Bryan Caplan  

Guess Who's Second-Guessing

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A single-issue website laments:
It is just depressing to witness academics confining the discussion of complex issues within the parameters of pre-existing public opinion. What's the point of possessing vast knowledge of any subject if one chooses to then limit themselves to the preferred policy prescriptions of all the people who don't know what the hell they're talking about?
As far as I'm concerned, this paragraph applies to virtually every issue.  But I suspect that most single-issue activists would second-guess the public very selectively. 

Question: Can you guess the issue that inspired this lament?  If so, please explain your guess.  Do some issues lend themselves to a general second-guessing of public opinion?  Do some ideologies begin with second-guessing, and end with intense single-issue activism?  Or what?

No googling. 

COMMENTS (18 to date)
Woody Belangia writes:

Ok, I'll bite. Global warming?

Philo writes:

The writer evidently thinks that he, along with other academics, has “vast knowledge” of a theoretical sort, knowledge which points to some public policy alternative that is being widely ignored. There is vast knowledge in economics, less so in sociology or political science. (It would be a stretch to claim for other academic fields--psychology? medicine?--special relevance for public policy.) Almost any issue might accumulate nuts or visionaries advocating far-out policies that, they complain, are being ignored by the main stream; but the issues for which one might plausibly appeal to “vast knowledge” of an academic sort are matters of economic policy. My guess is that the writer is talking about monetary policy.

Yancey Ward writes:

I would have guessed healthcare, then abortion. The actual answer probably would not have been on my top ten list.

Shane L writes:

I would have guessed that the author was anti-capitalist, and was annoyed by a perceived neoliberal consensus in economics, preferring to see some radical alternatives. Some Marxist friends of mine write like this a little.

Michael Stack writes:

I too would guess monetary policy. Abortion came up for some reason but it's hard for me to imagine what type of 'experts' might exist on such a topic.

Finch writes:

I'd guess race or gender.

Michael Hamilton writes:

I support the same policy prescription as the author in question.

This issue does lend itself to second-guessing the public, as more than 90% of the public is wrong here (with a slight caveat that I can't explain without revealing the topic).

Either way, some people move the Overton window, and others operate within it. That's what the author was complaining about.

fp writes:

Minimum wages?

Glen S. McGhee writes:

"Although the large universities are still relatively free places in which to work, the trends that limit independence of intellect are not absent there. The professor is, after all, an employee, subject to what this fact involves, and institutional factors select men and have some influence upon how, when, and upon what they will work. Yet the deepest problem of freedom for teachers is not the occasional ousting of a professor, but a vague general fear--sometimes called 'discretion' and 'good judgement'--which leads to self-intimidation and finally becomes so habitual that the scholar is unaware of it. The real restraints are not so much external prohibitions as manipulative control of the insurgent by the agreements of academic gentlemen. Such control is, of course, furthered by Hatch Acts, by political and business attacks upon professors, by the restraints necessarily involved in Army programs for colleges, and by the setting up of committees by trade associations, which attempt to standardize the content and effects of teaching in given disciplines. Research in social science is increasingly dependent upon funds from foundations, which are notably averse to scholars who develop unpopular, 'unconstructive,' theses" (White Collar: The American Middle Classes, 1951, pp. 151-152).

Finch writes:

It is interesting that the guesses are so diverse.

"I'm informed and the mainstream is not" is a pretty common feeling.

Art Carden writes:

My first guess was immigration, but that's largely because that's one of Bryan's favorites!

I too was surprised at what it actually was.

shecky writes:

I, too, guessed immigration for the same reason as Carden. Though I'm not surprised at the actual answer. I'm finding the previous guesses more interesting.

MikeP writes:

I'm not looking it up as the prior two commenters did. But they are obviously wrong. It is clearly immigration.

The possibility that someone could immigrate to the US but never have the option to become a citizen (though their children could) or receive government assistance (though their adult citizen children could) is so incredibly unAmerican to the majority of the populace and media that they are willing to turn the country into a police state to prevent it.

Yet legalizing immigration without citizenship or benefits is exactly the way out of the immigration mess.

(Okay, I looked it up. Makes sense. But immigration is still a better answer.)

Steve S writes:

Do some issues lend themselves to a general second-guessing of public opinion?

Anything science-related leads me to be very skeptical of whatever the public consensus is. A lot of people extrapolate the results of studies, or try to argue their point via the tangential results of an un-related study, and people don't see underneath the hood to realize the problem with that.

Do some ideologies begin with second-guessing, and end with intense single-issue activism? Or what?

Again, I think if you discover that the public consensus on an issue is factually incorrect (i.e. new scientific proof) and nobody is doing anything to change public opinion based on this new-found fact, it may drive you crazy when people continue to say false things and lead you to focus intensely on that one issue.

OK I googled the quote and have to say...not what I was thinking at all. At risk of giving too many clues, I think that issue has moved past the scientific debates (nobody frames it that way anymore) and has become entrenched as a moral question instead.

Philo writes:

The author you are criticizing (Scott Morgan) is reacting to the following statement: “But there are things we can do about drug policy that would reduce the number of people in prison, and the extent of drug abuse and drug related crime. Legalization isn't one of them because there's not public support for it.” I don’t think he quite gets what is dubious about this pair of sentences: Who are “we”? If we = the public, then we *can* legalize drugs (though maybe we won’t). If we = the speaker (Mark Kleiman) and me—just the two of us—then almost certainly there is *nothing*(at most, next to nothing) we can do about drug policy. Since the scope of “we” is not specified, these sentences don’t really make a definite statement, and so Morgan’s outrage is misplaced.

Roger Sweeny writes:

I was guessing food. "Yes, we really should think about banning the production or consumption of meat and refined sugar. Of course, it's way out of the mainstream now but it would do so much good--for health, for the environment, etc."

Interesting to see that's kind of a mirror for what the quote is actually about.

Floccina writes:


MikeP writes:
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