Bryan Caplan  

The Deal Delusion

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Robin Hanson often describes his normative view as "dealism."  Forget talking about "right and wrong."  Lets take people as they are, and help them hammer out mutually beneficial deals.  Robin's latest word on this topic:

My closest colleagues seem to mostly take a morals view, but many of my students like a deals view. I think I see a correlation whereby academics who lean toward a sci/tech style tend to favor a deals view, while those who lean toward a humanities style tend to favor a morals view. Sci/tech styles tend more toward math, precision, and local incremental contributions toward specific things and plans, while humanities styles tend more toward bigger pictures, wider-ranging applications, broader interpretations, and joining larger conversations.

In sum, how you think about economic recommendations may depend on whether your thinking leans near or far. It seems deals are near, while morals are far, and sci/tech folks lean near, while humanities folks lean far. Precise formal analysis is more near, while flexible more-metaphorical discussion is more far. Particular suggestions for particular conflicts of particular groups is more near, while general more accessible discussion about what choices tend to be good or bad is more far.

My claim: Robin's "dealism" is actually an extremely "far" doctrine.  The doctrine is so far, in fact, that Robin keeps missing some basic facts:

Fact #1: Robin has spent decades proposing unconventional policy deals.  His track record is an abysmal failure.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but to the best of my knowledge:

  • Zero Hansonian deals have been adopted.
  • Zero Hansonian deals have come close to adoption.
  • Zero Hansonian deals have been embraced by any normal person.  His proposals appeal almost exclusively to fans of economics, libertarianism, futurism, and science fiction.

The reason for Robin's failure is pretty obvious: Most human beings are far too conventional and stubborn to even consider Robin's suggestions.  And instead of trying to overcome this hurdle, Robin habitually raises the hurdle by criticizing conventional attitudes.  (The latest example).  No realtor would do this.

Fact #2: People often have a very good reason to ignore deals: They have better ways to get what they want.  Such as: persuasion, moralizing, trickery, and bullying. 

Fact #3: The effectiveness of deal-making varies widely by person.  Some people aren't very good at making deals, but excel at moralizing.  Consider the Pope.  If he tried bargaining with Catholics to get them to refrain from abortion, they'd be baffled.  But when the Pope tells them that abortion is morally wrong, millions listen.

Fact #4: The effectiveness of deal-making varies widely by situation.  Just one example: Suppose you bump into an angry drunk in a bar.  Yes, you could take out your wallet and try to bargain with him.  But that would probably make him angrier.  You'd better off if you just profusely apologized.

Robin paints dealism as a hard-headed pragmatic doctrine.  But the doctrine is neither hard-headed nor pragmatic.  It ignores basic facts and doesn't work.  The real reason Robin is a dealist, I suspect, is moral.  Dealism reflects Robin's sense of right and wrong.  He thinks that it's morally right to keep your agreements.  He thinks that it's morally wrong to fight someone who offers you a reasonable deal.  And above all else, he thinks that it's morally wrong to be conventional and stubborn. 


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Ema writes:

Best explanation of Hanson ever :)

BZ writes:

Dr. Caplan nailed it in the last paragraph. "Pragmatic" and utilitarian theorists are always left answering the question "Why *should* I maximize utility?"

Lori writes:

At first blush, Hanson's dealism reminds me of Trump's "Art of the Deal." If I'm suspicious of it, it's not because I cling to morals, but because I fear a "dealocracy" or rise of the most proficient wheeler-dealers over and above the rest of the population. That fact #2 positions persuasion, trickery and bullying as alternatives to the deal rather than (as I perceive them) tactics of the deal has got me all-ears. I see potential for win-win scenarios in deals if the gamesmanship is largely removed and the deals are transparent in an all-cards-face-up-on-the table sort of way. Rightly or wrongly, I think of deals as pigs in pokes. While it's morally right to keep your agreements, I'd say it's even more virtuous to lay out all cards on the table.

What are the important differences between Hansonian deals and Trumpian deals? Aside from the apparent non-existence of the former and the utter ubiquity of the latter?

Khoth writes:

I think another reason Robin's deals don't get made is that he's not trying to get them made. Consider this example: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2011/01/be-a-charity-angel.html

He proposes a different model for charity, and someone in the comments is in a position to use it, and is interested in it, but has some objections.

Instead of actually trying to engage with him and come up with a workable plan, Robin just gives glib dismissals, with suggestions clearly chosen more to be provocative than constructive (offer sex as a reward for charity? Someone so obsessed with signalling wouldn't seriously propose that).

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