Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Rob Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is The 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems, what you can do to solve them, and whether Bryan is morally deserving enough for a million-dollar minimum wage. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
I last interviewed Bryan Caplan for episode 32 back in 2018, and when it came out that conversation got more listening time than any other interview I’d done up to that point, and not by a small margin either.
It’s great to have him back to talk about some important issues, like the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis and how to be a cost-effective parent, but also a number of really fun ones as well, like Bryan’s track record betting on his beliefs and why he and I disagree on almost every philosophical controversy I can think of.
We’ve got a lot of new content out on our website recently, including an article on China-related AI safety and governance paths, an updated list of top-recommended career options, and two short reviews of careers in communications and engineering.
You can find our latest content at 80000hours.org/latest/ or get a regular update when we put out new research by joining our newsletter at 80000hours.org/newsletter/.
If you prefer listening to audio versions of articles, we’ll have some of those coming out for you on our new podcast feed called 80k After Hours, which you can get in any podcasting app.
All right, without further ado, here’s Bryan Caplan.
The interview begins [00:01:15]
Rob Wiblin: Today I’m speaking with Bryan Caplan. Bryan is a professor of economics at George Mason University and the author of, so far, four books. Those are, in order, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies; 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 Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. Bryan loves the double-barreled book name. He also recently published a compilation of past articles, titled Labor Econ Versus the World: Essays on the World’s Greatest Market. Finally, he’s working on a new book with the enigmatic title Poverty: Who To Blame.
Rob Wiblin: Agree or disagree with him, Bryan is someone who can tell you very clearly what he believes and why. Thanks for coming back on the podcast, Bryan.
Bryan Caplan: It is an absolute pleasure to be here, Rob.
Rob Wiblin: I hope to talk about what it takes to truly mess up your kids, and what people most need to know about the labor market. But first, what are you working on at the moment, and why do you think it’s important?
Bryan Caplan: The main thing I’m doing is I am finishing up another nonfiction graphic novel on housing regulation called Build, Baby, Build: The Science and Ethics of Housing. It’s modeled very much after my previous Open Borders book — I had so much fun writing that book, and I think it actually was my most influential book that I’ve ever done. It really was a great chance to take a lot of research that is intellectually great, but almost no one will ever even hear about because it’s just too boring, then to repackage it in such a way that people actually want to hear about it and remember it.
Bryan Caplan: I find that by combining words and pictures, you really can improve retention as well as comprehension. With the other book, not only was I getting a lot more minutes of people’s time by being more entertaining, but I think I was getting more learning per minute. And there is so much to learn that you really want to get those two numbers up as high as you can to get the information out there.
Rob Wiblin: How much more work is it per point that you’re making to do the graphic novel versus the more academic book, like The Case Against Education?
Bryan Caplan: It’s probably about 10% as much work for me. It’s a lot less work, because the thing is I don’t draw the books. I visualize the books: I do pre-visualizations using Google Images and some archaic comic-setting software. Then I have the artist draw drafts, and I micromanage the hell out of them because I am a perfectionist in that way. But for me this is just so much fun, just getting to go and find a person with this magic power of being able to draw what I am picturing, and then make them do it exactly the way I want.
Bryan Caplan: But it really is a lot less work. Often what I’ll do is I’ll actually have the whole thing figured out in my mind, and then when I’m actually writing the book, I’m just thinking about interesting visuals. I do a lot of Googling just to see what images are out there, just to give me ideas and get the artist started.
Rob Wiblin: I’m very excited about the idea of you just producing lots of these graphic novels over the rest of your career, basically on all these topics.
Bryan Caplan: I do actually have a tentative plan with the Cato Institute for there to be a whole library of these books. It does depend upon the next book being successful, but we shall see. I’m optimistic.
Rob Wiblin: Compared to your previous claims in various books, I think you’ve got a relatively easy case to make with the housing. I think it’s easier to convince people that we should have some houses than it is to convince people that education is bad, so hopefully it succeeds.
Bryan Caplan: Well, I don’t like stopping with the easy stuff. I mean, the book is called Build, Baby, Build, so it is let ‘er rip. And I do make the case for full deregulation, and say that even the regulations that seem to make the most sense… The slippery slope argument, if it’s ever true, has been proven true for housing. You can really see that at first they just get a couple little regulations in there — what’s the big freaking deal? — and then you see eventually it metastasizes into this crippling set of rules that we now live under.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, you have heritage listing laws for an amazing opera house from hundreds of years ago, and pretty soon you’ve got heritage listing laws for a disgusting car park in Berkeley, I think is some famous case of this.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, a historic parking garage.
