Bryan Caplan  

Where I Dissent from Nathan Smith

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My former student Nathan Smith has published a gracious critique of yours truly.  Since he begins his critique with generous praise, let me do the same: Nathan Smith is probably the most brilliant Ph.D. student I've ever had the pleasure to teach.  When he was in Micro II, I repeatedly suppressed the urge to hand him the chalk and go home.

Now for the substance.  Nathan poses a thoughtful critique of my common-sense epistemology:
In his book Myth of the Rational Voter, Caplan writes as an unabashed epistemic elitist. His thesis is that democracy is vitiated by the "rational irrationality" of voters, who indulge their biases (the make-work bias, the anti-market bias, the pessimistic bias, and the anti-foreign bias) because their vote won't affect election outcomes anyway, so they have no incentive to make sensible choices at the ballot box, as opposed of doing whatever feels good. That voters have these particular biases, Caplan establishes by looking at survey data and showing how the views of ordinary people on the economy deviate from those of economists, who presumably know better. His assumption here is that experts know best, and that voters' disagreements with the experts are evidence of voters' (not experts') mistakes.

But lately, Caplan seems more and more to position himself as a champion of common sense. He extols philosopher Michael Huemer for building a political philosophy on "common-sense morality," and makes a "common sense case for pacifism," which strikes me as merely evasive since it isn't utilitarian, but rather seems to take a type of natural rights line that would lead to something close to Tolstoyan pacifist-anarchism, which however he arbitrarily stops short of, calling it "too broad." This common-sense philosophy seems to be the platform from which Caplan attacks theories favored among the elite, such as John Rawls' veil of ignorance. Now, if Caplan had simply said that sometimes the common sense of ordinary people is right, against the experts, and sometimes the experts are right, against the common-sense of ordinary people, there would be no inconsistency. We'd presume that neither source of knowledge is epistemically foundational in itself, and look for other sources that are. But as general epistemic principles, "trust the experts" and "rely on common sense" are a bit inconsistent. If they are to think clearly and follow the evidence where it leads, experts need to be able to reject common-sense opinions sometimes. Conversely, if a maverick intellectual like Caplan wants to reject this or that elite consensus with an appeal to common sense, isn't he obliged to defer to the opinion of the common man on other questions, too, including questions where common sense doesn't support him?

My reply: Common-sense always comes first.  But epistemic elitism is common sense.  Consider these propositions:

1. When very smart people disagree with people who aren't so smart, the very smart people are probably right.

2. When people who have studied a subject for a long time disagree with people who haven't studied it, the people who have studied it for a long time are probably right.

These two claims are the heart of epistemic elitism - and both are common sense!  Common sense would of course revolt against the idea that high intelligence or years of study guarantee correctness.  But I've always been careful to emphasize that my epistemic elitism is merely a presumption

How can one overcome the presumption in favor of brainy experts?  The same way we unseat any common-sense view: By showing it conflicts with even more common-sensical claims.  That's why a major part of my project is to show that basic economics is common sense.  Not, of course, in the sense that "the common man accepts it," but that the common man would accept it if he calmed down, controlled his Social Desirability Bias, and built on what he can verify with his own two eyes.  If this sounds like a tall order, I'm hardly the first person to remark that common sense is not so common.

Nathan's critique also criticizes my view that a free society rests most securely on the cultural foundation of moderate benevolence and cosmopolitan tolerance - and provides ample historical commentary to buttress his critique.  On the history, I outsource my reply to Carl Shulman's extended comments on the Open Borders Action Group.  But I would add that Nathan uses the term "tolerance" somewhat oddly.  A typical passage:

The Roman Empire acted to defend the civic unity expressed in the imperial cult, but its general attitude was one of tolerance, of live and let live. It tolerated a labyrinth of religions and cults, it tolerated prostitution, it tolerated social practices like slavery and infanticide.

Suppose someone tries to mug you.  You forcibly resist.  One could that, "You're intolerant of mugging."  But "intolerant" seems like the wrong English word.  Similarly, to yawn in the face of slavery or infanticide is not "tolerance" in any normal sense, but "callousness."  What puzzles me about Nathan's treatment is that he bundles together normal and idiosyncratic uses of the word "tolerance," and then uses his strange bundle to argue that tolerance is overrated.

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Alexander Severns writes:

If only Dr. Caplan and Mr. Smith could have a non-epistemological disagreement.... Something closer to that twitter fight with climate change cartoon guy would make my day!

Jameson writes:

I think you're overestimating how idiosyncratic this use of the word "tolerance" is. Think of the modern abortion debate. Those who support abortion rights typically respond to pro-lifers with a quip like, "Don't like abortion? Don't get one." To anyone against abortion, that doesn't sound like tolerance--it sounds like callousness. I mean, sure, you're not the one getting aborted.

Or take it back a century and a half. Stephen A. Douglas could say something like this about slavery:

Abolitionism proposes to destroy the right and extinguish the principle of self-government for which our forefathers waged a seven years' bloody war, and upon which our whole system of free government is founded.

