Bryan Caplan  

Do as Dan Does, Not as He Says

Maggie Mahar vs. Arnold Kling... Me Versus the Economic Consens...

Dan Klein closes his critique of The Myth of the Rational Voter with recommendations for the next edition:

1. Soften the emphasis on beliefs and bias. Go more with bents.

2. Drop all “rational” talk. Just go with terms like folly, foolish, unenlightened.

3. Confess libertarian sensibilities. Confess that the package you are selling is broader than a technical analysis of the effectiveness of democracy.

4. Doing so will enable you to take the stress off of expertise and the like. Acknowledge high-strata statist bents.

5. Place the work within liberalism through the ages, including esp Hayek and Public Choice.

I don't plan on following much of this advice. Here's why, point-by-point.

1. I will never switch from "beliefs" to "bents." Laymen and experts alike already understand the concept of belief. "Bents," in contrast, is vague to laymen and confusing to academics.

2. I am not going to abandon "rational" talk in favor of "unenlightened," especially when we closely examine what Dan means by "enlightened." Here's Dan:

"Enlightened" does not mean "good for you." It does not mean "unbiased errors." It means beliefs that we [libertarians] think would better the condition of humanity.
Frankly, this is extremely sloppy thinking. I can imagine why you might define enlightenment as "what would in fact better the condition of humanity." But to define it in terms of what libertarians think would better the condition of humanity is absurd. What if what we think is wrong? Would it still make sense to call ourselves "enlightened"? If not, then Dan's definition is wrong.

In any case, Dan forgets the plain fact that false beliefs can better the condition of humanity. Visualize a world where everyone believed that his head would explode if he tried to commit murder.

As far as I can tell, Dan's objections stem from a larger "pragmatist" philosophical agenda which objects to all the concepts I regard as indispensable, starting with reality, truth, and rationality. I think this agenda is obviously wrong.

3. Should I more boldly confess to libertarian sensibilities, and try to sell the whole package? Judging from the reviews, many people thought my book was a bold confession of libertarian sensibilities. But in any case, trying to sell the whole package is simply bad marketing. I want to reach a broader audience, and the best way to do that is to focus on a narrower issue and find some common ground.

4. I don't want to take the stress off expertise, because I genuinely accept the presumption that if experts and laymen disagree, the experts are probably right.

Dan's best point is that I should focus more on "high-strata biases." In a sense, my whole book is an attack on one high-strata bias: Social scientists' belief in rational voter models. Still, I think Dan is right that high-strata biases exist, and merit further study. If these studies go somewhere, I'd be happy to add them to my next edition.

5. "Placing the work within liberalism through the ages" seems like more bad marketing to me. The whole point of argument is to find some common ground with your audience, then move forward. Dan's approach fails to do that.

Should I have spent more time relating my work to Public Choice? To be honest, I think the connection between my work and this broader literature is hard to miss. I've got a whole chapter on my criticism of the field.

Should I have spent more time relating my work to Hayek? I don't see why, because (a) Hayek (unlike Mises) didn't influence my thinking on these issues; (b) he's a terrible writer; and frankly, he's grossly overrated, largely because his writing is so full of obsfucation.

To conclude: I think Dan Klein has been very successful precisely because he doesn't follow the advice he gives to me. Reality, truth, and rationality are the guiding stars of his research - look at how carefully he crafts his surveys. And as his Econ Journal Watch shows, there are few economists alive who work harder than Dan to find common ground with intellectual opponents, and move forward from there.

The moral: Do as Dan does, not as he says.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Tyler Cowen writes:

I don't think, though, that you are meeting Dan's criticism head on. Instead you are restating it in general (and weaker) terms. Dan's key point is that you, in fact, differ radically from the professional consensus (as Arnold writes as well) and that the argument is self-undercutting if you simultaneously erect expert consensus as a relevant benchmark. I don't see that you have yet replied to this.

jsalvati writes:

Does that criticism really apply to Bryan's factual/theoretical arguments so much as his policy recommendations? I don't think it does, and I think very few people are going to take his policy recommendations very seriously, save perhaps 'reducing the scope of government.' No one is going to start advocating giving veto power to the council of economists or giving extra votes to those with college degrees, because those are stopgap measures at best and totally politically unpalatable. His factual/theoretical, on the other hand, are fairly important.

Caliban Darklock writes:

If I understand Dan's criticism correctly, the problem is not that you are wrong, but that your exposition does not line up 100% with the political agenda he personally wants to promote.

You can probably guess what I think of that, but to lay it all out on the table, I'm of the opinion that you can't know whether your politics are correct. You can only know whether your information is correct. So instead of wrapping up your politics with your information, leave your politics out of it - the correctness of your politics is indeterminate - and stick to what you know is correct: the information. If your politics are in fact correct, anyone with the information you have will naturally come to the same political stance; if they're not, you'll retain the correctness of your information without confusing the issue by wrapping it up with incorrect politics.

Besides, if your book parrots libertarian platform bullet points, mainstream conservatives and liberals may simply refuse to read it, in much the same way adherents of one religion tend to avoid the scriptures of others.

I don't want to take the stress off expertise, because I genuinely accept the presumption that if experts and laymen disagree, the experts are probably right.

This isn't a fair statement of the contest. The contest is, "do you trust tens of millions of voters or a self-selecting group of self-described experts"?

I say "self selecting" for 2 reasons. First, I assume you'd impose minimal qualifications, say only PH.D. Economist may serve on the Star Chamber on Economic Matters. That makes economist advisors at grad schools the gatekeepers, generally requiring adherence to orthodoxy and jargon.

Second, who appoints the Star Chamber on Economic Matters' voters (whether 10 or 10,000)? Politicians or other economists? Even if politicians, they will give extra consideration to popularly respected economists (Paul Krugman, Jeffry Sachs, etc), who have received a vote of confidence from other popular economists (Stiglitz?). Think about some of the musty tenured professors taking up space among faculties and imagine them with actual power.

A completely separate fault in star chamber governance is jurisdictional issues. What bounds the reach of the Star Chamber on Economic Matters? Is it reversible by the Current Star Chamber on Law (the Supreme Court) or vice versa?

All in all, I would say that narrowing the franchise & centralising decision-making is tired counter-revolutionary politics. The revolution of decentralized markets and societal control has delivered the goods, and we should stick with it.

Brian Pitt writes:

Dr. Caplan,

As I wrote in my Amazon review of your book, you do appear to be promulgating - for lack of a better phrase - a "formalistic Austrian model." And, as you know, that is outside of the mainstream concensus. Your 2005 paper, Mises, Bastiat, Public Opinion, and Public Choice meets Dr. Klein's remarks head on; not your entry on this blog nor the book.

Moreover, you giving a thorough treatment to, "Once a few pioneers analogized politics to markets, however, there was an unfortunate bandwagon effect. It is time to jump off the bandwagon." this statement should be the nub of the next book, will meet Klein head on, and will strengthen your points that Dr. Cowen finds to be weak.

Btw, jsalvati, the theoretical/factual argument of Caplan is INSPIRED by classical liberalism and libertarianism, and his disagreement with mainstream economics. How can he justifiably allow his INSPIRATION to remain embedded in his argument! These are Klein and Cowen's points (I believe)!

9747 writes:

"Soften the emphasis on beliefs and bias," are you kidding? Honestly, voting is based on these terms. While making the decision on who to vote for one must make this decision based on one's own beliefs in accordance to what the candidate's platform is. If one fails to look at the candidate's platform and decide what they believe is right in these issues how are they supposed to make an informed decision with their vote?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top