Bryan Caplan  

Me, Gilens, and Salon

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Last year I wrote a series of posts (here, here, and here) arguing that Martin Gilens' evidence on the disproportionate influence of the rich on U.S. public policy is very good news indeed.  Long story short:
I find Gilens' results not only intellectually satisfying, but hopeful.  If his results hold up, we know another important reason why policy is less statist than expected: Democracies listen to the relatively libertarian rich far more than they listen to the absolutely statist non-rich.  And since I think that statist policy preferences rest on a long list of empirical and normative mistakes, my sincere reaction is to say, "Thank goodness."  Democracy as we know it is bad enough.  Democracy that really listened to all the people would be an authoritarian nightmare.
Now these posts have inspired an amusing Salon profile of me, written by the New America Foundation's Michael Lind.  While Steven White's 2007 profile of me for Generation Progress showed deeper understanding and better eye for detail, Lind's summary of my views is largely accurate and rather flattering.  Lind:

Can Caplan fill the philosophical void left by Nozick's defection from libertarianism? I think he can. In what follows I will make the case for what might be called Caplanism, recognizing that Caplan himself might not be consistent enough to follow the logic of his own thinking to its conclusions. (Marx claimed he was not a Marxist).

The great contribution of Caplanism to libertarian thought and argument is the observation that democracy, if sufficiently corrupted by the rich, might -- just might -- be tolerable. Let us call this equivalent of Kant's Categorical Imperative or the Maximin Principle of John Rawls Caplan's Tolerability Principle.

That libertarianism is incompatible with democracy is an empirical observation on which libertarians can agree with progressives, centrists and non-libertarian conservatives. After all, in every modern democracy, including the U.S., government tends to account for somewhere between 35 and 50 percent of GDP on such "national socialism" (to use Caplan's terms) as universal health care, minimum public pensions and public education. 

Money can't buy publicity like this:

Caplanism represents a great philosophical breakthrough for the Koch-subsidized intelligentsia of the libertarian right. Caplanism allows libertarians to embrace both Pinochet's Chile and the United States, without contradiction, on the grounds that in both Pinochet's Chile and today's United States the preferences of the rich have trumped those of the majority.

Caplanism also frees libertarian scholars like Caplan himself from being embarrassed about the fact that almost all of them are paid, directly or indirectly, by a handful of angry, arrogant rich guys who fund anti-government propaganda because they think they are overtaxed. Caplanism allows the subsidized libertarian intelligentsia to declare, "Yes, we are indeed spokesmen for plutocracy -- and a good thing, too, because a plutocratic democracy is the only kind of democracy worth having!"

For all of these reasons, I believe that Bryan Caplan deserves to be studied as one of the most representative thinkers of our money-dominated era. Our squalid age of plutocratic democracy has found a thinker worthy of it.

Yes, it would have been nice if Lind talked more about where I go wrong, and he gratuitously insults many fellow libertarians.  But as a firm believer in the adages "All publicity is good publicity," and "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," I'm not only pleased, but grateful.

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Joel Aaron Freeman writes:

You founded your own movement! Congratulations!

Fazal Majid writes:

Since when are the rich libertarian? Apart from a few pockets of idealism like Hollywood or rare individuals like Bill Gates, their policy preferences generally reek of rent-seeking and lobbying for state power to set up barriers to entry for competitors. Libertarianism is just convenient rhetorical cover for them.

Maniel writes:

Extending suffrage beyond the landed gentry was the beginning of our descent.

Chris H writes:

@Fazal Majid,

Caplan's argument is not that the rich are libertarian, just they are more libertarian than anyone else. Really his more specific focus in Myth of the Rational Voter was on the educated which is closely correlated with wealth in the modern developed world. Education leads to greater support for social liberalism and efficient economic policies than the general public. That's not really saying much. Whatever rent seeking behavior you see among the rich is reinforced and goes even further among the less educated masses. Myth of the Rational Voter goes into these issues in a lot of detail so I do recommend it.