Labor Econ Versus the World [00:04:55]
Rob Wiblin: Historic parking garage. Anyway, let’s start out with your newest book, Labor Econ Versus the World. As I mentioned in the intro, you recently put together this compilation of articles that you’d written over about the last 15 years covering the labor market. For those who don’t know, it’s the market for hiring people to do jobs, typically in exchange for money. You make a lot of points in there, and I’m not going to get to all of them, so people will just have to read the book if they want to find out. But what do you think is most important for the audience of this show to know about the labor market?
Bryan Caplan: The most important thing to know is that just because a regulation sounds good does not mean that it’s actually a good idea or helpful for workers. I often teach my students about the “Bryan Caplan Protection Act” — this is a law where it says that anyone who wants to hire me has to pay me at least a million dollars an hour. Any dispute about my treatment is adjudicated in a court run by me. I receive unlimited benefits. Everyone has to call me “Your Lordship” — there’s a million dollar fine for every failure to call me Your Lordship.
Bryan Caplan: Then the question is, is this law good for me? And everyone wants to say, “Yes, of course this law is good for you.” I say, “Well, what if I don’t have a job yet, and people know who I am? Then is the law good for me?” And then everyone says, “Uh, no. Then you’ll never get a job.” Exactly. This is the same logic behind every labor regulation that exists — people think of it as just a gift to the worker, and yet when you realize that normally you don’t have to actually hire the person in the first place, the question is, do you really want this gift?
Bryan Caplan: Another example that I like is I often ask my students to imagine that we had a $20 minimum wage, but only for Blacks. Would that be good for Blacks? Well, then you might not hire them because of that, and you might just hire someone else. So, great if you’re Black and you have the job, but if you don’t get the job because of the law, then it’s not so good. That really is the logic of almost all labor regulation out there.
Bryan Caplan: People really do like the idea of just saying, “You have to treat workers better. You’re mean.” And it is not actually the slam dunk that they think it is. Once you accept this, then you realize that a very popular story about why workers get better treatment now than 100 years ago is just that we have more laws. What would happen if you imposed a modern minimum wage in a pre-modern era? That would mean that you have to pay your workers more than gets produced in a year, so what would really happen is that would cause mass unemployment — or actually, more realistically, there’d just be a massive black market, because the people have to either break the law or starve. Even in North Korea, they will break the law.
Rob Wiblin: Right, right. I imagine that most listeners to this show, or perhaps I have the fantasy that most listeners to this show would be thinking about labor market regulations the same way that I do, which is kind of striking this tradeoff between wanting to raise the conditions, but also not wanting to discourage employment. So you maybe have some intermediate level, where perhaps the optimal minimum wage is a bit higher than the free-market minimum wage, but not as high perhaps as you would ideally like if there were no constraints. Do you think that I’m delusional that that’s how most people think about this?
Bryan Caplan: Not exactly delusional. I think that that is how smart people, if pressed under cross-examination, will explain it. I don’t think this is what even smart people actually think. I think what most people, even smart people, think without reflecting is: the more, the better — and the countries that have the strictest regulations are the best countries.
Bryan Caplan: Now, part of the case that I make is that economists do make one mistake, which is focusing solely upon giving workers income. They forget that we have a lot of evidence from psychology that unemployment per se causes great misery, because people’s jobs provide a lot of the social contact that they get; it provides a sense of identity, sense of meaning, sense of purpose. During COVID I think a lot of people felt like I did: I’m still getting my full salary, and yet I’m all alone in my basement. It felt like being unemployed. The money’s still coming in, but I no longer have any place in the world.
Bryan Caplan: And that is the way that a lot of people actually feel about their jobs. Once you appreciate that, then I think you realize that saying it’s just a tradeoff between destroying jobs and improving conditions [is incomplete]. I think actually the end point is just saying, “We really don’t want to do anything that’s going to reduce employment, because it’s not just about the money — it’s also about having a place in the world.”
Bryan Caplan: On top of that, it’s very worth remembering that working is one of the very best ways to improve skills and do something better. I don’t know about the UK, but in the US we do have one big exception for the minimum wage laws, which is the unpaid internship. And this is one where people realize if we said you had to pay your interns minimum wage, probably that would lead to a lot fewer internships. So let’s just allow this, and you are paid in other ways.
Bryan Caplan: At the same time, there is a lot of self-righteous resentment — especially at universities — about the horrors of unpaid internships and how unfair it is. And as a university professor, my thinking is always, “Are you out of your mind? We charge people giant piles of money — so they get a negative wage to come train with us — and we should still feel superior to firms that go and offer training for free in exchange for going and getting people their coffee?” What a strange attitude.
