Bryan Caplan  

The Productiveness of Conversation: My Ranking

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Reading the Reason debate between Brink Lindsey, Jonah Goldberg, and Matt Kibbe inspired me to rank how productive I find conservations with the following groups.  #1 = "most productive"; #6 = "least productive":

1. Libertarian economists
2. Conservative economists
3. Libertarian non-economists
4. Liberal economists
5. Conservative non-economists
6. Liberal non-economists

Somehow I think Matt Yglesias won't like my ranking, but there it is.  Yours?
 

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COMMENTS (30 to date)
Taimyoboi writes:

Why Bryan's conversations with libertarian economists are so productive:

Bryan: I think that ...
Libertarian Economist: I agree.
Bryan: But I haven't said anything yet.
Libertarian Economist: I agree.

PS: Meant to be (partly) tongue-in-cheek.

Hyena writes:

I usually find discussions with any of these groups fairly unproductive relative to unaligned, economically literate people. All other groups tend to have first principals to start with or other hangups that prevent a good, wide-ranging conversation. The less ideological the person is, the fewer boundaries your run into with the discussion and the more apt you are to draw conclusions or construct ideas which tend overall to defy conventional categories.

Ted writes:

You find it most productive to have a conversation with people you are already going to agree with on the majority of issues? That's just odd. To me, it would seem the most productive conversations are those where you disagree with the other person and you can have an informed debate. Even if you don't convince each other at all, at least you have glimpsed a different worldview. Sitting around with another libertarian economist would seem the least productive conversation of all of them. My list would almost be inverted:

1) Liberal Economists
2) Conservative Economists
3) Libertarian Economists
4) Liberal Non-Economists
5) Libertarian Non-Economists
6) Conservative Non-Economists (I find these people usually the most obnoxious, I think it's mostly the moral / social condemnation crap that annoys me).

I just really don't get how anyone would find a conversation with someone they agree with "productive."

Jim writes:

1. Libertarian economists
2. Libertarian non-economists
3. Conservative economists
4. Liberal non-economists
5. Conservative non-economists
6. Liberal economists

John Thacker writes:
I just really don't get how anyone would find a conversation with someone they agree with "productive."

Really? Just because you're likely to agree with someone doesn't mean that you know everything that they're going to say. They may have new ideas or insights you haven't thought of, performed researched, discovered facts, or done any of a number of things.

Secondly, merely because you have a broad amount of philosophical agreement doesn't mean that you'll agree on everything. I think that Bryan would put his lunch companions Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabbarok, and Robin Hanson in that first category, and they certainly don't agree about everything.

John Thacker writes:
I usually find discussions with any of these groups fairly unproductive relative to unaligned, economically literate people. All other groups tend to have first principals to start with or other hangups that prevent a good, wide-ranging conversation.

I tend to agree with Keynes on this one. (“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”)

Those "unaligned" people generally do have some kind of first principles or hangups. Sometimes they aren't logically consistent (and logical consistency is not always 100% preferable), sometimes they don't realize that they're there, but there's usually something.

Dan Weber writes:

I don't see the other person's worldview the primary indicator of how productive the discussion is.

What I do find is the person's ability to tolerate other views, willingness to see other views, ability to disagree without being disagreeable, and self-awareness enough to realize what one does not know.

Hyena writes:

Thacker,

Those "unaligned" people generally do have some kind of first principles or hangups. Sometimes they aren't logically consistent (and logical consistency is not always 100% preferable), sometimes they don't realize that they're there, but there's usually something.

Absolutely. I find that some inconsistency is often much more interesting. It's one thing to sit around agree with people that we need minimal government or provisions for the poor; it's far more interesting to discuss how do you balance minimal government with protection for the poor or how to balance economic growth with environmental concerns. It also reflects better how any ideas about policy would likely play out.

More importantly, it improves your appreciation for the queer constellations of concern that actual people often have. None of our conversations will likely have the slightest impact on policy, so improving our knowledge and perspective should be a very important goal of conversation.

Lord writes:

One needs someone similar enough to be on the same page, but different enough to have a different take, intelligent enough to reason rationally and in touch with reality enough not to be nonsensical. I would put conservative economists near the bottom, so out of touch with reality even non-economists are more sensible and capable of raising more interesting questions. But it depends on who you put where.

