Arnold Kling  

Becker vs. Caplan

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Gary Becker writes,


the evidence that has been accumulated since Schumpeter's book gives good marks to free market systems in promoting the interests of the poor and middle classes, including minorities. And examples abound of corrupt and incompetent government officials who either mess things up for everyone, or promote these officials' interests. This evidence has impressed the man and woman in the street, but intellectuals are more removed from the real world, and tend to rely on and trust ideas and intellectual arguments.

This would be my primary explanation for the questions raised by Posner about why faculty (and I add other intellectuals too) have become further to the left of their students and the general population. In effect, intellectuals have changed their views far less than other groups in response to the evidence. While intellectual opinions have stood rather still, the general population has moved their thinking against government solutions and toward solutions that use markets and other private transactions and relations.


Bryan's reading of the evidence is that well-educated people are more likely than others to support free trade and markets in general.

But Caplan is talking about absolute levels of support, and Becker is talking about trends. And I agree with Becker about the trend in academia relative to the trend in the public at large.

As Alex Tabarrok's Bon Mot suggests, today it is the faculty who are inflexible. In fact, I argue that over the past 50 years, faculty have switched places with corporate CEO's in terms of intellectual flexibility.

In 1957, a typical CEO did not arrive at his view of the world through broad reading or keeping up with developments in the natural and social sciences. Instead, his (no need for a gender-neutral pronoun in 1957) opinions came from the prejudices of those within his narrow circle.

Today, that describes academia better than it describes corporate CEO's.

I should point out that I believe that Becker is too optimistic in his view of the general public. I do not think that pro-market sentiment runs particularly deep. True, people seem to have low trust levels in political leaders. But I do not see that stopping the politicians from expanding government's grip on health care, education, etc.

UPDATE: Lots more data and analysis of academic political views summarized here. The paper is here. Incidentally, I worry about people who self-describe as "moderates." That description depends a lot on context. I could describe myself as a moderate compared with Don Boudreaux or Bryan Caplan, but many people would regard my views as radical.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the pointer.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (5 to date)
Jeff writes:

I think one should draw a distinction between an "intellectual" and someone who is "well-educated."

I'm fairly confident Bryan and Becker are talking about two groups of people that are usually wholly separate from one other.

Jeff writes:

from one *another*.

Sorry.

Brandon Berg writes:

Right. Only a small percentage of college graduates are academics.

Jose writes:

"...people seem to have low trust levels in political leaders."

Could be broadened to: people seem to have low trust levels in all leaders.

English Professor writes:

I haven't read Bryan Caplan's book, so perhaps I'm not qualified to comment on this matter, but one thing has bothered me about many of Bryan's posts relevant to his findings. As I look at the politics of the last 35 years, I am amazed at how the US has managed first to implement and then to maintain free-market principles in the government's handling of economic issues. Given Bryan's repeated assertions that the average voter is anti-free market and that politicians pander to the bad ideas of the electorate, one would expect Congress to overturn the free-market policies that were instituted (beginning with de-regulation) in the late 1970s.

My own (purely amateur) take on this is that political rhetoric often differs from political action. It became clear in the 1970s that the old statist policies had bred stagflation. The European political left at the time simply tried to apply more statist solutions; American politicians, on the other hand, were willing to try de-regulation. As for the Reagan tax cuts--he did not have a Republican majority in the House (and even many Republicans were suspicious), but Congress passed them. The Democrats never stopped sneering at Reagan, but many in the party were willing to try free-market solutions while still decrying Republican heartlessness.

In short, American politicians seem more responsive to pragmatic issues than to ideology; they won't stop telling the people what the people want to hear, but they are liable to vote for (or at least acquiesce in) policies that seem to be working.

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