Monday, 4 June 2018

Book Review: WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird

I just finished reading Peter Leeson's new book, WTF?! An Economic Tour of the Weird. I thoroughly enjoyed his earlier book "The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates", so I had high expectations for this one. The Invisible Hook explained a number of the interesting practices of pirates (e.g. why did they fly the skull and crossbones flag, and why did they adhere to the 'pirate code') using the tools of economics. WTF does a similar job for a broader collection of interesting practices such as medieval ordeals, wife auctions in England, the use of oracles to settle disputes, vermin trials, and trial by battle, among several others. Once Leeson describes some of these practices to you, they genuinely will make you think "WTF", so the book it aptly titled. The reasoning behind each practice is clearly explained and shown to be consistent with rational economic behaviour, or at least to be consistent with prevailing incentives.

Leeson's own research is embedded throughout the book, as you might expect. Many of the topics covered have relevance to modern times as well, but Leeson surprisingly avoids drawing the reader's attention to this until almost the end of the book:
Was Norman England's judicial system, which decided property disputes by having litigants hire legal representatives to fight one another physically, less sensible than contemporary England's judicial system, which decides property disputes by having litigants hire legal representatives to fight one another verbally?
Is contemporary Liberia's criminal justice system, which sometime uses evidence based on a  defendant's reaction to imbibing a magical potion, less sensible than contemporary California's criminal justice system, which sometimes uses evidence based on a defendant's reaction to being hooked up to a magical machine that makes squiggly lines when her pulse races?
How about Renaissance-era ecclesiastics' tithe compliance program, which used rats and crickets to persuade citizens to pay their tithes? Any less sensible than World War II-era US Treasury Department officials' tax compliance program, which used Donald Duck to persuade citizens to pay their taxes?
The book makes use of an interesting narrative device - it is presented as a tour through a museum of the weird. Some readers might find that approach a little distracting. I found it quirky and an interesting way to present the material. It wasn't necessary though - based on Leeson's earlier book I'm sure he could have written an equally interesting book without resorting to creating fictional tour characters to pose questions.

Overall, the book possibly isn't going to teach you a lot of economic principles, but it will show you how economics can be used to explain some seemingly weird practices (some contemporary, many historical). If you are into the quirky or weird, or just want to see economics pop up in unusual situations, then like The Invisible Hook this book is a must-read.

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