Bryan Caplan  

40 Things I Learned in My First 40 Years

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Today I turn 40.  To ease the pain, I've decided to write a list of important lessons I've learned during my first four decades.  In no particular order:


1. Supply-and-demand solves countless mysteries of the world - everything from rent control to road congestion.

2. Almost anyone can understand supply-and-demand if they calmly listen.  Unfortunately, the inverse is also true.

3. Poverty is terrible, and economic growth, not redistribution, is the cure.

4. The proximate causes of unemployment are labor market regulation and workers' misguided beliefs about fairness.  But the fundamental cause of unemployment is excessive wages. 

5. Free competition is far superior to "perfect" competition. 

6. Governments with fiat money have near-absolute power over nominal GDP, but much less over real GDP or employment.

7. Moral hazard and adverse selection are largely the product of - not a rationale for - regulation of insurance.

8. Immigration restrictions are a fruitless crime - and do more harm than all other government regulations combined.

9. Communism was a disaster because of bad incentives, not lack of incentives.

10. The last two centuries of rising population and prosperity should fill us with awe - and the best is yet to come.

1. The greatest philosophical mistake is to demand proof for the obvious.  See Hume.

2. The second greatest philosophical mistake is to try to prove the obvious.  See Descartes.

3. If you can't explain your position clearly in simple language, you probably don't understand it yourself.

4. When possible, resolve debates about "what's obvious" by betting, not talking.

5. Ignoring the facts of dualism and radical free will is anti-empirical and unscientific.

6. Talking about morality if there are no moral facts is like talking about unicorns if there aren't any unicorns.  

7. There are moral facts.

8. Productive moral arguments begin with clear-cut simple cases, not one-sentence moral theories or trolley problems.

9. Violence and theft are presumptively wrong, and calling yourself "the government" does nothing to rebut these presumptions.

10. The best three pages in philosophy remain Epicurus' "Letter to Menoeceus."


1. Voters are irrational.  So is believing otherwise.

2. Government isn't a solution to externalities problems; it's the best example of the problem.

3. The main output of government isn't "public goods," but private goods that people pretend to want much more than they really do.  See Social Security and Medicare.

4. People rarely make the the most internally consistent argument for government action: paternalism.

5. The realistic path to freer markets isn't "free-market reform," but austerity.

6. Democrats and Republicans are about as different as Catholics and Protestants - and 80% of the union of their mutual recriminations is true.

7. Before you study public opinion, you wonder why policy isn't far better.  After you study public opinion, you wonder why policy isn't far worse.

8. Big reasons why democracy isn't worse: Unequal participation, political slack, and status quo bias.

9. Libertarians are the dhimmis of democracy.

10. Despite everything, life in First World democracies is amazingly good by world and historic standards and will keep getting better.  So cheer up.


1. Life is a gift, and the more the better.

2. "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life."  Yep.

3. Be friendly as a matter of policy.  Turn the other cheek in the face of ad hominem attacks.  It might seem crazy, but it works.

4. Obsessiveness is an powerful solution for physical and social problems.  Unfortunately it's also a major cause of emotional problems.

5. Once you're an adult, religious people will leave you alone if you leave them alone.

6. People vary more widely than you think.  Tell yourself it's nobody's fault.

7. Selection is the key to social harmony.  Surround yourself with true friends who love you just as you are.  If you don't see any around, quest for them.

8. Raise your children with kindness and respect.  "I'm your parent, not you're friend" is a reason to treat your kids better than their peers do, not worse.

9. Your mind ages at a slower rate than you expect when you're young, your body at a faster rate.

10.  Evolutionary psychology is by far the best universal theory of human motivation.  Ignore it at your own peril.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (45 to date)
David R. Henderson writes:

Happy birthday, Bryan.

Brandon Robison writes:

So are you saying you only learned (on average) one thing per year?

SpotCash writes:

If voters are irrational then why are not offerors and bidders in markets irrational. Seems that an election is merely a specialized form of a market.

Dan S writes:


Elections are fundamentally different from markets in that in an election, individuals do not always get what they vote for, as in private markets. The likelihood of one's vote actually steering policy any more than an infinitesmally small amount is negligible, so there is no incentive to do the research necessary to make an informed vote.

