Sleazonomics: A review of Steven E. Landsburg's More Sex Is Safer Sex
by Bruce Wydick
In the past, the field of economics was frequently criticized as esoteric, dull, generally lacking in sex appeal–or any appeal for that matter–to the common layperson. This was beginning to change by the late 1990s from the movement in economics toward practical, interesting, empirical research that expanded the boundaries of the field with forays into studies of political, psychological, and social behavior.
But when Levitt & Dubner's Freakonomics (Harper) appeared in popular bookstores in 2005 it began to radically change the common person's view of economics as a field that could actually keep readers up at night. Here was economics (from the University of Chicago, no less) explaining why drug dealers still lived with their mamas, the relationship between crime and abortion, and the influence of first names in obtaining a job.
In many ways, Levitt & Dubner's predecessor was the University of Rochester's Steven Landsburg. Landsburg's The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life (Free Press, 1995) was one of the first books that attempted to bring economics into our quotidian decisions: the economics of choosing a mate, splitting a check at a restaurant, and so forth. More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics (Free Press, 2008) is a collection of essays by a self-proclaimed atheist, libertarian economist, who shares his power of economic reasoning with us on topics ranging from sex to how to fix the US political and judicial systems, to nearly everything that is wrong with with world as he sees it today.
I will confine most of my comments to the title essay of Landsburg's book, which deals with his views on sex. The basis for his main argument lies in a paper published by Harvard professor Michael Kremer, who finds that "the spread of AIDS in England could plausibly be retarded if every one with fewer than about 2.25 partners per year were to take additional partners more frequently." In other words, if we could get sexual conservatives to be just a little bit less conservative, society as a whole would be better off. It would slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.
Landsburg lays out his argument that "more sex is safer sex" through the following arguments: 1) Sexual conservatives are less likely to have AIDS. 2) If sexually promiscuous individuals have access to sex with more sexually conservative individuals, the former will be less likely to get AIDS. 3) If sexually promiscuous individuals are less likely to get AIDS, then AIDS will spread more slowly across the population. His conclusion is that sexually pure, monogamous types could do society a big favor by loosening up their sexual mores (although only a little–too much promiscuity would cause the disease to spread faster again). Although he admits that this would make it more likely that these newly sexually liberated individuals would contract AIDS, overall people would be less likely to get it on average, so if these conservative people would be willing to engage in sex with more partners, it would be a good thing on the whole.
Economic theorists are experts at uncovering a surprising wrinkle in social phenomena, and Landsburg is no exception. Whether within a formal mathematical structure, or simply through clear, deductive reasoning, a conclusion is deduced from a set of assumptions. Yet there are a number of problems with his argument, the first of which lies in its narrow set of assumptions. Indeed, a more accurate (but definitely less provocative) title for the book would probably be something like Under a Heavily Restricted Set of Assumptions and Considering Marginal Changes in Behavior Only, It Is Theoretically Possible That AIDS Could Spread More Slowly if the Sexually Monogamous Became Slightly More Promiscuous.
What is clear is that in the Landsburg world, there are no negative side-effects from casual sexual encounters (aside from that stubborn problem of transmittable disease). Despite the enormous loads of data pointing to the decrease in individual happiness associated with sexual promiscuity, there is no mention of any psychological side effects from increased promiscuity (that occur particularly for women). Nor is there mention of the natural exploitation of women that frequently occurs from such encounters, where sex is divorced from commitment to a woman or any children that are conceived as a result of the sexual encounter. Moreover, Landsburg's argument cleverly shifts the spotlight and the accountability away from those who bear primary responsibility for the spread of the disease (the promiscuous) to those who have played little or no role in the spread of the disease, the sexually monogamous.
Rigorously peer-reviewed economics journals ensure that economic researchers manifest their assumptions clearly in the deduction of a proof or proposition. Unfortunately, editors of popular books do not. And even more unfortunately, this is true even when authors implicitly or explicitly suggest that their conclusions may be helpful to overcoming real-world problems. In this way, reasoning of this type represents the worst of what economics has to offer to a serious dialogue over important issues.
There is a strain of thinking in economics that is profoundly, and even ideologically, libertarian. This is unfortunate because economics has as much to say about the social consequences of our choices as the purported individual benefits from them. Christians believe that sex is sacred because it is where new life is created from the joining of two lives, a male and female who are publicly committed until death. Many libertarians find it difficult to understand those of us who have a problem with sex outside of marriage. I believe this is because the libertarian worldview is one of atomistic, ostensibly mutually beneficial transactions, where the social good is reduced to the sum of the pleasure of individuals stemming from individual choices. This is neither a realistic worldview nor a biblical one.
Bruce Wydick is professor of economics at the University of San Francisco and a contributing editor to PRISM.