Bryan Caplan  

The Golden Rules of Interpretation

Billers, Players, and Income I... Well-Denominated...

Robin Hanson has written the one piece that everyone on earth should read before they post comments on a blog:

Writing is hard in part because words have many associations that vary among readers. Even when we use carefully choose our words to signal certain associations, we know some readers will instead hear other associations. So in addition to saying what we do mean, we sometimes have to say explicitly what we do not mean.


Unfortunately, the problem goes way beyond dumb legal rules. Consider these common presumptions:

* If you say anything about correlates of race you must hate a race.
* If you say anything about genetic correlates of success you are a social Darwinist.
* Any general claim about human behavior is an absolute law without exception unless it includes qualifiers like "tends" or "often."
* If you quote someone you agree with everything they've said.
* If you say you prefer option A to option B, you also prefer A to any option C.
* If you say anything nice (or critical) about anything associated with a group or person you are presumed to support (or oppose) them overall.
* If you say anything nice (or critical) about anything associated with an idea or claim you are presumed to support (or oppose) it and related ideas overall.
* If you worry that more A will cost too much of B, you don't care about A at all.
* If you dislike a proposed solution to a certain problem, you don't care about that problem.
* If you oppose one end of a continuum, you support the other end.
* If you approve of a decision you approve of the actual outcome, and vice versa.
* If you think A causes B, you think A is necessary for B.
* Any opinion you express is a strongly and confidently held opinion.
* If you criticize someone about something, you say you are immune to such criticism.

Short and sweet version: If a writer on a blog is an idiot or a monster, why are you reading him in the first place?!

Disclaimer: Many readers commit none of the aforementioned offenses; some readers commit only some of the offenses; not all readers commit all offenses in any particular post; the putative "offenses" are not always offenses, and may be entirely justified, though the opposite is also possible; [continued on page 6421B...]

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Franklin Harris writes:

This reminds me of an offline conversation in which I speculated, just speculated mind you, that evolution (natural selection working in a savanna environment that, for a long time, favored long-distance running) might explain why Kenyans dominate marathon races in the U.S. I received a very nasty look from the friend I was talking to.

Michael Kolczynski writes:

I agree with the analysis, but I disagree with the claim that writing is hard. I have always taken the approach that unless I have specifically asserted something in a sentence, I have not asserted it at all. So, if someone reads more into my words than what I've said, I do not pay attention to them because they aren't capable of reading my words. I do not feel that a proclamation needs to have a page long disclaimer countering all possible un-proclaimed thoughts that may be inferred by the reader. If I leave something ambiguous, then it is my duty to clarify it, but otherwise, it is the duty of the reader to read my words and understand them as written. I of course have the duty of making sure I say what I mean succinctly.

michael gordon writes:


That's a stimulating list of problems that mark most writing these days, especially blogs and editorials (and op-eds) . . . not to mention the ubiquitous yak-yak on television offered by pundits and alleged experts on every subject under the sun.

And because you and Arnold are stimulating, well-informed, and lucid writers, I read your blog for its intelligent and usually provocative posts . . . which I respect even when I, not a libertarian --- rather, a moderate independent with a strong pragmatic view about politics and economics and socio-cultural maters --- don't agree with their argumentative thrust.


That said, to your list I'd like to suggest one more problem. It marks the substance of many of yours and Arnold's arguments: analyzing the world --- political, economic, international relations, and so on --- from basic precepts that, taken together, add up to an idealized model of how the world should operate. In brief, restrict all government to the night-watchman functions identified by Adam Smith more than two centuries ago, let free capitalist markets operate everywhere in life --- domestic and international --- and wham! we would be in the optimal, maybe even, near-perfect human world: maximum wealth, maximum job-creation, maximum free flows of goods and services and technology and immigrants across all borders, maximum inventiveness of all sorts, and of course maximum domestic cooperation and international harmony and peace. What a world! What a dream!

Hence you, Bryan, like the University of Chicago economists on economics, but not their generally favorable views --- since Friedman --- on the practice of our democratic system. Why? Because they (and others)find that in a world of imperfect human knowledge and all-pervasive self-interest and nepotism as well as potential or actual conflicts of all sorts --- in most societies in the world these days, across family-clan, tribal-clan, ethnic/racial lines, and class divisions --- our democratic system, as well as those in about 20-25 other countries (almost all West European, but also a few elsewhere as in Israel), manages to operate fairly well at managing these conflicts, protecting individual civil rights, protecting property rights, encouraging ad promoting education, and not least defending our country and its allies against hostile threats from actual or potential adversaries, whether other powerful states or now radical terrorist groups keen to acquire Weapons of Mass Destruction to use against us and our allies.


Others of us, myself included, go further than the University of Chicago economists like Stigler, Posen, Becker, and Wittman, and analyze the workings of our imperfect democratic poltical system in concrete terms, always comparative across countries, and in the past and at present. Such criteria are the hallmarks of modest intellectual approaches to the complexities of human life --- which would, I believe, fall in line with the recognition of such complexities that go back to Adam Smith himself (especially as a moral philosopher and when he looked at actual business practices in British life), Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison.


Enter a pivotal question here: How we get from these gifted, hard-headed thinkers about social, economic, and political matters to the abstract, dissociated, unanchored, taken-for-granted assumptions and theoretical models as judgments about the complexities of domestic politics and foreign policies of all sorts --- which mark yours and Arnold's and other libertarians approach to the world --- is itself a matter of wonder and often amazement to someone like myself.

What follows?

You seem, to put it bluntly --- intelligent and stimulating as Arnold's and your blog here and your posts happen to be --- rightly aware of the drawbacks and frequent fatuities that characterize the blatherings of most experts these days when they deal with complex social, economic, and political problems . . . from the arrogant climate-change zealots with their abstract models to the race-pandering pundits and utopian peace-advocates and high-octane environmentalists. But, simultaneously, unaware or indifferent to your own efforts to approach those same problems with an unshakable faith in your own abstract convictions and ideals.

Or am I being unfair?


Michael Gordon, AKA, the buggy professor:

Troy Camplin writes:

The latest "Science" has an interesting article in it about the way we assess our own motivations vs. the way we assess others', including in making arguments, that I think would be interesting in light of this.

John V writes:

Michael Gordon,

That's quite a mouthful. Some thoughts on where I disagreed or felt it necessary to add comment:

"Perfect" and "Maximum" are not the same thing. Perfect is impossible. Maximum is a realistic thing to strive for.

in a world of imperfect human knowledge and all-pervasive self-interest and nepotism as well as potential or actual conflicts of all sorts...

All the more reason to be skeptical of collective action and command/control policies being overused.

The complexity of human life is good reason to be less persuaded by imperfect cobbled democratic solutions beyond safe guarding against infringements to person.

To your pivotal question, refer to previous sentence.

The convictions hence are hardly abstract but grounded in humility and warranted suspicion about imperfect ideas that have far worked as far as from perfectly as one can imagine.

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