Books: Fair Play

A month ago I raved about Steven E. Landsburg’s first book The Armchair Economist. I found the book so engrossing that I was disappointed when it ended, so I picked up Landsburg second (and most recent) effort, Fair Play, hoping for more of the same. Unfortunately, Fair Play doesn’t exactly pick up where Armchair left off. While a quite enjoyable read, I thought Fair Play left something to be desired.

The problem lies with the subtitle: “What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics”. It’s not so much what the subtitle says, it’s that there is a subtitle at all. The beauty of Armchair Economist was that it was free-ranging, dashing hither and yon covering a variety of economic topics. Better yet, it was one step removed from the reality. The “rational riddles” pondered in Armchair were first distilled to abstraction, and then examined using economic theory. Landsburg reminded readers again and again the many of the assumptions underlying his analysis are simplifications (e.g., all people share common preferences) but his point wasn’t to provide definitive answers to the given conundrums but to demonstrate the logical process that economists use when contemplating such questions. Although the author’s personal beliefs were occasionally injected into the narrative, the economics always came first.

In Fair Play, on the other hand, Landsburg’s worldview seems to be driving the economics. In particular, two of his passions — love of his daughter and dislike of progressive taxation — provide the framework for the discussion. The central conceit of the book is we need only look to children to discern the basic economic principles that should guide our society. It’s a rather gimmicky premise, but one that makes intuitive sense; if humans are essentially economic creatures, then we would do well to look at those least tainted by society to see how we should behave. Unfortunately, Landsburg is inconsistent in how he employs this economics-via-children stratagem. Sometimes he says we should look to how children act instinctively for clues as to what’s “fair,” saying “if this is the way we’re wired, it must be a for a reason”. But other times he cites how adults tell children to behave as a guide to how we should behave ourselves, implying that the standards of “fairness” we set out for our children ought not to differ from those we adhere to ourselves. By trying to have it both ways, Landsburg undermines both arguments.

The subtitular “Look To The Children” theme is then largely abandoned in the middle third of the book (an extended critique of our system of taxation), and then hastily readopted as he brings the book to a close. Scattered throughout the work are snippets cribbed from his regular Slate Everyday Economics column. The overall effect is of a recipe with a few too many ingredients.

If I’m critical of Fair Play, it’s because Landsburg’s first told me to do so — now when I read economic writing I am always looking for the flaws and contradictions. Even so, Play is an fun read and left me looking forward to his next offering. If you haven’t ready either of Lansburg’s works then The Armchair Economist is the way to go; but if you’ve already devoured that one and are hungry for more, Fair Play is a worthy, if somewhat unsatisfying, follow-up.

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3 comments.

  1. I’ll believe a book that exhorts the reader to look to children only if it’s written by a child. It would probably read a bit like this: “Look! Look at the children! Bobby’s playing GTA III! Meghan’s talking to Ralph! Oh, they’re gonna kiss each other!”

  2. I had a number of problems with the Armchair Economist, so I am not surprised by this critical review of his second book. Let me illustrate this with a reference to his chapter on drug legalization.

    In the criticism of the Atlantic Monthly article, he states that a cost benefit analysis needs to take into account the effect to all of society. This is not correct. When I do a cost benefit analysis of whether or not to eat another cookie, I do not consider how hungry the person in the next desk is. I simply compare how happy another cookie will make me to how much another cookie would cost me, mainly in inches around the waist.

    When discussing drug policy, we need to do so from the perspective of a politician. All a politician wants is to be re-elected, thus they want to please the voting populous (or those funding their campaign). We assume that drug users for the most part do not vote. If this were a bad assumption, then I would think that we wouldn’t be throwing them into jail left and right. So, now we look at legalization of drugs and how that benefits the voting/non drug using population, since they will be the ones making the determination.

    Increasing taxes on drug users is a net benefit to non drug users, because if government spending remains steady, then the non drug users will pay less taxes on cookies, which effectively reduces the costs of cookies creating more cookie eaters. Now, drug users will pay more for drugs to balance this out, but we have already demonstrated (by the fact that they are in jail) that the voting/non drug using population and thus the government, doesn’t care about their interests. Follow this line of reasoning and the rest of his arguments in this chapter also break down.

    Yes, his initial assumption is fine if we want to talk about the greatest good to mankind, but since we are not ruled by philosopher kings, then this line of thought isn’t realy valuable in discussing public policy. There are other parts of the book that I had problems with as well, but I will leave that for another day.

    You should check out Economics Is Everywhere by Daniel S. Hamermesh, as I think you would enjoy it.

  3. ‘Sometimes he says we should look to how children act instinctively for clues as to what’s “fair,” saying “if this is the way we’re wired, it must be a for a reason”.’

    Interesting. Does it occur to him that the reason is probably evolutionary, and therefore is likely to have at best a coincidental relation to fairness?