Imagine if instead of buying cars individually, we all simply had a big election to determine what kind of car everybody would get. Is there any doubt that you would do substantially less research about cars when you would only see a trivially small amount of the benefit from making an informed vote?

John Jenkins writes:

How does Prof. Caplan's statement that the list is a list of important lessons he has learned in his lifetime imply in any way that those are the only things (or even the only important things) he has learned?

Scott Wentland writes:

Happy Birthday!

Doc Merlin writes:

"5. The realistic path to freer markets isn't "free-market reform," but austerity."

"Does this mean starve the beast" has worked by causing massive unpay-able debt?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Happy birthday! Surprised at how much I agree with on the list - virtually every one in each category except for politics (and there perhaps about half or I agreed but thought the point was considerably overstated). I'm curious about #9 under politics... exactly how do you differ in rights/station from non-libertarians? This one was a good example of where I think your identity got in the way of clarity in many on that particular list. I'm curious exactly what you meant by the dhimmi point.

John S Cook writes:

Life begins at 40 and a lot more learning can happen provided you are not too satisfied with what you think you already know.

The idea that supply=demand is simply tautological if it means that what one person has supplied is equal to what someone demanded as opposite sides of the same bargain. More can be learned by thinking about expectations of supply, expectations about demand; and what happens if peoples' expectations are unreasonable or if things do not turn out as expected.

Lori writes:

Happy Birthday, and best wishes.

Have you read Age of Reason by Jean Paul Sartre?

Philo writes:

“Governments with fiat money have near-absolute power over nominal GDP, but much less over real GDP or employment.” Governments have a lot of power over the economy; for example, they can reduce real GDP and (legal) employment nearly to zero (is that not “near-absolute”?). But perhaps you meant that there is an upper bound on the real GDP they can elicit, but none on nominal GDP (but this would hardly be worth a place on your list). And surely a totalitarian government could bring about 100% employment (or did you mean to restrict your purview to democratic, quasi-American governments?).

Philo writes:

"Ignoring the facts of dualism and radical free will is anti-empirical and unscientific." I agree with most of the items on your list, but this one strikes me as quite wrongheaded.

Anon. writes:

I don't get the Hume hate. The Lucas critique is basically a copy-paste of Hume, and I doubt you'd say that it's a "great philosophical mistake".

Clay writes:

Wow! Those are some excellent quotes.

The only item I'd question is immigration. You have really been beating the drum on that issue yet you avoid debating the main counterpoints (which I won't repeat in the comments yet again).

Matrim writes:

Great list and happy birthday!

Jeffrey Rae writes:

Happy Birthday.

I have sympathy for all 40 points, including the few on which I am not inclined to agree with you.

Either way, please do not wait another 40 years before you add to your list.

Will writes:

I agree with Philo. This seems silly and almost unarguably false. At least if you're going to claim that a completely aphysical and supernatural soul is 'scientific', 'empirical', and 'a fact', please link to some evidence. It baffles me how something this is not grounded in the physical reality of the universe could even be considered 'empirical' in any way, but perhaps you'd like to explain.

Josh W. writes:


Voters are irrational because their decision in the voting booth has no consequences.

In a market, if you have false beliefs you are readily punished for it.

Benson Te writes:

Happy Birthday Bryan! More Power

Andy writes:

Bryan seems to think that introspection is everything when it comes to free will. Perhaps he is a closet Misesian after all?

Happy birthday.

Steve Brown writes:

A very happy birthday to you! I am so thankful that you are here, stimulating our minds in the inimitable way you do on Econlog. Have a great day.

Steve Z writes:

Happy birthday. May your child bearing years extend well into the next millennium.

Chandran writes:

Happy Birthday, Brian. Excellent post as usual.

fundamentalist writes:

Happy birthday Brian! I'm on board with most of your statements. However the last

Evolutionary psychology is by far the best universal theory of human motivation.
is just too bad to let pass.

Eolutionary psychology is the queen of junk sciences. It is nothing but speculation in drag.

chandra writes:

Great one, congratss!!

I am yet to reach there!

François Paquette writes:

Usually, we receive gifts for our birthday, but today you decide to give us a nice one.


