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.