Tom writes:

"What I do find is the person's ability to tolerate other views, willingness to see other views, ability to disagree without being disagreeable, and self-awareness enough to realize what one does not know."

Agreed, but Bryan's list still stands (well, switching 4 & 5).

david writes:

To fellow libertarian economists, Bryan can immediately talk about his pet theories of voter irrationality and other things he is interested in. To other groups, he first has to adapt towards some common intellectual ground.

If you think about it, the list is pretty much identical to a descending list of "people whose ways of thinking about the world are most similar to Bryan's". They might not agree with him, but discussion is easiest with the first group and hardest towards the end.

david writes:

"Somehow I think Matt Yglesias won't like my ranking, but there it is."

Yeah, but that's just a side benefit.

I'd be inclined at the very least to reverse 4 & 5 (as long as we are talking conservative in the small government sense not in the social conservative sense).

I am not sure about #2 - the problem with conservative economists is that they think they believe in free markets and understand how they work but, at the same time, by virtue of their almost total intellectual absorption by mainstream neoclassical theory, they are almost as wedded to government economic intervention as liberal economists.


John V writes:

Pretty much the same as I would say.

Ben writes:

Like David, I have qualms about so-called "conservative economists." But my questions are deeper: I think it's an empty set.

Post-Keynes, it's hard to see how anyone who makes it through a college-level economics course could be anything more "conservative" than "libertarian" unless it is *social* conservatism which is being measured. At that point they go near to the bottom of my list, because social values are very difficult to have a constructive argument over with a convinced person.

I also rank liberal economists much higher. They have a lot to teach: a good liberal economist can bring up passages from Marx the economist (among others) that non-liberals rarely approach.

Hence:

#1 Liberal Economists (deepen my understanding)
#2 Libertarian Economists (challenge it)
#3 "Conservative Economists" (depending on definition)
#4 Libertarians
#5 Liberals
#6 Conservatives

Jayson Virissimo writes:
Truth springs from argument among friends.
-David Hume
Brian Clendinen writes:

Please define the subject for rankings. I find depending on the subject the list varies drastically. Morel issues, verses defense issues, verses consumer protectionism, verses economic issues, verse business regulations, verse level of federalism would each need their own rankings. Morel/ethical issues might need a few sub-categories.

David C writes:

Agree with Dan Weber. I would add that I think age is the most reliable indicator of how open-minded a person is.

Kurbla writes:

Freud would really like this Bryan's post.

Bryan wrote:

    Reading the Reason debate between Brink Lindsey, Jonah Goldberg, and Matt Kibbe inspired me to rank how productive I find CONSERVATIONS with the following groups. ...

Todd Kuipers writes:

DavidC - "Agree with Dan Weber. I would add that I think age is the most reliable indicator of how open-minded a person is."

Positive or negative correlation between age and openmindedness? If you agree with Bryan's assertion that personality is fairly intrisic (I do) any correlation is likely to be much weaker than you might expect.

David has a point WRT conservative economists - as do other commenters:

If we're talking about true free trade (esp. around human movement) you're much more likely to have a productive conversation with a nominally-liberal economist than a conservative one. Talking about free movement of (non-human) capital you're likely to be more productive with a nominally-conservative economist.

I disagree with Ted: talking with a current-definition-left-liberal non-economist is often like debating the logic of aetheism with an new-gen evangelical - there is no common ground, other than possibly live and let live. Non-economist liberals are often so heavily steeped in the corporations-are-evil, rich-are-evil, redistribution/central-control-is-the-only-solution, no-I'm-not-conducive-to-logic realm that productive conversation is rare. Conversations with conservative non-economists are generally overwhelmed by fear-of-the-other problems reducing the potential benefit of discussion.

When talking to a libertarian economist I find that not needing to get into the background story on small/no-distribution benefits that you can actually become productive, in idea generation and learnings of important subtleties, quite quickly.

So in general I'd agree with Brian's order, though those liberal and conservative economist types that have slight libertarian leanings can generate excellent conversation. Maybe it's more like a curve, those extremely close don't generate productive conversation like Ted is looking for. Those that are of a moderate distance are challenging without being overwhelming. Those that are far away tend to have such a completely different basis that it can be difficult to even start a conversation, let alone make it productive.

It certainly would depend on the specific topic of conversation.

