In the bestseller Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side Of Everything, authors Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner talk about how incentives are the corner-stone of modern life.
“Economics is, at root, the study of incentives: how people get what they want or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing,” the authors write. By adjusting incentives through public policy, penalties and pricing, an economist, planner or politician tries to solve societies’ problems.
Sometimes a change can have unexpected consequences: Levitt and Dubner claim that the decline in violent crime in the US since the mid-1990s can be mainly attributed to the 1973 Roe Versus Wade court decision legalizing abortion; once women who didn’t want children had easier access to abortion, the number of criminally inclined children decreased.
Yeah, economics can be unsettling. Levitt and Dubner contrast economic thought – how the world actually works – against morality, which is the way people would like the world to work.
Queer life is usually discussed in socio-political terms. What if we looked at bits of it through the economist’s prism?
For example, you can see why on-line cruising is booming, while bar-going seems to be in decline. Being able to multitask is a big incentive. Logged into a personals website, you can put yourself on sexual display while doing the dishes or trimming your nose hair.
And there are financial savings beyond those of comparing the cost of on-line subscriptions to drinks and cover charges. On-line you only have to look good once, when you’re getting your web pic taken, rather than getting dolled up every time you decide to make yourself sexually available. Less gel.
Under the gaze of the economist, the behaviour of our rightwing opponents becomes terribly suspicious. You can see how much morality warps political and social approaches to sexuality.
Take abortion. If a person believes that every fetus is sacred, then you would think that person would try to create incentives to reduce the number of abortions. One would look at the motives women have for having abortions – sexual assault, economic problems, societal pressures, lack of access to other methods of birth control – and then eliminate or reduce them. Pro-life champions should spend their time trying to reduce the social stigma of single motherhood, adoption and unconventional family arrangements, while lobbying for better adoption policies, maternity leave, daycare and social welfare programs.
But they don’t. By economic standards, the work of antiabortionists is not about babies at all, but about women’s role in society. Here’s the incentive: don’t ever deviate from the get-married-have-a-baby norm.
A society that treasures children should have incentives to prevent them from getting abused, tormented and traumatized. Yet many school boards resist creating antibullying policies and schools are reluctant to enforce the ones they do have. That’s because the real incentive around bullying is to toughen up boys and humiliate sissies.
Similarly, the government’s new child exploitation law – which will probably be passed in the Senate by the time you read this – doesn’t do much to protect children. Rather, it focusses mostly on works of the imagination about young people, leaving real children mostly to fend for themselves.
And sex work? The anxiety cost for most people opposed to prostitution is having prostitutes in their neighbourhood. Yet our laws are aimed at making it difficult to do sex work behind closed doors. Who did that math?
Of course, it would be in our best interest to always do a cost-benefit analysis before making societal or personal decisions. One bathhouse might be nicer and cheaper, for example, but if you get laid more often at the competitor, isn’t the latter the best place to spend your money?
But we don’t think that way. Morality and superficiality get in the way. Too bad or we could really increase our sexual GDP.