Bryan Caplan  

My Two Modes

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Sometimes I wonder if I'm an extreme cynic or an extreme idealist.  The truth is that I'm both.  My mind works in two different modes.

I enter my idealist mode whenever someone proposes a reform that could plausibly make the world better.  I'm extremely open to the idea that the status quo is horrible, so even obvious ideas would be great improvements... if tried. 

I realize, of course, that many so-called reforms have been bad, but I consider the most notorious failures to have been easily foreseeable.  Anyone with common sense should have expected Marxism to lead to famine and border guards with machine guns.  And to a large extent, this foreseeability works in reverse.  I am extremely confident, for example, that legalizing the market for human organs will save lives and reduce poverty without appreciable negative consequences. 

Unlike most idealists, however, I do not expect even premium ideas to come to pass.  As soon as someone describes a way to make a good idea a reality, I enter my cynical mode: It's not gonna happen. 

Businesspeople rarely adopt good new ideas because regulators won't let them.  Regulators rarely approve good new ideas because they're playing "Red light we continue our cushy lives, green light we risk making enemies or drawing unwanted attention."  Politicians rarely overrule regulators because they face similar asymmetric incentives: Our leaders' status quo is very pleasant, and any major change courts voter disapproval.  And voters, of course, are hopelessly irrational, impervious to the best of arguments.  Talking to the general public is like talking to a neurotic brick wall. 

Take organ selling.  Businesspeople won't try it because it's illegal.  Regulators and politicians won't allow organ selling because they foresee an angry public backlash.  The public so reacts because it is willfully economically illiterate.  And so the status quo will continue indefinitely.  Please don't be angry at me for saying such things; I am only a messenger.

When social scientists grasp both of my modes, they're often incredulous.  What's the point of devising wonderful reforms that will never happen?  Part of my reply is that I still hope to tip policy in a slightly better direction.  But my deeper reply is that knowledge of how the world ought to be has immense intrinsic value.  Without such knowledge, even the most beautiful Bubble is woefully incomplete.  And I derive deep satisfaction from spreading such enlightenment to a small but vibrant intellectual counter-culture.

This obviously isn't my first choice.  I'd love to see good ideas triumph.  But I am content knowing that someone somewhere realizes that there is a better way.

Update: Dan Klein reminded me about this excellent piece on organ markets.



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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Tom West writes:

I am extremely confident, for example, that legalizing the market for human organs will save lives and reduce poverty without appreciable negative consequences.

I have to say, anyone who claims near certainty about their predictions with respect to the behaviour of irrational creatures under extreme social change such as a free market in organs should not be claiming excessive rationality themselves.

Now if Bryan wanted to claim that he was certain it would improve life among rational creatures, that would be a different matter.

(I'm not saying he should stop advocating for a free market in organs. Only that being extremely confident about any prediction is crazy.)

(Personally, I think a positive outcome is about P(0.7). I just think that a bad outcome is so profoundly bad that I don't think it's worth the risk. I would support full compensation for costs including lost income.)

john hare writes:

I am an inventor and business owner. Most of the resistance I have seen to new ideas in the business world is due to the currently successful having made it the old fashioned way. Many of them seem oblivious to the fact that their personal old fashioned way was innovative early on.

The best innovation seems to come from those that start their own business using their own vision of the way things ought to be. Then decades later the successful ones lock on to their own old fashioned way.

The best way I have found for introducing new ideas is like the joke about the 100 mpg carburetor. The oil companies didn't buy it to keep it off the market, the Japanese did and they are selling it back to us 5 miles at a time. Keep the innovation to yourself and just sell the products that seem normal.

Pajser writes:
Anyone with common sense should have expected Marxism to lead to famine and border guards with machine guns.
I like Marx. He was mostly right.
Sometimes I wonder if I'm an extreme cynic or an extreme idealist. The truth is that I'm both.
Extreme idealism probably means one is ready to sacrifice something extremely valuable for advance of his ideas. It is not your thing. It is incompatible with "bubble" concept.
Daublin writes:

I think there is a simpler explanation.

