Monday, July 30, 2007


I once had the honor of sharing a meal with Steven Pinker. He was as fun and brilliant in person as he is in his writing.

The Chicago Sun-Times recently published a piece by him (which we’ve mentioned before) that’s also the preface to a book entitled “What is Your Dangerous Idea? Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable.”

The article begins with a long series of questions:

Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?

Were the events in the Bible fictitious — not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?

Has the state of the environment improved in the last 50 years?

Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage?

Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?

Do men have an innate tendency to rape?

Did the crime rate go down in the 1990s because two decades earlier poor women aborted children who would have been prone to violence?

Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven?

Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were legalized?

Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men?

Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?

Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized?

Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?

Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability?

Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?

Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?

Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?

Would Africa have a better chance of rising out of poverty if it hosted more polluting industries or accepted Europe’s nuclear waste?

Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people?

Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder?

Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation?

Should people have the right to clone themselves, or enhance the genetic traits of their children?

After this list of questions, he goes on to write:

Perhaps you can feel your blood pressure rise as you read these questions. Perhaps you are appalled that people can so much as think such things. Perhaps you think less of me for bringing them up. These are dangerous ideas — ideas that are denounced not because they are self-evidently false, nor because they advocate harmful action, but because they are thought to corrode the prevailing moral order.

I must confess that my blood pressure did not rise as I read this list. In fact, I felt kind of bad that my blood didn’t boil. So I went and read them again, hoping I could find one that really set me off. My second pass also left me feeling quite calm. True, I don’t agree with some of the conjectures — but they are not things that I get emotional about. I know this would be the reaction of most economists (and, I suspect, of scientists and engineers as well, although I know fewer of them). I’m not sure, however, that is always a good thing; while economists and scientists tend to pride themselves on their objective analysis, emotion and morality also play an important role.

What did strike me about the list of questions was how many are linked in some way to economists. Larry Summers comes to mind on gender differences and shipping pollution to Africa, Alan Krueger on the education of terrorists, Milton Friedman on the legalization of drugs, Richard Posner on a market for babies, Gary Becker on a market for organs, and even John Donohue and me on legalized abortion and crime. I’m not saying these ideas necessarily originated with economists, but that, at a minimum, economists often find themselves on the “wrong” side of dangerous ideas.

I would love to see what would happen if economists got the chance to run the world. My guess is it would be fun for a while, but the ending wouldn’t be happy.

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