Bryan Caplan  

A Review of My Review

NCH Podcast... Hard-Wired Envy...
From Noah Smith's review of my review of The Happiness Equation:
Caplan's solution probably wouldn't work. Michael Lewis describes something like this in Liar's Poker, in which no one at his company ever mentions money, bonuses are kept secret, etc. The hush-hush attitude only makes people more determined to ferret out the information, and everyone at the company remains obsessed with relative pay. Information wants to be free, Dr. Caplan! But even supposing this "shame" system could suppress information about inequality, I have a feeling it would just make people all the angrier on those rare occasions when the fact of inequality made itself apparent. A problem you're not allowed to talk about is twice as annoying...

The bottom line, libertarians, is that people care about what they care about.
I'm tempted to respond with a reductio ad absurdum and say, "So we should also stop shaming racists?  After all, according to your argument we're just making racial antipathy worse."  But there's a kernel of truth to Noah's argument.  In the short-run, shaming people often does amplify the resentment of the shamed. 

Fortunately for anyone who wants to change anyone's attitudes, there are two countervailing effects.  First, people who keep their bad attitudes to themselves inspire less second-hand negativity in potential listeners.  Second, in the long-run, sheeple gradually lose interest in views no one else openly supports. 

On Noah's story, liberals should actually like FoxNews for its cathartic effect.  And no doubt that cathartic effect exists to some extent.  If FoxNews went off the air today, its audience would probably be more resentful than ever... for a while.  But the loss of social support would gradually make angry conservatives less conservative and less angry.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (2 to date)
Justin Ross writes:

It seems to me, that from a policy perspective we cannot likely affect the overall demand for status games, we can only influence what dimensions the status game is played on.

If people earn income to show off their status, then taxing income heavily and redistributing it will mostly just cause people to play their status games in a way other than through earning income.

All else equal, I think it would be preferable that they play their status games in ways which are socially productive, such as earning incomes through entrepreneurship rather than through political rent seeking.

Matt writes:

I agree with Noah on this one, but only because Bryan actively advocates shaming people who talk about inequality. This would only lead to resentment.

If Bryan had instead advocated that people stop feeling ashamed of their lower incomes, and then pointed out that this would naturally lead to people feeling ashamed of pointing out income inequality, I would have completely agreed with him.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top