It's very tempting to spend time talking about things that you expect to never happen. You have nothing to lose, no chance of being wrong, but you get to mentally live a life that has something really cool in it.

In short, it's a lot like reading a good scifi book or playing a good RPG.

Dan Carroll writes:

Sometimes good ideas break through. But they can't break through if they aren't invented or communicated.

I like Marx. He was mostly right.

About Stalin and Lenin?

Thucydides writes:

Implicit in Bryan's comments is the notion that for every question or problem there must be one right or ideal answer on which everyone could be expected to agree. But most of the time what one person thinks will make or has "made the world better" another will think would make or has made it worse.

The sale of organs is a good example; it seems unlikely that there would ever be general agreement on whether the benefits outweigh the harms.

The curse of our times has been runaway Prometheanism - efforts of idealists to find and impose a common dream through state coercion.

Perhaps it would be better to drop this constant dissatisfaction with the fact that life is not perfect, and focus more on the appreciation of what exists, which, when you think about it, is pretty wonderful.

Of course, this counsel is unlikely to appeal to most intellectuals; their sense of self-worth (i.e., their vanity) is bound up with the notion that they have it in their power to control our fates through the exercise of their mental powers.

Himanshu Sanguri writes:

I would like to remind Bryan that like his own bubble, this world has billions of different bubbles. Now, to think in line that all those bubbles are well placed on a chess board to be played upon is a great thinking fallacy. Reforms are very important and we all should advocate them in our realms, but concluding and making judgement is not good enough to argue others outlook. I am very lucky that I live in a country like India, where I have the liberty and freedom to think, do and live the way I like, in short I love my own sweet bubble :-)

Bryan, Anyone who thinks that many obvious ideas can improve the world has to believe that these ideas are not likely to be implemented. These are not two conflicting modes. They are just two sides of the same coin. Anyone who is optimistic about the power of ideas to radically change the world should be cynical about human nature, because the former is a consequence of the latter. I have no idea how an honest social scientist can think that these are conflicting modes because a decent man’s life is a series of frustrated attempts at convincing people of many obvious truths. It takes a particular sensibility, to see, and appreciate the truth.


I am one of those libertarians who are not interested in changing the world for the good. It is not the purpose of writing. If it happens, it is incidental. A literary masterpiece is not an instruction manual. I would like to say that other libertarians should join me in this mode of thinking. But, it is only because I would like to see more honest writing. I do not think it is going to happen either. If one or two brilliant men do, it would be good.

Pajser writes:

Patrick, no, I don't like these two.

liberty writes:

And when the very poor sell their organs to pay their rent and feed their children, only to die very young from health problems (and lack of access to health care) in this libertarian paradise, will you cheer about their expanded choice? Will you see no downsides to your idealistic modest proposal?

LD Bottorff writes:

Bryan,
Then pick the reform most likely to succeed and push for it. I may share your opinion regarding organ markets, but I think your effort is better placed in supporting the free movement of labor.
After all, you said you think that immigration is THE moral issue of our day. I'm inclined to agree.

MingoV writes:

I have three modes: Idealist - Skeptic - Cynic

My skeptic mode is dominant. The other two modes are almost identical to what Bryan Caplan described. (I'll wager that he has a big skeptic mode, too.)

Entering cynic mode is a survival mechanism for idealists. If you are in cynic mode, and an ideal plan fails to be implemented, then the let-down is small. But, if an ideal plan succeeds (even if it's of tiny scope), then the mood elevation is big. I've experienced this a few times, and my idealist mode was reinforced each time.

Rob writes:

@liberty

And when the very poor sell their organs to pay their rent and feed their children, only to die very young from health problems (and lack of access to health care) in this libertarian paradise, will you cheer about their expanded choice?

If the poor have no better way get money, it is clearly better for them to have the option to sell their organs. If it were worse for them, they could just refuse to do so. So a ban harms them in this case.

