Bryan Caplan  

Will the Real Wise Advice Please Stand Up?

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Technocrats and Populists... Analytical Egalitarianism and ...

Arnold wonders if I'm asking a trick question:

Bryan writes,
Politicians usually ignore wise advice. Is that a reason not to try to make them take wise advice?

Coming from a libertarian (or someone who I thought was a libertarian a few weeks ago), is that a trick question? Suppose that it's 1935, and the "wise advice" that the technocrats give is for a pay-as-you-go Social Security system. (That indeed was the considered advice of economists working for Roosevelt at the time.) Should we be happy that Roosevelt took that advice?

There's a world of difference between trying to make politicians take wise advice, and trying to make politician take advice that people mistakenly think is wise. I'm not happy that Roosevelt took the advice because Social Security was and remains a foolish policy.

Arnold goes on:

As a libertarian, you don't want to see politicians trolling for technocrats with clever schemes. You want politicians and the public to be properly skeptical of government. At least, that's what I want.

What if the "clever scheme" is deregulation or privatization or any other libertarian reform? Again, the sensible complaint for a libertarian to make against allegedly clever statist schemes is that they are actually foolish.

P.S. Arnold can put his fears about my defection from libertarianism to rest. All I've been claiming is that elites are more libertarian than the rest of the population, so giving elites more influence pushes policy in a libertarian direction. William F. Buckley famously said that "I would rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by the 2000 members of the faculty of Harvard University". As for me, I would rather be governed by the current membership of the American Economic Association than by the millions of people who voted on Tuesday.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Seth writes:

Reminds me of a famous quote:

If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator.

It's a political philosophy most popular with high-school students.

Bryan's claim that

There's a world of difference between trying to make politicians take wise advice, and trying to make politician take advice that people mistakenly think is wise.

sounds good as long as you ignore the vital question of who gets to determine what's wise. Bryan posits the rule that only people who Bryan agrees with should. How wise.

John Thacker writes:

All I've been claiming is that elites are more libertarian than the rest of the population

In some (significant, yes) ways, but not all. Guns, for example. Elites are also much more likely to hate Wal-Mart.

My position is simply that there are characteristic (statist) flaws in the positions of both elites and populists. Populists have votes and elites other sources of power, so there is a complex balance of power. I'm not convinced of the wisdom of pushing it more in the direction of the elites.

Dain writes:

Really? Elites are MORE libertarian? I seriously doubt it. Though it depends on what we mean.

Are they more likely to be "libertarianish" in their personal lives, i.e. less authoritarian and illiberal amongst their friends and family? Yes.

Are they more likely to be less interventionist, in the statist sense? I hardly think so. Think of elite foreign policy (CFR), elite health policy (AMA), elite education policy (NEA).

Elitism and busybody-ism go hand in hand.

Tom West writes:

As for me, I would rather be governed by the current membership of the American Economic Association than by the millions of people who voted on Tuesday.

Not for long, I suspect. As soon as the members realized the (presumably irrevocable) power they actually held, it would become a very different organization.

The trouble with governing by elites is that sooner or later (and evidence is strongly towards sooner), their self-interest outweighs any good they could possibly do. I've yet to see a counter-example. (Singapore has yet to go a generational transfer of power.)

In the end, I'm not quite with Arnold (designing government to minimize the harm it can do), but even statist as I am, I'd never trust an unelected elite, no matter how good their intentions to start. I'm not certain that humans are even capable of avoiding the natural progression of unchecked power. Hence the only way to avoid such a problem is to spread that power as widely as possible... i.e. democracy.

Matt C writes:

When I think of political issues like environmentalism and government run health care, I have some doubts that the elite today are really more libertarian than Average Joe.

Maybe you're right, though. Let's say you are. What about the elite of fifty years ago? Pretty near communist, from what I've read. If they had had a free hand back then, I don't want to think of what the world would be like now.

It's not like you can concentrate power in the hands of an elite and then expect them to give it back if they don't do what you expected.

John Thacker writes:

Populist opinion is also, for example, strongly against red light cameras. They've failed in every referendum. Populist opinion is also against affirmative action. Affirmative action, in particular, is popular among elites.

I think that elite opinion is more libertarian than populist opinion along certain issues, but not all.

Monte writes:

“As for me, I would rather be governed by the current membership of the American Economic Association than by the millions of people who voted on Tuesday.”

Eugenics was a popular idea among progressive economists such as Irving Fisher, Francis A. Walker, Simon N. Patten, Henry W. Farnam, Edward A. Ross, Frank A. Petter, Henry R. Seager, and John R. Commons, all past AEA presidents. One “clever scheme” they found particularly appealing was removing the biologically inferior from the labor force, which would reduce "race suicide" and raise the wages of superior, deserving workers. Sounds like it may have possibilities with respect to the “irrational voter” problem, as well.

Granted, this example is an unlikely extreme. Even so, I have difficulty with Bryan's concept of a Supreme Council of Economic Advisors.

Robb Lutton writes:

Bryan,
Why do you think Economists, of all academics, have the world figured out? I see no evidence of this, except in their own minds. In your Cato article you align correctness or "rationality" with expert opinion, but I would be willing to bet that you don't think Educational theorists know more about schools than you do. I would say that you are just another Irrational voter....

Kent Gatewood writes:

How long before a motor cycle gang or a group of high school coaches overthrew a "libertarian" dictatorship?

mjh writes:
There's a world of difference between trying to make politicians take wise advice, and trying to make politician take advice that people mistakenly think is wise.
While that's true, the ability to determine what is wise before it's implemented is almost always less than the ability to determine what is wise after it's implemented.

Bryan, are you saying that you can (in advance) discern what is wise from what people mistakenly think is wise? How do I know you're not mistaken in that ability? How do you know?

bob writes:

Let's say that only members of AEA could vote. In that case, first, as has been pointed out above, to some degree at least AEA members would be more inclined to vote for their own self-interest than for the general good. Second, I don't think they'd stay as libertarian as they are now for long. Incentives to join the AEA would increase dramatically, and eventually it would likely be taken over by some other ideology or faction. This could be prevented only by the rigourous ideological enforcement on behalf of the current members, which would stifle academic debate and investigation. In short, in the long run, the AEA would have to either become a quasi-religious institution, enforcing the current opininon of AEA members as unquestionable fact, or it would be taken over by some other faction.

RogerM writes:

There's a world of difference between trying to make politicians take wise advice, and trying to make politician take advice that people mistakenly think is wise.

I wonder why Bryan doesn't take the advice of the posts above? It seems very wise to me. Bryan seems frustrated by democracy.

Politicians listen to their constituents, not economists. Why doesn't he spend more time trying to convince the average voter of his truths than arguing for overthrowing democracy?

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