least one case, this approach landed him in the midst of some very intense controversy.
Levitt was fascinated by the decline in crime during the 1990s. As the 80s came to a close, everyone expected the growing crime rates to continue to skyrocket. By all accounts, our society should have been overcome by crime. But suddenly, magically, crime dropped dramatically in the 90s. Why?
Many explanations have been offered. Some say that changes in the crack market caused the drop in crime rate. Others cite innovative policing strategies (incidentally, this faulty (according to Levitt) assumption forms a major basis for Malcolm Gladwell’s conclusions in The Tipping Point). But Levitt finds these and many other suggestions unconvincing—they can only account for a small percentage of the reduced crime rate.
So what really caused the decline? According to Levitt, it was the ruling of the infamous Roe v. Wade trial, which led to a huge increase in abortions. As Levitt looks at the numbers, he sees a huge drop in the population of those who tend to commit the highest number of crimes. In other words, the type of people who most often get abortions are also the type of people who live in the types of environments that tend to produce the highest number of criminals. So his premise is that these people had more abortions, and eventually, when these unborn babies would have been reaching their prime age for committing crimes (the 1990s), the criminals simply were not around to commit the crimes they otherwise would have committed. So why was there less crime? Because a huge number of the would-be criminals were aborted.
Needless to say, Levitt’s conclusion here has been hugely controversial. Levitt himself says that his findings should not be used to support the pro-choice position, but it’s easy to see why pro-choicers would do so and why pro-lifers would be outraged by his conclusion. For Levitt, he was simply explaining what he found to be the most convincing way of interpreting the data.
So here’s the real question: how should we, as Christians, respond to this?
Assuming that Levitt’s conclusion is correct (which is definitely an assumption; I am in no position to judge the truth or falsity of his analysis), do we simply disregard the evidence because we don’t like where it leads? I hope that we are above this. If Christianity is true, we don’t need to doctor the facts in order to support our beliefs. So let’s reject that approach.
But does that mean we need to start promoting abortions? Of course not! I think that what Levitt found in his study confirms what God says about the world, albeit in a roundabout way. In essence, Levitt is saying that society functions better when teenagers aren’t having babies outside of wedlock. He’s not trying to make any moral judgments; he is simply saying that when we don’t have as many babies born to parents practicing promiscuous sex—the kind of parents who want sex but don’t want babies—then society works better.
Wouldn’t we agree?
God has designed sex to operate in a specific context, and when we try separate it from that context, the beautiful fruit of a sexual relationship—a child—becomes an unwanted burden that ruins our lives and drags down our society. But when we celebrate sex in its appropriate context and maintain healthy relationships, the fruit of sex—a child—becomes a welcome part of a loving family, and society is strengthened. God tells us that the world works this way, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see an economist agreeing.
Of course, Levitt wasn’t arguing against extramarital sex any more than he was arguing for abortion. And some pro-choicers will use Levitt’s study to promote abortion. Rather than being outraged over statistical analysis, however, our response should be ministry. We should seek to help those who are hurting, even if their pain is self-inflicted. But keep in mind that our goal is not a comfortable, crime-free society. Rather, we are working to see the people around us conformed to the image of Christ for the glory of God. And ultimately, this approach is the only one that will lead to a sinless society, though we are waiting for Christ’s return to experience this reality.