Bryan Caplan  

Me Versus the Economic Consensus

Do as Dan Does, Not as He Says... Just Plain Good: From Black...

Tyler Cowen has a challenge for me:

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.
I only embrace a presumption of expert competence; it's where I start, not necessarily where I finish.

Still, Tyler is entirely correct to say that I'm not an average economist. How do I account for the difference? In large part, I think that other economists have failed to fully free themselves from anti-market bias; they are too hasty to declare "market failure," and too willing to take the public's complaints about markets seriously.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way for me to make this case to economists who don't already agree with it. When I point to the errors in the public's thinking, I can build upon what the typical economist already recognizes. But to convince the typical economist that the typical economist is too anti-market is far more difficult. I wish I knew how to cut this Gordian knot, but I don't; the best I can do is argue issue-by-issue, and see if I can make a dent.

In any case, I don't think that anti-market bias explains all of my differences with the average economist. Another large chunk comes down to different values. As I've said before:

Consequences aside, I'm a staunch libertarian. I'm extremely meritocratic. I disagree with the aims, not just the methods, of egalitarianism. I look down on patriotism and piety of every kind. The list goes on.
As a moral realist, I think my values are correct, and everyone should share them. But I don't have many arguments that would convince someone who disagrees, so I rarely try to do so.

Bottom line: When I write, my goal is to change the mind of someone who doesn't already agree with me. To accomplish this goal, I find common ground - points where my intended reader and I already see eye-to-eye. This hardly implies that, in the absence of common ground, I have to change my mind.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

I have been thinking a lot lately about the origins of anti-economic thinking and why economic thinking is apparently so difficult eveon economists have a hard time doing it. If, through some miracle, I could ever get the time to do the research and work on the project, I plan to write a paper (more than a paper, perhaps? It is a very complex issue) dealing with economic vs. anti-economic thinking and relate it historically and evolutionarily to the emergence of the human mind and the emergence of economy. This will happen if I ever get the time (meaning, if I get the money to ever get the time) to do so. Unfortunately, despite my unwavering support of the free markets, they have not been so kind to me of late.

Scott Scheule writes:

That's reasonable. More succinctly, you're more confident about those beliefs that you hold in common with the majority of the economists, and less confident about the rest.

Indeed, I imagine that's the position of most economists, Tyler included.

Leif writes:

I'm having trouble with this. You claim, for example, that the goals of egalitarianism are at least wrong-headed, perhaps even false. To make such a claim you (presumably) must have a method, benchmark, or dimension for evaluating those goals. Yet you admit that its tough to come up with persuasive arguments that make such evaluations (I'm having trouble myself, though I tend to share your sentiments).

So you're willing to admit all this, and still identify yourself as a moral objectivist? It seems that your predicament is suggestive of the exact opposite; you disagree with the tenets of egalitarianism, which is built on a set of moral/ethical propositions, but cannot provide an evaluative method for determining the truth of these moral propositions, or a scale by which you can, say, compare the presuppositions of meritocracy with the presuppositions of egalitarianism. If moral objectivism were true, it seems that you should be able to discover/invent a common dimension along which both systems can be compared.

Yet, because the "aims" of both systems are fundamentally different, the task seems difficult; according to my own intuitions, impossible or nonsensical. I'd like to hear what you think.

Badger writes:

Maybe you could say that the profession consensus, even if not totally in agreement with your own view, is nearer to it than the general consensus, and therefore your preference towards expertise is yet justified.

bee writes:


I think that Tyler and Dan should read some Shakespeare to appreciate when the application certain forms of reasoning create nonsensical conclusions.

Alternatively, I would suggest that they review the AI literature on monotonic and non-monotonic reasoning. They will quickly learn that many of us hold beliefs that are not only in violation with other beliefs we hold but that we may permit some domain beliefs which are "true" to be dominated by "higher" level beliefs which are actually not "true" or verifiable. I see your usage of beliefs to be well aligned with the cognitive science and AI literature.

I think that it would be interesting to create an expert system that captures the beliefs generally held by economists and compare the inferences the system would make with those that the average economist would make (in a manner similar to expert systems constructed in medicine). I suspect that we would find a pattern similar to the one you point out. Namely, many economists violate their economic beliefs when they make policy assertions. This occurs because the policy assertions are hijacked by values they have in place that are more central to who they are or aspire to be.

The problem many of us have when applying domain expertise to the real world is that we must leave the domain of what we know theoretically to the real world where our ideas are no longer grounded.

General Specific writes:

"Unfortunately, there is no easy way for me to make this case to economists who don't already agree with it."

This statement has a cult-like religious ring to it.

"This hardly implies that, in the absence of common ground, I have to change my mind."

True. Perhaps spend less time looking for common ground--to provide deductive ammunition--and spend more time looking for common goals--pragmatic and inductive.

I'd say the difficulty is that ultra-libertarians don't have too much to say about goals. Once they've said something about property and contracts, they're devoid of useful positive propositions--primarily focused on negative propositions or characterizations of the current state of the world. That's why I probably never acquire much useful investment information from libertarians and why I cancelled my subscription to Reason years ago--all the articles are cut-and-paste-identical: point out a few problems with the world and then propose the libertarian solution--do nothing.

Troy Camplin writes:

Well, general specific, I would tend to agree with you about what libertarians tend to do. I'm trying to move beyond all that and try to see how and if libertarians beliefs are rooted in the nature of nature itself and what the consequences of libertarian ideas would be, based in no small part on the models that support libertarian ideas. That' at least, is what I do in part over on my own blog.

As for useful investment advice -- I have a friend who is a libertarian and who used that world view to make a fortune for himself, his company, and all his investors during the stock market crash of 2000. He began with the assumption that the U.S. government going after Microsoft was going to cause the tech market to collapse. So he managed, as each sector collapsed in turn, to keep just ahead of the collapse. He was the only broker at the very large national bank where he worked to make money during the crash. All the non-libertarians were surprised that the government going after Microsoft would have that effect. So there are some libertarians out there who are using their libertarianism for practical purposes.

Robin Hanson writes:

Bryan, could we say that the public also starts with a presumption that economists are correct, and then also chooses to disagree on specific topics for specific reasons? If so, what is it about the public's beliefs that shows us they are less rational than your beliefs?

mtraven writes:

I have a blog post that asks a question similar to Robin Hanson's. I detect in Caplan's reasoning a very odd thing for an aconomist, namely the presumption that people's voting and opinions should favor global economic efficiency over their own local interests. Weird.

Rimfax writes:

Maybe you could start by making the quoted text a larger font? Maybe use italics instead of size difference or just rely on the indent to set them apart?

Scott Scheule writes:

Robin, could we say that the public also starts with a presumption that experts on bias are correct, and then also chooses to disagree on specific topics for specific reasons? If so, what is it about the public's beliefs that shows us they are less rational than your beliefs?

Robin Hanson writes:

Scott, I'm not claiming observers have a clear signal showing I'm an expert on any topic, other than the fact that I might spend more time on those topics.

Scott Scheule writes:


I think you probably are an expert by most metrics and are easily identifiable as such, but even if you're not, surely some group is. After all, I imagine the reason you have the views on bias that you do is because some group of experts shares those views. Regardless, I didn't refer to you specifically as the object of the public's disagreement.

So I think my point retains its bite. You suggest the public may have reasons (and that those reasons may be rational) for disagreeing with the professional consensus of economists. I suggest that the same may apply for their disagreement with the professional consensus of cognitive psychologists--or whomever it is that investigates biases. They may have reasons for so disagreeing, and those reasons may be, as you say, rational.

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