Rob Wiblin: You mentioned how people gain value from doing a job, above and beyond just the salary they’re earning — that they might actually enjoy going to a job in some sense. I often think of this as the reverse. When people are no longer in a job, obviously they’re kind of outside of GDP — they’re getting all of this leisure time now that they don’t have to work, but that isn’t counted in economic statistics basically. So just as the psychic benefits of work that are non-financial go uncounted, so does the benefit of not having to work. How do we tell which one of these effects is larger?
Bryan Caplan: That’s a great question. In psychology, they’ve done a lot of work just on the pure unhappiness of unemployment. So these are actual happiness studies, where you go in asking people, “How happy are you on a scale of 0 to 10?” or there’s other variations on it. The main punchline of this research is that unemployment — even if you do full compensation of income — is an enormous hit, one of the biggest measured hits to human happiness that we really see in richer countries. So I say there it’s just quite obvious what’s going on.
Bryan Caplan: You are right that GDP does not count leisure, so in terms of the evidence that people like working tons of hours, as far as I know that isn’t there. My guess is that it’s not true that people like working tons of hours. People basically want to have something like a full-time job, maybe a bit less. That’s where people feel most happy with their lives overall. Again, it’s not just pure, skipping-around happiness — it’s also just a sense of purpose. And honestly, a lot of it’s just a lack of the sense of meaninglessness that I think many people felt during COVID, like, “What is my place in the world? What do I do?” I could sit around watching TV, but that’s not really all that fun for most people.
Bryan Caplan: So I know you, Rob, and you seem to have a great capacity to enjoy leisure — a lot more than most people have. I actually have a lot of capacity for that too. Although for me, almost all of it depends upon there being other people around to go and do fun stuff with me. I don’t have that great of an ability to be super happy all by myself. Actually I’ve asked many friends, “How long do you have to be alone before you feel lonely?” I am pretty much at the very low end, where I feel lonely after about two hours alone. I have friends who say they can go a whole month without any people around. And I’m like, “Wow, I’m kind of surprised you even hang out with me, given the way you feel.”
Rob Wiblin: So I’d say the audience for this show probably leans center-left on these issues, and there might be a bit of skepticism about at least some of the claims in the book. What’s a change to how labor markets are allowed to operate that you think is really valuable, and which you could properly convince this audience is also good?
Bryan Caplan: I have a second section of the book just on open borders on immigration. I think this is actually the single most important area of the labor market to deregulate. Right now, as you know, Rob, it is virtually impossible for most people on Earth to ever get a chance to work in the first world. If you’re very highly skilled, then you have a shot. If you’ve got close blood relatives, you’ve got a shot. But most people on Earth could go and try to get on the waiting list, and they would die before they would ever get permission to go and get a job in a richer country.
Bryan Caplan: Yet the economics of this is really quite clear. The reason why they want to go to richer countries is that the pay is a lot higher. And I’m not talking 20% higher — I’m talking often 10 or 20 times what they’re currently earning back in Nigeria or Haiti. The reason why firms in the first world will pay so much more than in Haiti or Nigeria really has to be that the productivity is so much higher in the first world. Which means that what immigration laws really do is trap human talent in places where there’s low productivity — which not only impoverishes the would-be immigrant, it impoverishes all the customers that would’ve gotten to enjoy that extra productivity.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. We’re recording this a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, which has brought up the geopolitical aspect of this immigration as well. We’re putting sanctions on Russia, but a different way of making it more difficult for the Russians would be to take all of their human capital, which then costs them GDP and gains us GDP by accepting people who are able to do a lot.
Bryan Caplan: Absolutely. The idea that everybody in Russia thinks this is great and wants this to happen is absurd. There’s little doubt there’s a lot of malcontent people. Just because someone isn’t demonstrating in the streets in order to get thrown to Siberia doesn’t mean that they like it. And just because you are an oligarch and you are close to the regime doesn’t mean you like it. I think probably the best bet for change is coming from very rich Russian cosmopolitans, who don’t actually care that much about Russian nationalism, but do really like making lots of money — and they’ve seen their fortunes fall maybe 90% because of this nonsense.
Rob Wiblin: So you’ve pointed out some of the ways that the labor market regulations that people typically turn to in order to improve the wellbeing of workers can backfire, and they’re a really double-edged sword. But ideally, I’d prefer to live in a country where the poor consume more than I expect they will if things are left completely to the free market distribution of income. If I were a top legislator in a country, how would you suggest that I try to accomplish that goal, if not through these means that you think are problematic?
