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Commentary

How Can Economics Help Us Reduce Child Abuse?


     
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The latest Facebook activist fad to come across my news feed asked me to do the following:

“Change your FB profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood. The goal? To not see a human face on FB till Monday, December 6th. Join the fight against child abuse & copy, paste to your status to invite your friends to do the same.”

My first thought when I’m encouraged to do things like this is that it is basically an exercise in emotional expression that won’t really do anything to fix the problem. After all, what decent human being isn’t against child abuse?

And yet these updates get me thinking about the issues, which accomplishes their purpose. What can we do to actually reduce child abuse?

Beyond some obvious on-the-ground proposals like working to see that abusers are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and working to create safe environments in our schools, churches, and communities, there are some additional changes we can make that would reduce violence against children. Economics can help us identify a few outside-the-box (and therefore, almost certainly politically impossible) policy changes that will likely reduce child abuse. Here are a few:

1. Eliminate government restrictions on pornography and prostitution. I’m serious. This is probably counterintuitive because a lot of us have been told that these businesses are undesirable because they create social spillovers and might become breeding grounds for sexual predators. After we get over our emotional reactions, however, a cool-headed look at the theory and evidence suggests that pornography, prostitution, and strip clubs are likely to be substitutes for sex crimes. People will no doubt object that we have to fight pornography, prostitution, and strip clubs because of the very high correlation between use of pornography and proclivity for sex crimes. They will infer that pornography is a “root cause” of sex crimes, but this confuses correlation with causation. The data suggest that pornography is actually a substitute for sex crimes. Enforcing these prohibitions also requires resources that are better used prosecuting violent criminals. As our historical experience with prohibitions of alcohol, sex, and drugs teaches us, making something illegal usually drives it underground and actually worsens the problems the prohibitions are supposed to solve.

2. Remove formal barriers to the production and distribution of violent movies and video games. Regulation and prohibition of violent movies and video games treat the symptoms of social problems but not the fundamental diseases, and this is yet another area in which the law of unintended consequences is supremely relevant. I am not aware of systematic evidence on the relationship between violent video games and actual violence, but this paper by Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna shows that violent movies actually deter violence.

3. Remove barriers to adoption. From what some of our friends have described, adopting children is an unnecessarily difficult process. Barriers to adoption mean that there is a mismatch between people who want to adopt and people who have children they don’t want (and are therefore more likely to abuse or neglect). Easier adoption processes would mean less child abuse, fewer abortions, and less kidnapping.

4. Know which risks are really worth worrying about. One of the best parenting books we’ve read is Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids. In a book that warms my economist’s heart–and contrary to popular belief, economists do have hearts (very soft ones, at that)–Skenazy points out how just how improbable many of the things that parents are constantly told to worry about actually are. In no small part, this is because a lot of us know to . . .

5. Keep an eye out for each other. We’re regulars at the Children’s Museum of Memphis. In addition to the vigilant staff, the museum’s patrons keep an eye out for all the kids at the museum, not just their own.

You might find these proposals repugnant, but economics forces us to be very clear and honest about our objectives and the relevant trade-offs. Prostitution, pornography, and violent movies and video games compete with child abuse as outlets for some people’s violent tendencies. Child abuse is a horrific problem, and it’s something that cannot and should not be tolerated. We can do more–much more–than just feel bad about it, though. With a small handful of policy changes, we can make a real dent in a great tragedy.

 


Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and Assistant Professor of Economics at Samford University.
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