The landed gentry are not the exact same group as the modern rich and educated. The industrial (and now post-industrial) bourgeoisie are in many ways a different class. Also while there are plenty of things to complain about nowadays, don't fall for that pessimistic bias Caplan worries about. When aristocrats and landed gentry were solely in charge, serfdom and slavery were common while laws viewed women as little more than property of the males in their lives. In the 19th century voting rights expanded and so did economic freedom. The public did screw up some things (wealthy industrialists were against Southern Jim Crow laws while poor whites and the old Southern landed gentry were in favor), but it's far better to be a citizen of a modern liberal democracy than a subject of most early-to-mid 19th century or earlier governments.

Pajser writes:

The voters know that politicians follow will of majority only if it is relevant for re-elections. As party elites are relatively rich, they show the same bias as relatively rich people. The voters know that as well.

If Lind wants to criticize Caplan, he should find some article where he actually advocates dictatorship, like in "Majority against utility: implications of the failure of the miracle of aggregation."

CC writes:

Bryan, I thought you were pretty clear in previous posts that the rich are *not* voting in a self-interested manner (and in fact no one seems to). They simply vote in a more libertarian matter.

Your critics seem to have missed your whole point.

Greg Heslop writes:

Nozick did not defect from libertarianism as the article claims. To be sure, there is an essay in his book The Examined Life in which he defends some kind of communitarianism and he stated on a number of occasions that he felt Anarchy, State and Utopia to be highly imperfect, but to say that he abandoned libertarianism is like claiming Milton Friedman or Gary Becker were fans of the welfare state because they thought anarchy would not work.

Jeff writes:

Well, he might have obscured or omitted an awful lot, and his analysis seemed pretty superficial, but at least somebody at Salon read some of your old blog posts and thought about them long enough to craft a hit piece out of it.

Marty Mazorra writes:

Hmm... I'm thinking I may be a Caplanist...

Maniel writes:

@Chris H
Thanks for the response. Yes, of course, we’ve seen evolution in our morality and in many of our freedoms. I question whether the expansion of voting rights – admittedly, necessary to a “free” society – has been cause or effect. And, since you brought it up, the bills for some of our progress have been steep. Take for example, the necessary (and I submit, inevitable) end to slavery. Today we lament (and rightly so) our involvement in discretionary foreign wars. However, our own “War Between the States” (to use the southern nomenclature) was a catastrophe that we, at our computer screens, can scarcely imagine. If I draw a rough equivalence between the Bourgeoisie and today’s Libertarians, I would imagine that many Northern leaders would have chosen to let the Southern states secede; you can write your own ending to that scenario, but we’re still paying the price for the Civil War. Moreover, the minor inconvenience of indigenous Americans was “solved” primarily through slaughter, eviction, and concentration camps; their 21st Century revenge – casinos – has been proof by exception.
One source of my original (sarcastic) comment is government programs, supported by “the masses,” that transfer money from working young to non-working elderly, from productive to unproductive, and from healthy to unhealthy with little provision for market incentives to reduce costs. Another source is programs like the war on the poor (e.g., the minimum wage) and the war on drugs which drive so many of our unskilled young out of the job market and into our prisons.
Good discussion – have a great day!

Les Cargill writes:

Mr. Lind's article, while ... interesting is a mess. You can kind of hear him giggling in a maniacal manner in between the fallacies :)

But: Does this not look like the Left is now ( presumably ... jealously? ) employing the dread Epistemic Closure?

lowcountryjoe writes:
Caplan’s Tolerability Principle is an important contribution to the admittedly meager body of libertarian political thought, because it allows libertarians to qualify their rejection of democracy — even as it allows them to continue to favor “libertarian” dictatorships over non-libertarian democracies. If in the spirit of Caplanism we divide regimes into democracies and autocracies, and further divide each category into “tolerable” and “intolerable” versions, then we get four kinds of regimes:

Tolerable democracies, in which public policy responds to the preferences of the rich, rather than the majority;

Tolerable autocracies, in which public policy responds to the preferences of the rich, rather than other groups;

Intolerable democracies, in which public policy reflects the preferences of the majority, rather than the rich;

Intolerable autocracies, in which public policy reflects the preferences of groups other than the rich.

Did Lind just put words in your mouth? I would hope that you respond to this in a separate blog post or with a letter to Salon.

