Dan Klein critiques Bryan Caplan

Slugfest of the classical liberals.  Dan stresses he wrote these comments off the top of his head, which is how most criticism of colleagues should be done.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion is whether Bryan has identified the key biases in voter behavior.  Bryan identifies anti-foreigner, make-work, pessimistic, and anti-market biases.  Like Dan, I see pro-conformity biases as essential, and as shaping the form that other biases will take, including the biases of high-status academics.   I also don’t think that voters are pessimistic per se; on many issues (Iraq, global warming) they have seemed quite cavalier and willing to ignore pending problems.  It is fairer to say that voters either ignore or overestimate low probability events, depending on framing, rather than getting it right.

My list of the essential biases in voter (and human) behavior are: feel good about oneself bias, conformity bias, and anti-foreigner bias.  Robin Hanson might cite signaling bias.  The remaining biases are numerous and important, but they will flow from how these initial deeply rooted biases interact with the social environment.  Among other things, this means that people can be too biased toward Bryan’s point of view and that we can’t always trust academics over the common person.

I often joke with Bryan that the time has come for him to accept the consensus of what the experts in moral philosophy (or atonal music) tell us (him) to do.


One common bias among intellectuals like Bryan Caplan is the unthinking worship of a brilliant guru, such as Ayn Rand or, in his case, Julian Simon. The term for this is "sophomoric" -- the assumption that once you've mastered a few esoteric principles, you don't need to know much about anything to have strong opinions on it.

A very good post, Prof Cowen. I agree with Prof Caplan on most issues but I think deferring to experts more than we already have is not that good. The US already has a lot of expert led decision-making. The most notable example being monetray policy. Of course, monetary policy wasn't always this centralized.

Btw, bought your book DYIE at the Chennai airport in hardcover. It retails for Rs 395(~$10) which is quite expensive if I may add. The book is quite neat. I am surprised that you actually deal with many of the questions that I had with many of your claims(in the reviews).

I usually call it I'm-always-right-bias, I know this is a better name for it since I'm always right.

It's really all quite clear. There is a bias in the classification of biases.

TGGP: Reread what Steve wrote. I parse it as Steve saying that Rand is not Caplan's guru but that Rand is an example of a commonly followed guru.

Economics being the study of human behavior, I concur that we should emphasize the behavioral tendencies (conformity bias) and not the manifestations of behavioral tendencies (anti-market).

This is the strength of the Austrian school and why a thorough, modern treatise that is as far away from Lew Rockwell's blithering should be published ASAP. The fight is on.

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