Troy Camplin writes:

That's how I'd rank them. Even though I myself am at #3. :-) Being a libertarian Ph.D. in the humanities who does spontaneous orders scholarship has to count for something, though, doesn't it?

agnostic writes:

For me it's based on the person having above-average intelligence -- otherwise they won't be able to distill patterns from the soup of reality -- and having access to parts of reality that are foreign to me -- otherwise they can only be clever and cunning, lacking an empirical base, or else repeating to me what I already know.

Ideology and profession seem far less important. If they share your views, maybe they bring up something you'd never thought of but immediately makes sense because you share their worldview. If their views are against yours, they could bring up something you'd never thought of because of intellectual arrogance, or maybe their completely loony views only serve to sharpen your own conviction of some view of your own.

David C writes:

RE: Todd Kuipers

I disagree that the effect is small. And definitely it's a negative correlation.

http://www.willwilkinson.net/flybottle/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Political-Evolution-BW-Labels.png

Todd Kuipers writes:

David C - the image you linked to is exactly the one I was thinking of - thanks for the link. With the clarification of what you meant, I definitely agree with you (partly since that chart contributes massively to my confirmation bias) that age can be a good indicator of certain types of bias - in this case there is a clear negative correlation between degree of social permissiveness and age. (But, I'll stand by my statement on correlation (meaning linear statistical correlation being negative/positive) being weak/non-existent, given the stark shifting of the correlation over differing time frames for economic permissiveness. I assumed you meant economic permissiveness given the subject of Bryan's post. Slight weasel words I know...)

David C writes:

I believe the arguments to be made for most economic restrictions are much stronger and more reasonable than the arguments to be made for most social restrictions.

Seth writes:

It'd be great to get some anecdotes of productive and non-productive conversations.

I agree with Todd K's fifth paragraph and I think those conversations are the most necessary.

I was once a left-liberal-non-economist. But, I had several friends and co-workers who were very, very patient with me. It wasn't an immediate conversion, but they managed to plant seeds that sprouted later when I observed things play out the way they predicted (turns out minimum wage does make it harder for unskilled workers to find jobs, welfare neuters independence and industriousness and government programs often produce results in direct opposite of the goals).

I think there is much opportunity in generating right conservative/libertarian conversation that appeals to left-liberals and teaches them some basic principles. We too often talk past each other.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

My own personal deconversion (from a certain popular ideology) was the result of playing devils advocate with a "liberal non-economist" college professor. In that sense, it was probably the most productive conversation I had the entire time I attended university. So, I disagree with your ranking.

Todd Kuipers writes:

David C - I would suggest that economic restrictions and permissiveness restrictions are the same thing. They are merely labels denoting current fashion. Personal freedom restrictions are personal freedom restrictions, regardless.

johnleemk writes:

I would second Dan Weber. After thinking about it, I honestly don't think I see enough difference between the "conservative," "liberal," and "libertarian", as far as quality of conversations goes. I have more productive conversations when people are more conversant in economics -- it's as simple as that.

There may be minute differences in the quality of the discussion but I would have a hard time attributing it to political affiliation and saying it's a significant factor. I have a self-described communist friend who went to a dinner discussion with an economics professor and came away annoyed by "liberal" non-economists who assumed trade only makes the richer and the poor poorer -- I could have a much more productive discussion with him than I would with a lot of non-economists, regardless of political affiliation.

In part I suspect this is because when you're economically literate, you think about issues in a different way from non-economists. But it's entirely possible that "economist" is just proxying for "academic" or "more intellectually open" -- I don't know.

Troy Camplin writes:

I've discovered that above average intelligence often results in above average stupidities. Really smart people can believe really, really stupid things -- and have so much "evidence" for it that they are impenetrable to reason. I never met people who believed such astonshing nonsense as when I was working on my Ph.D.

Snorri Godhi writes:

WRT political affiliations, I think the most productive conversations are those with people who don't have any: they are most likely to come up with original ideas.
(The only political affiliations that I see listed above are American, but when I say "do not have any" I mean to include non-American affiliations.)

WRT economists vs non-economists: it is good if the person I talk to understands that people respond to incentives; that most economists understand it, I find it difficult to believe after learning what Paul Samuelson had to say about the Soviet Union. I guess history is the best discipline to prepare for a good conversation.

Also helpful is to avoid the following fallacies: ad hominem, petitio principii, and equivocation. To avoid the fallacy of equivocation, it is best to steer clear of any reference to "left" and "right" [in politics]; and, in America, to "liberalism".

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