What a believe you advocate for is something so much more rich [pun intended]; you advocate for choice & liberty...individual preferences that are free from government meddling as long as the NAP applies. And if that's not what's being offered, that's what's intolerable.

lowcountryjoe writes:
Caplanism allows the subsidized libertarian intelligentsia to declare, “Yes, we are indeed spokesmen for plutocracy — and a good thing, too, because a plutocratic democracy is the only kind of democracy worth having!”

Again, is he ascribing thoughts and motives to you that you do not have? If so, I think you should be more hacked off and less grateful. And you should respond to it. But that's just me and what I would do.

I'm borderline irate over this crap I'm reading. But, hey, Bryan, if you think it's either a fair representation of your views and/or you're cool with what Lind wrote, I guess I'll have to accept that you're not going to challenge him.

Andrew Pearson writes:


If I were in Bryan's position, I don't know that I'd be grateful per se, but I certainly wouldn't be worried about any article like this. Firstly and primarily, because the article is unlikely to persuade anyone of much - if it were written with the aim of actually persuading libertarians and undecided that libertarianism is wrong, then it would avoid the needless insults (e.g. suggesting that libertarian thought is an oxymoron) and smears of other notable libertarians, provide arguments rather than mere assertions that Bryan's views are wrong, and be a lot more careful with facts (e.g. Nozick moved slightly away from the views expressed in Anarchy, State and Utopia but in no way did he reject libertarianism). This is plain jeering, aimed not at opening the minds of libertarians but at closing the minds of those who are opposed to libertarianism.

And secondly, even if it did persuade people, what political difference would it make if politics is indeed dominated by the views of the wealthy?

Praetyre writes:

I don't get the democracy-fetish American libertarians have. It just seems really strange to me to say that the government is evil and/or that the political direction of America/the West/etc in the 20th century is a disaster, but refuse to criticise the main cause of it or the main legitimating ideology of these regimes.

In a similar vein, I find it odd that so many libertarians (especially of the Reisenwitz variety) essentially parrot chronological-fallacy arguments on culture (Professor Caplan ought to come up with a name for it. It seems related to the Whig theory of history) and yet don't see that the exact same logic that says, say, gay marriage is inevitable could be applied to support social democracy, and in fact rests on the exact same logic and movements and is made by the exact same people, who are consistent enough to see it would lead to that in both cases.

It seems related to a (in my view, mistaken) desire to link libertarianism to 19th century classical liberalism. Even there, though, even the likes of John Stuart Mill supported literacy qualifications for voting. I think another thing that contributes to it (which Caplan mentioned in that "democratic values" survey, which inanely equates liberty with demotism) is the false dichotomy (and hypermyopic 20th-century centric view) promoted by mainstream political science of models of social organization; the only alternative to social democracy (which, as far as I can tell, is identical in both theory and practice to "liberal democracy") is Third World kleptocracy or some vaguely defined "nationalism", or Cold War-style communism.

Democracy, communism and nationalism are all spawn of the French Revolution and of the liberal ideology in general; the AltRighties/ethno-nationalists/Nazis et. al just take the universal People's State and replace people with "Volk". Not only is monarchy unexamined by contemporary political science (except fake-monarchies like in modern day Europe), but so are all non-state political models, anarchist or not; think of feudalism or the polycentric, multilateral legal systems of the Roman and Byzantine Empires.

Hoppe and Moldbug go most extensively into the structural arguments, and I would cite the fate of Hong Kong after the end of military rule as one of many empirical examples against the possibility of libertarian demotism. Also, there are no governments I am aware of pre-WWI which exceed around 20% of GDP, and certainly the legislation in other areas of life was practically nonexistant by modern standards.

vikingvista writes:

The malicious left need state democracy as the only tool left for them to violently impose their will and expropriation against the peaceful unwilling, now that the left's traditional preference, absolute autocracy, is almost universally despised in the Western world.

So if you criticize that tool, as any consistent defender of individual autonomy must, you leave leftists with only free market means, friendly persuasion, which is wholly inadequate to their devisive zero sum game ends. When you attack state democracy, you threaten to strip the modern statist of all power.

And as you can see, the prospect of losing their last tool of violent oppression tends to make them a little hot under the collar, and more than a little careless.

Keep up the good work.

