Freedomnomics author links market restrictions and individual liberties

September 5, 2008Duke Law News

Sept. 4, 2008 — The Law School’s Federalist Society kicked off its lecture series Sept. 3, with a far-ranging talk on economics by John Lott, a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland whose most recent book is Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works and Other Half-Baked Theories Don’t.

Lott discussed ties between market restrictions and individual liberties, the unintended consequences of regulation, and how “economics can help explain a lot of the world out there.”

Much of Lott’s well-attended lecture focused on “externalities” — unintended impacts of economic transactions on third parties. His rhetorical path began in pure economics, with a discussion about how externalities affect car manufacturers and buyers, and ended in social theory, with Lott discussing gun control and abortion laws.

These are familiar topics for Lott. Freedomnomics offers a rebuttal to the popular Freakonomics, whose authors posited that unbridled market forces often result in injustice and illogic.

Lott told students that attempts to regulate donations to political campaigns have resulted in unexpected outcomes.

“It’s claimed that campaign finance law will make races more competitive,” Lott said. “It’s going to make it easier to defeat incumbents, it’s going to make it easier for challengers, and it’s going to increase people’s involvement in the political process, presumably increasing the rate at which people are going to show up and vote because it’s going to make them more confident that there’s not a corrupt process. The problem is that when you look at the data, you see the opposite happen for each of those things.”

Incumbents with fundraising networks and name recognition benefit most from contribution limits, Lott said. “In fact, after the campaign finance reform in1976, there was about a 25 percentage point increase in the rate at which incumbents ran opposed,” he said.

Lott said statistics show that restrictive gun control laws actually increase crime, an argument he made in his book More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws.

Criminals are less likely to commit certain types of crimes if they think there is a reasonable likelihood that their victim will be armed, so laws that restrict an individual’s ability to carry a concealed weapon lead to emboldened criminals — and more crime, Lott argued.

“Even people who would never even think of owning a gun can benefit from the fact that there are some people out there who carry a permitted concealed handgun,” he said. “Just like higher arrest rates, higher conviction rates, or longer prison sentences, it can raise the risks of a criminal going out to commit a crime. The criminals don’t know who’s going to be able to defend themselves, so it can raise the risk for criminals generally.”

Lott tied a number of social changes that occurred in the 1970s to changes in abortion laws. He observed that in the 1970s, the United States saw an increase in out-of-wedlock births, a drop in the rate at which babies were put up for adoption, and a decrease in weddings occurring after accidental pregnancies.

“How can all this fit together?” Lott asked. “Shouldn’t I have a drop in out-of-wedlock births if I have an increase in abortions? One thing happened that changed all of these things, and that was the liberalization of abortion laws.”
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