I mean, sure, you're not the one living in slavery.

The point is, you call it callous because you think it's wrong, others call it tolerance because they're not convinced. This is not some idiosyncratic controversy over meaning. It is a regular occurrence, and it can happen when discussing many issues.

Greg G writes:

Appeals to common sense are appeals to shared premises. This is useful when the premises are sound but it is also useful in a different way when the premises are unsound and the intent is to shift attention away from the premises.

Let's remember that, before Adam Smith, it was common sense to think that individual selfishness and competition would result in bad economic outcomes.

RPLong writes:

I agree with statement #2, but statement #1 is quite commonly wrong. I agree that very smart people can usually make a stronger case for their position, but that doesn't always (or often, in my experience) indicate that their position is correct.

The only exceptions are in subjects so technical that statement #2 takes over.

Vipul Naik writes:

You can probably make the link to Carl Shulman's OBAG reply more specific:

Andrew_FL writes:

Jameson, The implication of what you say seems to be that Nathan Smith is unconvinced of the immorality of slavery and infanticide. Presumably he is not, in which case the problem here is not that he is using the word tolerance when others would use the word callousness, the problem is he is using the word tolerance when he himself would also use the word callousness-if he didn't want to impugn the concept of tolerance itself.

Otherwise, I do feel you are on to something about a fairly common political phenomenon. It just doesn't seem to apply in this case.

Thucydides writes:

Smart people and those who have studied something a lot more likely to be right? Yes, unless they are working from false premises derived from ideology, as is often the case. Intellectuals are particularly prone to adopt socially conforming heuristics and then bolster them with confirmation bias.

Nathan Smith writes:

On common sense: yes, it's quite plausible to argue that epistemic elitism is common sense. But part of the problem is that the content of "common sense" is so stretchable and indeterminant.

I'm quite sympathetic to the idea that we can't, like Descartes, build all knowledge on "I think, therefore I am," because that's not enough to work with and leads to skepticism. Yet all knowledge does need a foundation: coherentism is just circular reasoning. So we must be more latitudinarian in what we accept as primary evidences. And "common sense" is a decent slogan for what that more latitudinarian set of primary evidences should consist of, as a kind of first approximation.

But common sense, as ordinary people might use the phrase in conversation, is really a mishmash of many elements, including inductive reasoning, intuitive perceptions of the natures of things, conscience, experience and tradition. For a robust epistemology, one needs to sort out these elements, and there's a lot of work to be done distinguishing them and deciding their comparative weight. So I don't think the slogan "common sense" gets you very far.

Nathan Smith writes:

@ Alexander Stevens:

I'm not impugning tolerance, but trying to provoke a more critical view of it, and perhaps a definition. Is it suppose to be obvious that "tolerance" means "not violating human rights?" Fine, but then why don't we just say "Don't violate human rights," instead of "Be tolerant?" Of course, there's a lot of work to do in defining "human rights," and I think one reason to prefer a word like "tolerance" is that it sounds less metaphysically challenging. But if you detach "tolerance" from pre-existing assumptions about human rights, then how do you draw the line between tolerating heresy and tolerating slavery? There's a lot of philosophical work to be done to establish what human rights are and why we ought to respect them. At times, "tolerance" seems like a way of shirking that work.

For Caplan, "tolerance" isn't just about law, but about attitudes. What I'm more struck by is how *intolerant* free societies must be, of excessive presumptions of power, of threats of violence, of violations of property, of idleness and vice (though usually in morals rather than law), and now, happily, of racism.

Finally, on "callousness"... I don't think a Roman who tolerated, or even practiced, slavery, would necessarily be callous. He might be quite gentle, tender-hearted, and humanitarian. A non-callous reaction to slavery might be to lament its abuses and try to soften the institution through moral pressure. That's better than nothing. But what I want is an *intolerant* attitude to slavery: This must not happen, period.

When I think about people like Gregory of Nyssa who first glimpsed the moral truth that man must not enslave his fellow man, ever, when all history seemed to bear witness to the normalcy and necessity of slavery, I stand amazed. How did they manage to see it? How did they have the insight, and the audacity? It certainly took more than "common sense" and "tolerance" to make that moral revolution.

Thomas Boyle writes:

What Jameson writes: your distinction between "callousness" and "tolerance" needs work.

Mind you, I might quibble with one of Jameson's examples. When paired with legally-enforced parental obligations, in practice a prohibition on abortion looks awfully like slavery. I might position Jameson's abortion point as "you're not the one having your life taken over to serve other people's religious convictions".

Still, Jameson's broader philosophical point stands.

Nathan Smith writes:

By the way, for those who are interested in more about epistemology by me, see here and here.

I thought one of the questions on the PhD oral exam was "Do you have any common sense left?" If you do, you're disqualified.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Jameson has it right. One person's tolerance is another person's callousness. Just because you are in the camp that considers it callous (which pretty much everyone is in these days with regard to slavery), that doesn't mean that tolerance is being used incorrectly. Instead I think it is true that one can be too tolerant, to the point of callousness.

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