DougT writes:

Bryan, you may have come up with an answer to Plato's criticism of democracy!

Pithlord writes:

Professor Caplan's hostility to democracy and preference for plutocracy is refreshingly candid. But there is a reason Lind doesn't feel a need to aruge against it, and just presents it as a reductio of libertarianism. That reason is that most of his readers will recognize that if the rich have the effective political power, their interests will prevail at the expense of the non-rich. Of course, most of the non-rich don't like that result, and will therefore take it as a reason to reject Professor Caplan's utopia.

This does not involve a fallacious assumption that people vote out of self-interest, as opposed to self-expression. People vote their sincere beliefs about what will benefit the polity. But motivated reasoning as a cognitive bias ensures that we tend to think that what benefits us will benefit the country. That belief is *sincere*, but it is a motivated sincerity.

So the fact that the rich are "relatively libertarian" counts as some evidence that relative libertarianism benefits the rich more than the non-rich. Since positional goods are zero-sum, that means that to the extent positional goods are in play, libertarianism is bad for the non-rich (and worse for the actually poor).

Libertarians tend to believe that positional goods are unimportant, but that's motivated reasoning. If they were unimportant, libertarianism would make sense.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I am not fond of Caplan's reasoning here. For one thing, I don't think that the rich are any more libertarian than anyone else. Certainly the actions of most rich business people indicate a strong belief in statism.

Secondly, I hope most libertarians are not as anti-democracy as Caplan. Churchill was right when he said (or was reported to have said) that democracy was the worst form or government, except for all the others. In fact, democracy is another form of freedom, because the people have the right to the government they choose, regardless of whether they make the right choice or not.

And I also believe that democracies make better choices than alternative forms of government most of the time. It is not a coincidence that freedom and prosperity has arisen in recent times concurrent with the rise of democracy. And since when do autocratic governments believe in freedom?

Praetyre writes:

Caplan never claimed most rich people (which is a broad demographic including far more than just the top entrepeneurs and corporate managers) are libertarian; he claimed (with considerable empirical verification, though the tie may be more to education and/or IQ than wealth) that the rich are *more* libertarian than the general public.

Churchill, like most modern day political scientists, doesn't seem to have accounted for pre-WWI monarchical government/American republicanism and other such forms. Furthermore, the actual effect of individual votes is utterly insignificant, and even that ignores the fact that (for various reasons) virtually all mainstream Western political parties advocate a social-democratic ideology with primarily rhetorical variations. This is even more true in Europe than in the United States.

And even that is discounting the true power centers in the civil service bureaucracy, academics and media; while I realise Professor Caplan may differ from me here (though I agree with him a more democratic government would be even worse than the status quo), the elected officials do not direct or control the vast majority of policies within the United States, much less the even more leftist and bureaucratized EU and other Western countries. What exactly did Bush do that Gore wouldn't have? Iraq?

Further, while prosperity has risen, the real question is whether this has risen because or in spite of the political developments in question; modern Russia is a lot richer than Tsarist Russia, but I think it would be orders of magnitude richer still had it remained under the Tsar. As for freedom, you might want to read Hans-Hermann Hoppe; the tax rates (and rates of overall legislation, including in non-fiscal areas) of even the most "absolute" or largest monarchies are miniscule by comparison to the modern democratic state. Pre-WWI Britain and America (even after the Progressive Era and its equivalents in the UK) hovered around 20% of GDP. I'd argue the non-fiscal gap is even more dramatic; there is nothing remotely on the scale of modern bureaucratic managerialism in pre-WWI societies (smoking bans, affirmative action, government control of education).

Also, whether or not autocracies believe in freedom is 1: Besides the point; the belief or lack thereof of autocracies has no bearing to whether democracies believe in such; they may believe more or less in it, but there is no necessary causal relationship between their two perspectives and 2: A vast overgeneralization. Read Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (particularily his excellent Liberty or Equality: The Challenge of Our Time) and the aforementioned Hoppe for details on these policies.

