Bryan Caplan  

Boettke-Caplan Debate on Youtube

Scott Sumner on the Multiplier... Hayek Said the Sky is Blue...
Back in 2002, I debated my colleague Pete Boettke on Austrian economics before GMU's undergraduate econ club.  When I was throwing out my obsolete possessions (it's amazing what a decade of economic growth will do to your stuff), I came across one of the few - if not the only - videotape of our exchange.  With the help of Brian Blase, the whole debate is now on Youtube in 13 consecutive segments - including Q&A with the audience.  Start here.  If you look at the audience, you'll see at least one grad student who's become famous in the meanwhile.

While I'm an equal-opportunity critic of Austrians, this debate focuses on Boettke's version of it.  My ultimate goal: Convince Austrians to reallocate their scarce free-market talent.  I'm not criticizing them just for the fun of it.  I'm criticizing them because they have talent and energy, but fritter them away on largely fruitless areas like philosophy, methodology, and history of thought.  Austrians should be applying free-market insights to policy-relevant topics, not analyzing the transcendental essence of radical ignorance.

P.S. If anyone knows how to replace 13 segments on Youtube with one continuous video, please let me know.

Update: A civic-minded reader has set up a playlist for the debate to approximate continuous video.  Thanks!

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Michael writes:

The next best thing you can do is create a playlist and set it on autoplay. I've done so here:

Brandon Robison writes:

You have to have a YouTube "director" account. Just do a Google search for "youtube director" and look around. I'll stop by your office in the next day or so in case you're having problems.

Ben writes:

Any way to make this available in mp3 format for the iPod?

Pat writes:

Ben, allows you to enter a url and it converts the flash to mp3 for download

Richard Ebeling writes:


I, in general, agree with you that "Austrians" should apply their conception of the market process and their perspectives on various forms of government intervention and planning to the contemporary issues of the day.

But, having said that with all emphasis, I think that some of the reasons why Austrians focus on these other matters that obviously frustrate you are:

(a) The contemporary economics profession has all but banished any appreciation or tolerance for the history of the evolution of economic ideas. Most econ departments no longer even offer a history of economic thought course as an elective. As a consequence, Austrians often must teach and/or explain how their particular perspective developed out of the marginalist revolution and how it's strands of thought took shape in comparison to the mainstream Neo-classical approach in the 20th century. And, therefore, what is distinct and uniquely insightful in their framework compared to that of the mainstream.

(b) Let's face it, while the philosophy of science may have gone beyond old-fashioned positivism and crude empiricism, many economists think of science and therefore how to do "scientific" economics in ways that still are based on those earlier views. As a result, Austrians (whether fully justified or not) often consider it necessary to show why the ways they think applied economics should be done is as legitimate as hyper-mathematical models and econometric "testing."

(c) They often seem to rehash the past (the Austrian vs. the mainstream, or the Austrian vs. the Keynesian debates of, say, the 1930s and 1940s because it appears that economists and historians suffer from an Orwellian memory hole.

Robert Skidelsky has just come out with a new book, "Keynes: Return of the Master," and you would think that things were very "obvious" about what caused the Great Depression, what was necessary to get the world out of it, and "clearly" why what Keynes said then has very timely relevence to our own current economic crisis. The Austrian (and Monetarist) interpretations are given the "boot" very quickly in Skidelsky's exposition of the continuing value of the insights of the "master."

These factors explain why, in my opinion, the Austrians find it necessary to periodically go back to these issues and topics.

Richard Ebeling

Lee Kelly writes:

"I'm criticizing them because they have talent and energy, but fritter them away on largely fruitless areas like philosophy, methodology, and history of thought." - Bryan

In my opinion, philosophy, methodology, and the history of thought need not be "fruitless" areas of study. Adopting and encouraging that attitude merely shields predominant philosopies and methods from criticism.

Bryan Caplan writes:

Lee, I used to think the same thing. What I learned: While they don't have to be fruitless, they are in practice. Almost no one can write convincingly on these subjects. And in any case, what persuades others isn't talking about your alternate methodology; it's using it to produce interesting applied work.

Lee Kelly writes:


I agree that it is difficult to write convincingly on matters of philosophy and methodology. I took your original comment to suggest that such studies were inherently fruitless, rather than because of people aren't easily or often convinced by them. I was reminded of people who reject matters of philosophy and methodology entirely. Often, such people become stuck with whatever philosophy or method they unconsciously picked up along the way, and refuse to even open their presuppositions to debate. I don't agree with the Austrians much on philosophy or method, but I appreciate how they shine a light on common assumptions which otherwise seem to go unscrutinised.

Scott Wentland writes:

Prof. Caplan, I agree with your points overwhelmingly. A very good, thoughtful debate on both sides. (Though I'm not quite sure GMU outsiders will really be able discern your differences very well).

I did have one question about your take on the failure of Communism (video 3, around 4:40 or so). You mentioned that farmers weren't really doing economic calculations, because they were hardly literate. Do you still believe this? Or, did you mean something different?

It seems like you were dismissing some probability theory here, and some of the driving force behind neo-classical theory. That is, surely you believe that even the most inept farmers make SOME economic calculations, at least on some margins and respond to SOME incentives. They assign some positive probability that they will receive a price within some ballpark estimate for their harvest. The calculation surely isn’t zero, right?

Otherwise, if they made no economic calculations at all, then they wouldn't have much of a problem working for free (which seems to contradict your explanation). Or, am I grossly misinterpreting this?

Greg Ransom writes:

This happens to be Pete's position, Bryan.

"Austrians should be applying free-market insights to policy-relevant topics, not analyzing the transcendental essence of radical ignorance."

So why shouldn't people also know how to keep themselves from making stupid intellectual blunders?

You haven't made that argument.

Bob Murphy writes:

Can someone tell me who the "famous" grad student is?

James writes:


You seem to think that Austrians believe communism will always fail due to calculation problems. But that's not the Austrian position at all. Rather, the claim is that even if a new socialist man emerges, the impossibility of economic calculation makes planning an advanced modern economy of the type imagined by 20th century communists impossible. No Austrian ever denied that communism might still fail for other more immediate reasons.

If some country were to adopt communism tomorrow and then suffer complete annihilation due to a meteor impact one week later, would you cite this as evidence against the Austrian calculation argument on the grounds that the population died for reasons unrelated to economic calculation?

Greego writes:

I had a similar thought to Scott's when listening to Bryan's description of pre-soviet russian farmers. There's every possibility that profit and loss approximated life and death for these people regardless of whether they could read, write or do complex sums. Some accounting had to be going on.

Pravin writes:

Thats brutally arrogant to claim that one has to be literate in high school math to do economic calculations(russian farmers).
If you think only wall st quants understand risk, imagine the lowest of the low rickshaw puller in Bangladesh.His every move in life is about balancing risks -health ,regulatory(bribes),market (cars),environment(greenpeace) or whatever the politicians in Dhaka can throw at them.And they manage to survive and thrive.Risk and economic calculation comes naturally to anyone who knows how to count and survive.

Jorge Landivar writes:

Another amusing example is walking home while drunk versus driving home while drunk. I read a study the other day that found, per mile, driving home drunk was safer than walking home drunk.

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