Simon writes:

Can someone explain how you can reconcile:

Evolutionary psychology is by far the best universal theory of human motivation. Ignore it at your own peril.


Ignoring the facts of dualism and radical free will is anti-empirical and unscientific.

Are in any way not contradictory and coherent? I think I might agree with Brad DeLong on Bryan now. Jesus.

q writes:

hm, good list. if you mean it about betting, you wouldn't mind telling us what you'd wager your tenured position on?

Brian Blase writes:

Happy Birthday Bryan!

Jim Object writes:

Happy birthday, Bryan. The world is better for you having been in it.

Joe writes:

re: life, #5: not when said "religious people" are in a position of power.

Chris Koresko writes:

@Bryan: Happy birthday! This post was a nice way to observe it. I hope and expect that you will find the following years happy and productive.

One comment/question on your list: When you look at a plot of the deficit projections for the Obama and Ryan budgets, do you still consider the two political parties 80% the same?

@Doc Merlin: If memory serves, "starving the beast" means restricting Federal revenues, while "austerity" means restricting Federal spending.

Pandaemoni writes:

I also think that the degree of truth contained in number 5 under "Life" varies depending on one's circumstances. Religious people do not bother Bryan that much, so long as he doesn't stir the pot...but if he were a gay man, for example, he might find himself facing more unprovoked confrontations. I think I could easily say that racists leave me alone if I leave them alone, but I happen to be white and YMMV if you're black or another minority.

I also agree with the criticism that "dualism" and "radical free will" are hardly established as "facts," let alone in denying their reality anti-empirical. The evidence I read from neuroscience suggests not only that the mind and brainy are one and the same, but split brain studies suggest that the brain may be responsible for more than one "consciousness" that are biologically synthesized into one "mind."

Mario Rizzo writes:

It will be interesting to see how many of these theses Bryan believes at 50 or 60.

One point: Life may be good (mostly in developed countries -- but not entirely, see 75% of humanity in other places). It is meaningless to say that life is good, full stop. It is good for someone in particular and not good for others in particular.

(The statement you make sounds like Roman Catholic doctrine.)

I know this is one of your philosophical positions but your birthday should not be filled with agreement since I know that is not what you thrive on.


Simon writes:

Is anyone going to answer how radical free will and evolutionary psychology are in any way compatible? Putting these two things together on this list seems to prove that Bryan understands very little about what he is saying.

JCE writes:

"Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life." Yep.

bryan what should i do if what i do doesnt appear to have a very high demand in the labor market.
i've been struggling to find a marketable value in what i lilke to do

Eric Falkenstein writes:

It's funny that there's a finite, but about 50-500 set of very independent set of insights that are valuable...That is, life isn't summed up as 'the golden rule' or some other rule, but rather, a several dozen such rules. I guess, given 19 or so physical constants and their relations (laws), that's the way life is.

Peter St. Onge writes:

Very nice post, Bryan.

Happy birthday!

c141nav writes:

Happy Birthday

rpl writes:

Happy (somewhat belated) birthday, Bryan! Here's hoping you found a memorable way to celebrate.

Mit writes:

I have to completely disagree with Josh W. There's lots of Texans getting economically punished for their vote for Rick Perry and his minions.

Happy birthday, Prof -- I disagree with almost everything you say and believe, but I hope you never have to live the life millions of poor Texans -- whose leaders follow your precepts -- are now living.

hanmeng writes:

You left one out:

Someone will always criticize you're spelling.

Josh W. writes:


It's marginal thinking. It's not that "elections don't have consequences" but that "one individual's vote in the booth doesn't have consequences."

Jack Lechelt writes:

The ability to list your views in a fairly short bullet point list is a bigger problem than government.

Dan L. writes:

Almost none of these are things one can learn. Almost all of them are ideological commitments.

Just as an example, what sort of warped view of knowledge and rationalism must one have to present the following as a learned fact (as opposed to a Pollyannaish refusal to engage with reality)?

"10. The last two centuries of rising population and prosperity should fill us with awe - and the best is yet to come."

Thanks for about 40 more data points suggesting that economists simply don't live in the real world with the rest of us.

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