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Q&A with Peter Leeson

In his second book, WTF?!: An Economic Tour of the Weird (Stanford University Press, 2017), Duncan Black Professor of Economics and Law Peter T. Leeson, PhD Economics ’05, shares the economic reasoning behind some of the world’s strangest practices and superstitions. It turns out that these rules were actually not so much strange as they were meticulously planned responses to pressing social problems. From Italy’s criminal prosecution of cockroaches and crickets to accused criminals in Liberia choosing to drink poison to determine their fates, Leeson’s new book studies the rational thought behind irrational practices.

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Peter Leeson

What can readers expect to learn from your book?

How humanity’s seemingly stupidest rituals, past and present—from deciding the fate of accused criminals with trials by poison ingestion to selling wives at public auctions to consulting poisoned chickens to decide how to behave toward your neighbors—are in fact ingenious solutions to pressing social problems, developed by clever people and tailor-made for their time and place.

What started your interest in using economics to explain bizarre practices in human history?

Two things. First, curiosity: When I encounter behavior that doesn’t seem to make any sense, I wonder, “Why?” Second, realization: The key to uncovering “why” is to think in terms of incentives, rules, and constraints—in other words, to think about the crazy stuff that people do [in the way that] an economist would think about anything else.

What made you want to write this book?

Mostly, I thought I’d have a ton of fun writing—and illustrating!—it, and that people would have a ton of fun reading it. The book takes the reader on a literal tour of a museum of “social oddities,” guided by yours truly. Joining readers as they make their way through the museum are a host of eccentric tour-goers, whose lively interactions with me and each other propel the narrative. Regardless of what you think about economics, the tour is guaranteed to make you laugh, expose you to a slice of mankind that you won’t believe, and say, “WTF?!”

Do you have any advice for economics students interested in this subject?

Yes. Ignore people who’ll advise you “not to waste your time with such frivolity; there’s important work to be done!” These people are boring—and poor barometers of what’s actually important. Also, come see me.

 Do you have any plans for a sequel?

I do! If WTF?! does as well as I’d like, I intend to “continue the tour,” and I’m already preparing the museum.