Free market economics, not surgery

I’ve held off posting this because I try to pace myself on the circumcision posts. But today is the perfect day to comment. For a rational take on the problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa, consider Emily Oster’s recent article from Esquire:

When I began studying the HIV epidemic in Africa a few years ago, there were few other economists working on the topic and almost none on the specific issues that interested me. It’s not that the questions I wanted to answer weren’t being asked. They were. But they were being asked by anthropologists, sociologists, and public-health officials.

That’s an important distinction. These disciplines believe that cultural differences—differences in how entire groups of people think and act—account for broader social and regional trends. AIDS became a disaster in Africa, the thinking goes, because Africans didn’t know how to deal with it.

Economists like me don’t trust that argument. We assume everyone is fundamentally alike; we believe circumstances, not culture, drive people’s decisions, including decisions about sex and disease.

I’ve studied the epidemic from that perspective. I’m one of the few people who have done so. And I’ve learned that a lot of what we’ve been told about it is wrong. Below are three things the world needs to know about AIDS in Africa.

I can’t recommend the article enough, as Ms. Oster explains the HIV crisis in Africa in terms at least as plausible as any prevailing theory. It just might be possible that believing the future will be worth living encourages people to make better choices. If that’s correct, circumcision won’t make the difference in Africa that its proponents hope. Again, we must ask ourselves whether solving the problem is more important than addressing it with a preferred solution. Accurate assumptions are vital.