Bryan Caplan  

A Deleted Scene from MRV

When Is It Wrong To Vote?... The Financial Invasion Continu...

I'm currently writing replies to eight critiques of my book for a forthcoming issue of Critical Review. In Jon Elster and Helene Landemore's critique, they raise the self-referential objection: Doesn't your book's thesis apply to you? This reminded me that an earlier draft of the book had a whole section on this subject - and inspired me to dig it up from my archives.


So far I have neglected the question likely to loom largest in the minds of philosophically inclined readers. Anyone who says that "Human beings are irrational" opens himself up to the deduction "Since you're a human being yourself, on your own theory you're irrational too." It is easy to dispose of this simplest version of the objection: When I say "Human beings are irrational" I mean that "Most human beings are irrational some of the time," not "All human beings are always irrational." But the careful reader can construct a better version of the self-referential objection, something along the lines of:

Caplan says that people tend to be irrational on questions where there are no direct material costs of being wrong. But there are no direct material costs to Caplan of being wrong on most if not all of the questions he addresses in this book. Even if he is utterly mistaken, he will continue to receive his salary for the rest of his tenured existence. Admittedly, this is only a "tendency," but considering the fact that Caplan has gone to the trouble of writing a book on this topic, he probably has a big emotional investment in his answer.


I could offer numerous "cheap-talk" reassurances. I could tell you that what really motivates me is the desire to be right, not just to feel right. I might also point out several instances where I changed my mind in spite of the fact that my initial belief was emotionally comforting and materially cheap. My first academic publication explained why the Austrian economists who introduced me to the economics discipline have little to add that is both original and true. My closest friends will vouch that I prefer the company of insightful critics to admiring followers.

But I doubt that any of this would or should convince a rational outside observer...

So what would convince a rational outside observer? Reading the whole thing, of course!

P.S. I fixed the broken link. Sorry. :-)

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Alex J. writes:

Link is broken.

Robin Hanson writes:

I responded here.

Grant writes:

To me, it seems obvious that the cost for academics to be irrational in their field of study is much higher than an ordinary voter. Even tenured academics need to get published, and most of them want recognition for their work (after all, if they were in it for the money, they probably picked the wrong profession).

I've always thought the driving force behind science was the scientists' desire for recognition, both in life and after death.

fundamentalist writes:

I think Caplan is using a slightly twisted definition of “irrational” for effect, which is alright. Most writers use definitions of words that are at the edge of edge of common usage. Caplan says voters are irrational because they don’t change their minds when they get new information on economic issues. That’s a rough summary. But what Caplan forgets is that most voters don’t decide economic issues for themselves. They don’t trust themselves to make those determinations because they don’t have the time or the expertise. Like any rational person, they use Smith’s division of labor and concentrate on what they are good at while farming out the things they are not good at. They farm out economic thinking to people they trust as experts in economics. Unfortunately, most of those experts are socialists. So when voters get new information that is pro-free market, they filter that info through their list of experts who tell them it’s nonsense. So voters are not irrational at all. In fact they are much more rational than if they all tried to become experts in economics so that they could decide issues for themselves.

Gary Rogers writes:

I think I tend more toward the statement that human beings are irrational therefore I am irrational too. The fact is that our rational mind can only go so far in understanding complex situations so we filter our beliefs through emotions and other biases. The best I can hope for is that I understand my biases so that I know when to speak up and when to shut up and listen to someone else that knows more than I do. The problem is that my filters always try to tell me that I am right.

Kurbla writes:

I think you have no problems with this kind of criticism. From logical point of view, even skeptic who claims that there is no knowledge whatsoever cannot be criticized by "then your claim is also not knowledge." If personality is included in criticism, it is ad hominem fallacy even if applied against one who claims that ad hominem is not fallacy at all.

José Azpúrua writes:

Once a principle is well known, there is nothing else that could be added to it. Austrian economics can not possibly change, since it states basic economic truths.
e.g. The law of supply and demand is simply a law that operates always with no known exceptions (in spite of the fact that many attempt to prevent its operation).
The fact that a person knows the law and how it operates, turns that person into a veritable pundit on that specific subject, who may stand up to the whole world.
Yet, if we were to enter the area of how would the law of supply and demand operate under certain circumstances, and expect to forecast price changes using complex formulas, we would be entering the area of eternal conflict and disagreement.
Principles are rather easy to grasp; details on how principles operate under specific conditions, is the realm and heart of most academic disagreements.

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