Enjoyed the episode? Want to listen later? Subscribe here, or anywhere you get podcasts:

… professors say, “Of course you’re only talking about college Bryan because we all know that K-12, that stuff’s all useful.” I’m just like… all useful? Do you remember at all what was done? There is this weird Stockholm Syndrome that people seem to get, where as long as it’s far enough back in time, they fill in useful stuff every minute of every day.

Prof Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan’s claim in The Case Against Education is striking: education doesn’t teach people much, we use little of what we learn, and college is mostly about trying to seem smarter than other people – so the government should slash education funding.

It’s a dismaying – almost profane – idea, and one most are inclined to dismiss out of hand. But having read the book, I have to admit that Bryan can point to a surprising amount of evidence in his favour.

After all, imagine this dilemma: you can have either a Princeton education without a diploma, or a Princeton diploma without an education. Which is the bigger benefit of going to Princeton – learning, or convincing people you’re smart? It’s not so easy to say.

For this interview, I searched for the best counterarguments I could find and challenged Bryan on what seem like the book’s weakest or most controversial claims.

Wouldn’t defunding education be especially bad for capable but low income students? Shouldn’t we just make incremental rather than radical changes to policy? If you reduced funding for education, wouldn’t that just lower prices, and not actually change the number of years people study? Is it really true that students who drop out in their final year of college earn about the same as people who never go to college at all?

And while we’re at it, don’t Bryan and I actually use what we learned at college every day? What about studies that show that extra years of education boost IQ scores? And surely the early years of primary school, when you learn reading and arithmetic, are useful even if college isn’t.

I then get his advice on who should study, what they should study, and where they should study, if he’s right that college is mostly about separating yourself from the pack.

We then venture into some of Bryan’s other unorthodox views – like that immigration restrictions are a human rights violation, or that we should worry about the risk of global totalitarianism.

Bryan is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University and blogger at EconLog. He’s the author of three books: The Case Against Education: Why The Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, and The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.

In this lengthy interview, Rob and Bryan cover:

  • How worried should we be about China’s new citizen ranking system as a means of authoritarian rule?
  • How will advances in surveillance technology impact a government’s ability to rule absolutely?
  • Does more global coordination make us safer, or more at risk?
  • Should the push for open borders be a major cause area for effective altruism?
  • Are immigration restrictions a human rights violation?
  • Why aren’t libertarian-minded people more focused on modern slavery?
  • Should altruists work on criminal justice reform or reducing land use regulations?
  • What’s the greatest art form: opera, or Nicki Minaj?
  • What are the main implications of Bryan’s thesis for society?
  • Is elementary school more valuable than university?
  • What does Bryan think are the best arguments against his view?
  • The specific effects of defunding education on low income students
  • Is it possible that we wouldn’t want success in education to correlate with worker productivity?
  • Do years of education affect political affiliation?
  • How do people really improve themselves and their circumstances?
  • Who should and who shouldn’t do a masters or PhD?
  • The value of teaching foreign languages in school
  • Are there some skills people can develop that have wide applicability?
  • Are those that use their training every day just exceptions?

The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.


If you want to get the best education in the world for free, you can just move to Princeton and start attending classes unofficially. There’s almost no effort made to stop you. You just won’t get a diploma, which makes it near pointless, because college is more about impressing people than learning useful info.

And again, Washington State from what I understand, now allows kids to use a computer language in place of foreign language. Like, why not do that? People say, “no, no we need to do both.” People don’t have an unlimited amount of time! Shouldn’t teenagers be able to have a frigging childhood! Like how much of their childhood do you want to destroy with jumping through these stupid hoops?

If you wanna do almost anything in social science or humanities, and you are dismayed by the crummy job prospects… Can you do math? If so, why not just go and get an econ PhD and call what you’re doing economics X? It is literally true that you will probably have tenure as an economist, before you would have your first assistant professor job as a historian.

So when would you rather be a high school dropout looking for a job, today or 1950? So today there’s a very harsh stigma against high school dropout so you’re very limited. Now in 1950, there would have been a lot of good people that did not finish high school and so the stigma would have been a lot less. So we can see in the kinds of jobs that you can get as a high school dropout back in those days. You know it would not have been impossible to be a secretary and a high school dropout in 1950, you know, far from it. And many other jobs that would’ve been middle income jobs, would have still been open to you.

So what I say, when we’re thinking about the effects on the disadvantaged, you shouldn’t just think about how it might be worse for the really talented kid from the poor family, you should think about the average kid from the poor family. That’s one where I say at minimum, it’s just a lot more complicated, because there’s a big difference between changing the funding for one individual and changing the funding for a generation. Changing the funding for one individual, your intuition is totally fine. But if you change the funding for a whole generation, it changes the meaning of the education itself. And means that there are a lot of opportunities that the poor have lost in the moderate economy that they can have back again.

There are many graduate programs where almost the only thing you do with is to become a professor of that subject. Or you just don’t use it. So in that case, well you wanna be an English professor, well look at the jobs prospects for the people who are currently coming out with English PhDs and see how they’re doing.

Don’t ask yourself are you as good as those people. Ask what someone who didn’t know you, only knew what you were like on paper, would think whether you’re better than those people. Because the world doesn’t tell you … We don’t even need to go and get into overconfidence and self-centered bias. Let’s just say the world’s not fair and even if you’re awesome the world rewards being awesome on paper, not intrinsic awesomeness. Just accept this as a flaw in the world, and then consider that when you’re deciding whether or not you wanna try what you’re gonna do.

Totalitarian regimes are generally very uncreative. At best they can maintain the living standards before, usually can’t even do that. So this means that over time especially as long as there any awareness of what’s going on outside of the totalitarian country, they know things are getting better and better in a non-totalitarian world. And staying bad in the totalitarian word. So that’s one thing, is just the comparison group. You know this comparison group you and look at and see.

Another thing that’s going on is of course military competition, where if the non-totalitarian world keeps growing, they will have a big military edge over the totalitarian world and that’s another way the totalitarian may not be able to compete. Then there also just the question of maintaining the morale of inner elite, of the inner circle of leaders. Which I say in practice is the real problem for totalitarian regimes. It’s not like the Soviet Union couldn’t have just stayed the Soviet Union, but the problem was that the people, for its durability was that the people at the top lost their faith in their own system.

Which again has a lot to do with, again, there’s another system that you can look at and see it’s better. So anyway, put all of this together and said, if there ever were to be a time that a totalitarian regime basically took over the whole surface of the Earth. Then whether it was a bunch of them, or just one, you’ve removed most main reasons why it isn’t stable. In which case, maybe it could go one for 1000 years, 10,000 years. I guess compared to some of the other global catastrophic risks of permanent extinction of humanity is not bad. But still seems like a pretty bad outcome, nonetheless.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

Related episodes

About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

What should I listen to first?

We've carefully selected 10 episodes we think it could make sense to listen to first, on a separate podcast feed:

Check out 'Effective Altruism: An Introduction'

Subscribe here, or anywhere you get podcasts:

If you're new, see the podcast homepage for ideas on where to start, or browse our full episode archive.