Bryan Caplan  

Inconvenient Positions

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My book on democracy, my almost-complete book on kids, and my future book on education all take inconvenient positions.  Meaning: In each case, there's an ideologically cleaner and more crowd-pleasing rationale for what I think people ought to do.

Case 1: Voters.

What people ought to do: Rely more on markets and less on government, even when there are obvious market failures.

My actual position: Democracies choose bad policies because voters have systematically biased beliefs about the effects of policies (especially economic policies), and political competition basically gives the people what they want.

The convenient position: Voters (or at least Americans) are instinctive libertarians, but special interest groups and statist elites highjack democracy to foist their destructive policies on the recalcitrant public.

Case 2: Kids.

What people ought to do: Have more kids.

My actual position: While kids don't "make people miserable," they typically make their parents mildly less happy.  But this negative effect is largely parents' own fault.  They work themselves to the bone "investing" in their kids on the false assumption that upbringing has a strong effect on adult outcomes.  Kids are a pleasure if you relax and enjoy the journey instead of vainly trying to mold the next generation.

The convenient position: Making every conceivable sacrifice for your kids brings true happiness.  Forget your narrow selfishness, give it your all, and your suffering will be repaid many times over.

Case 3: Education.

What people ought to do: Adopt a free market in education.

My actual position: A high fraction of education teaches no useful jobs skills; instead, it's largely socially wasteful signaling.  Government support for education is like government subsidies for air pollution; they encourage additional production of a good that the free market already overproduces relative to the efficient level.  A first-best efficient education policy would actually tax education; but given public choice problems, the wisest course is to eliminate government support and rely on laissez-faire.

The convenient position: Excellent education is overwhelmingly important for the future of our country and our economy.  The free market is the best way to deliver this excellence, just as it already does in so many other areas.

In real-world politics, convenient positions seem vastly more influential than true positions - even (especially?) when they're just not true.  Counter-examples?

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Bob Murphy writes:

I know Bryan never answers the comments in his blog posts, so can someone else help me out here? When Bryan says the first-best solution is to tax education, is he just making a point that there are negative externalities? In other words, does Bryan also think a government tax on pollution is the optimal thing?

I realize he brings up public choice issues, but the standard libertarian anarchist objection to taxation (even in cases of negative externalities) goes beyond mere public choice arguments.

So I'm asking, before I get all worked up and perhaps write an article over at explaining what's wrong with Bryan's view here, can someone point me to a discussion where he spells out his views on when it's a good idea to tax something?

Brandon Berg writes:

In real-world politics, convenient positions seem vastly more influential than true positions - even (especially?) when they're just not true.

Isn't that tautological, or am I misunderstanding what you mean by "influential" and/or "convenient?" Isn't the fact that the policies are influential what makes them convenient?

Hyena writes:

I don't think your positions are inconvenient. I think you are sometimes bad at framing your positions.

I think you have really good framing with the argument on children. You're not going to turn your kids into everything you wished you were; but you can make their childhood--and your parenthood--really great (with a little luck).

Libertarians talk long on profit motives, but I think that's fundamentally misguided. People aren't driven by profit. They're driven by their ideas of what is good in the world; profit makes that vision sustainable and allows them to extend it as far as it can go.

Libertarians sometimes craft Horatio Alger stories as inspiration, but this is all hogwash. What's really inspiring is that I am fed by legions of people I've never met, and can never really hope to in a decade. My life was saved by automotive engineers who don't even know I exist.

Your positions will always be "inconvenient" as long as you're not marshaling the breathtaking humanity of what you're proposing. And, I'd argue, that if you (at least you) can't see that in them, then your positions aren't inconvenient: they're simply wrong.

kebko writes:

What we ought to do: Fire 90% of the border patrol, streamline the immigration process so that many levels of temporary & permanent status are easily & quickly available, then charge an immigration fee just slightly under the market clearing price of hiring a coyote.

Convenient Position: Build a wall and arm the border to defend the rule of law, then tacitly accept the hoardes of black market laborers that inevitably get in.

Zac Gochenour writes:

Bob, it seems pretty clear to me. Because of wasteful signalling, we are getting more than the socially optimum amount of education. Ideally a Pigovian tax would be levied to increase efficiency, but due to public choice problems (such as there is no real incentive for the government to do the effiency-increasing thing) what we should support is a free market in education.

So go ahead and write your article. And I guess by "standard libertarian anarchist" you really mean "Austrian." (I assume you will be resurrecting the calculation debate and say the government could not possibly know the right amount to tax, but I do not believe this to be the problem you imagine it to be).

Zac Gochenour writes:

Also: note that he says it would be *efficient* to implement the tax (if not for the public choice problems), not that it would be morally right to implement it. So if you goal was to write an article criticizing utilitarianism, Bryan is probably not the best target. From his "Common Sense Case for Liberty" (debate with Robin Hanson on Liberty vs Efficiency)

"When someone says there is a “good reason” for a regulation or a tax, we can use economics see whether the story holds water. If someone says that we need to restrict the liberty of American consumers to buy Japanese goods in order to prevent the destruction of the U.S. economy, we can see if the textbook chapter on international trade agrees. The same applies if someone says it would be more efficient to raise taxes and spend the revenue on education. Maybe the economics will check out, and we’ll have to think about whether we have a good enough reason to violate liberty. More often, though, the economics doesn’t check out – and we avoid violating the liberty of another human being for less than no reason at all."

Eric Falkenstein writes:

per kids: I'm thinking you are thinking about the demographic you know best, economists, libertarians or at least college educated people, the kind of people who invest a lot in kids. What about those who currently are having a lot of kids whose parents couldn't invest less in their kids if they tried? As 33% of all families are single parent, should these biological parents have more kids?

B.B. writes:

I find it all a bit confusing.

Once we remove ideological bias, it is not always clear what the convenient approach is.

Does "convenient" mean popular? Or plausible but wrong? Or consistent with prevailing ideological bias? Or is it Galbraith's "conventional wisdom"? Or does it mean easy? Or does it mean it ratifies the views of self interests seeking to maximize profits?

Could it be that the "convenient" position on immigration is to open the borders (convenient for small businesses looking for cheap labor, convenient for Democrats looking for new voters, convenient for real estate developers looking for new sales), but the hard but valid position is to impose sharp limits on immigration?

david (not henderson) writes:
Government support for education is like government subsidies for air pollution; they encourage additional production of a good that the free market already overproduces relative to the efficient level.

I agree with where you end up (i.e., no subsidies), but why do you think, given the presence of all sorts of subsidies, that the free market (presumably absent subsidies) "already overproduces relative to the efficient level"?

How do you know that a large fraction of education is signaling?

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