If they do have a better way to get money (e.g. because you support them or force others to do so), they can't benefit from a ban on organ sale, as their desperate incentive drops away anyway.

So whether or not you give money to the poor, you cannot make them better off by banning the option. The worst-case scenario for them is that their best options are banned by paternalists and they have no better way to earn money.

The only way your argument makes any sense is if the poverty can be used as political leverage for redistribution, and banning other options like organ sale or prostitution is needed politically so they aren't seen as legitimate alternatives to redistribution. However, if this gamble merely leads to a perpetuation of extreme poverty in the world (out of sight, out of mind), you have actively harmed the very people who had the smallest option range to begin with.

Kevin writes:

Bryan, please don't call them "our leaders."

Pajser writes:

Rob:

"If the poor have no better way get money, it is clearly better for them to have the option to sell their organs. If it were worse for them, they could just refuse to do so. So a ban harms them in this case."

Imagine that you have heart attack on small island, and only person on the island beside you is the medical doctor with cheap pill that can save your life in his pocket. Immediately, doctor offers the contract that he will save your life for $million, the money you earned by working hard for last ten years. Although you have the freedom, you'll not be able to refuse the contract.

Now, what if there is the law that for every contract larger than $10 000 one must seek (but not obey) advice of the professional lawyer? Then medical doctor will save your life for $9999. So we have the situation in which it is plain bad to have freedom, even if one knows what is good for him. Fascinating, isn't it?

liberty writes:

Rob:

Your argument implicitly assumes perfect rationality and information, and excludes 3rd party interventions, such as charity.

The poor may choose to sell their organs first, unaware that they could have found a charity or found some other way to get by -- when poor and desperate people make foolish decisions that they may come to regret. This is where economists often fall out of touch with reality.

Also, charities may not help the poor if the poor have first sold their organs, or rather, they may instead focus on helping those who have sold their organs and are now suffering from the consequences thereof. etc.

aez writes:

MingoV, you are absolutely right about cynicism, especially with respect to idealists. Cynicism is a type of psychological distance, and idealists, who are action drivers, often need this.

The danger of cynicism is that the distance can remove idealists from the action they want to drive, and so paralyze them. I have seen this demonstrated in so many situations. It's less dangerous to them if they can recognize it as a tool against frustration, and use it as such.

Rob writes:

@Pajser:

Take your thought experiment and imagine the government bans the pill that can save your life from being sold at any price. That's the equivalent of what we're talking about here.

You can also modify it so that the pill (or some other treatment) costs $11 000 and the doctor is both uncharitable and has no obligation to provide it (or has plausible deniability for being able to provide it).

In both cases, the law kills/harms one side and keeps the other side poor(er).

@liberty:

Your argument implicitly assumes perfect rationality and information, and excludes 3rd party interventions, such as charity.
No, I have explicitly mentioned both charity and forced redistribution. And where does this perfect rationality and information business come from? You don't need to assume perfect rationality to oppose a ban. You only need to assume that the benefits of the option outweigh the harms of the option.

Increasing the option range is beneficial by default. Paternalism is harmful by default because paternalists have no incentive to be rational or work in the interests of those whom they (claim to) protect.

kr writes:

I know i'm necroposting, but the idea of legal market in human organs seems so inherently wrong (and right at the same time, at least in theory) that I just could not resist myself.

The question is: wouldn't arguments for market of human organs support markets for children too?

I think the argument is even stronger that way: some people (probably the same people who would sell their organs) have more kids on average, and some have none but would probably pay to have them. It would be hard to find any utility in selling your organs, apart from the money you get paid (in fact there are considerable costs you might not be able foresee). On the other hand selling a kid, if you already have too many, might actually save you some costs down the road AND you get the money. It's potentially a double-win - win situation.

It's baffling that there aren't many papers proposing it, right?

P.S after consideration I remembered that there was a guy long time ago proposing the same thing. Still, the argument holds, I guess

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