An autocrat, as both Moldbug and Hoppe have pointed out, would not necessarily have to have a libertarian or quasilibertarian ideology to pursue libertarian or relatively libertarian policies; why would a tyrant care about people saying racist things in public or want to blow money on much beyond keeping himself afloat? That's an extreme and somewhat caricatured example, but there are historical and modern day cases; the latter include Singapore, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Liechtenstein (admittedly, Liechtenstein is Swiss-Republican in some ways, but the monarch is still far more powerful than in the pseudo-monarchic social democracies in the rest of Europe).

Scott Scheule writes:

Yes, ha ha, very funny, but of course next to nobody actually wants unfettered democracy. Liberals are all too happy to read rights into penumbrae and other legal crevices in attempts to save them from the democratic hoard (and hey hey, conservatives were just as game in the Lochner era). Caplan's at least honest. Few others are.

Thomas Sewell writes:

So to extend this principle, the USA is the richest nation and is literally full of rich people, so that therefore explains the tendency of the USA to vote more libertarianish policy-wise than the rest of the first world?

I think there is still a correlation/causation issue here, though. Is the USA the richest because it's been the most libertarian (i.e. classical liberal) over an extended period of time, or is it the most libertarian because it's been the richest?

I suppose noting that it wasn't the richest for the first 100 years or so of it's history might lead you to believe the more libertarian leanings are the cause, but perhaps annual economic growth rates during even those earlier years would provide evidence for the reverse again?

Mark V Anderson writes:

I would like to see the empirical data showing that the rich are more libertarian. I agree that the higher educated (correlated with richer) are usually slightly less restrictive about social freedoms (I say only slightly because of the fads for the educated these days for restricting smoking, politically incorrect speech, etc.), but I haven't noticed any desire for less government. Quite the contrary.

Praetyre writes:

I agree that a substantial fraction of intelligent, educated people, left, right, or libertarian, are opposed to unfettered democracy. Nonetheless (as you partly point out), they often do this in vague and downright comically ridiculous terms, like confusing democracy with liberty or saying that "democracy requires officials insulated from politics" (i.e. Judges); while I actually agree that this is sometimes a better idea (and almost always a good one in non-demotist political structures), politics, as Moldbug has noted, *is* democracy.

If democracy is to mean anything coherent at all, it is to mean control of the political apparatus by public opinion. If you want a non-partisan civil service, then congratulations, you are one step down the anti-democratic path. While I personally think Dawkins is a clown for a variety of reasons, I'm reminded of this statement that atheists simply believe in one less deity than monotheists do.

The United States is wealthier than other nations for many reasons, primarily the following (in no particular order);

1: The better aspects of the American Revolution (skeptical accounts of which I'd quite live to see Professor Caplan delve into; if he can reject Columbus, surely he can do the same to Thomas Jefferson) resulting in decreased centralization and increased liberty, and thus greater economic and social (in the sense of social capital) growth. I suspect religion and the influence of Medieval Germanic cultures played a notable role too.

2: The massive and abundant natural resources of the bulk of the North American continent, the vast majority of which lie within the United States and far exceed any single nation in Europe, even leaving aside the millenia of depletion these resources had gone through.

3: The militarily and existing economic superiority and independence of the United States throughout the 20th century, resulting in favorable diplomatic and economic conditions from other countries.

You're getting into a good point, Mark, when you note the obsession of upper-middle classers for nanny statism; this is one of the many reasons I think it's simply a myth that the left is more libertarian than the right on civil liberties. My own position on the matter is a mix of Kuehnelt-Leddihn and Kinsella. Nevertheless, I think you have to keep in mind two things;

1: The rich, as I noted earlier, are an extremely broad strata; it includes doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, millionaries and billionaries, celebrities and Wall Street CEOs. The rich who support the policies you've mentioned are largely Blue State billionaries (Bloomberg, for example, though he's far from the only case) or upper middle class academics/bureaucrats/journalists.

Further, one of Caplan's points (which is indirectly alluded to in this very article), is that the rich (or educated, there is a very high degree of correlation up to a certain point) are more libertarian than the general public, and that the general public wants policies even less libertarian than that of the status-quo. Because the rich have greater influence than the rest, this trebles American (and presumably European and other Western) policy in a direction more libertarian than a more democratic level of influence would yield.

Lastly, I believe the empirical evidence in question is found in The Myth Of The Rational Voter, though I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of third party verification of it both pre and post-Caplan.

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