Bryan Caplan: Through direct redistribution. The whole problem with labor market regulation is that you aren’t just going and transferring the extra money from employers to workers — you’re also changing the incentives to hire and the incentives to work. At least with redistribution, you are not directly going and taxing employment. In the US, we have something called the Earned Income Tax Credit, where essentially at low wages, the federal government goes and gives you some extra pay. Which means that if you’re poor, you have an extra incentive to work on top of just getting the money. So it is a great program for the working poor.
Bryan Caplan: Of course, there’s a lot of people who are annoyed that it does absolutely nothing for the nonworking poor, which you may consider to be even more desperate. But on the other hand, it’s also a much better way of getting people more experience and actual practice working, so that eventually they don’t need to be helped any longer. The main thing to remember is that the main way that people actually improve at what they’re doing is through getting experience. And if the current wage is so high that nobody wants to hire you, you don’t get experience, so it’s much better just to do an entry-level job.
Bryan Caplan: For a long time, economists have been puzzled because there’s a lot of people in America who work — yet they actually make less money working than they would be getting on welfare, or maybe exactly the same amount. The simple story here is they just don’t understand the system. But another possibility is that they don’t want to stay poor their entire lives, and they realize this is an investment: “I go and do a job where effectively I get no extra money for a while, but then I open up future opportunities to me.” It’s very unusual in the US to earn the minimum wage for very long. If you just get almost any job and stick to it for some months, then you get a raise, and you’re no longer earning the minimum anymore.
Rob Wiblin: So you’ve laid out the case (which I think is the mainstream view among many economists, or at least it used to be) that it’s better to redistribute money just directly through the tax system and then subsidizing wages — or even just giving people unemployment benefits or universal basic income or something like that — rather than intervening in the labor market.
Rob Wiblin: Many people might be surprised to know that a country like Denmark, which is viewed as very much a haven of social democracy, kind of broadly takes an approach like this: they do lots of redistribution, but not much labor market interference. But a smart, informed person who is in favor of direct labor market intervention, what defenses could they offer of their view?
Bryan Caplan: Great question. My colleague, Dan Klein, once found there was a public letter signed by a bunch of economists advocating raising the minimum wage. So what he did is he actually wrote a survey and emailed them all, asking them, “Why did you sign this letter?” One of the answers that he got, the most economistic one, is, “I just think that the sensitivity of employment with respect to the minimum wage is fairly low.” So there’s that one. And then there were a lot of symbolic answers of, “It’s sort of a symbol of how we as a society don’t want to go and let anybody work for that level of money.”
Bryan Caplan: Then there was also, “They’re just better off on welfare if the wage is that low.” That last answer, again, just ignores all the psychological evidence on the misery of unemployment, and how it just makes people feel really bad about their lives. Just the idea of, “I wouldn’t like doing that job at McDonald’s, therefore nobody likes doing it.” This is just so wrong. It’s such a colossal failure of empathy and to get inside somebody’s skin. It is true that the higher status your job is, the more likely you are to report that you have high job satisfaction, but it is not like people in low-skilled jobs generally report that they are miserable at their jobs.
Bryan Caplan: If you’re wondering why they aren’t miserable, when you ask them, the answer is, “This is where I have people that I talk to. This is where I interact with people.” One really great point that Tyler Cowen has made is that if you think about people who are in very poor families, very often their families are dysfunctional, and their job is the one place where they can go to where it’s orderly. At home there may be great family strife, alcohol problems, drug problems, someone’s unemployed and is mad about it, the teenage girl is pregnant, and the family is really upset and doesn’t know what to do. And then someone from one of these families can go and work at McDonald’s, and here things are running like clockwork — and it’s actually a comfort to a lot of people to be in such an orderly place.
Bryan Caplan: When I was in Costa Rica, I went to an area that I will describe as fairly frightening. It was Limon. Now the trash problem was so bad in Limon that ‘d say the average depth of trash in the streets was about six inches. So basically if you just walked in the streets, you would be walking in trash. They had a very nice, modern McDonald’s there, and one of the tour guides was saying that was the best place in town just to go hang out. Now of course, working and hanging out aren’t the same, but if it’s the very best place to hang out, sounds like it’s one of the better places to work as well. At least you’re around people who are happy, and you just interact with people who are feeling there’s something positive going on in their lives.
Bryan Caplan: So it really is important to think harder about what it is like for another person who’s working a job, and not just think that person must consider this hellish and horrible. Obviously you can go to Reddit — my 12-year-old son likes to read the anti-work Reddits.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That can be fun sometimes.
Bryan Caplan: And he comes and tells me, “Dad, I can’t believe what these people are saying.” On the one end, there are people who hate their jobs and are just angry every second they’re there — those people are especially likely to go and start a Reddit and complain all day. On the other hand, someone who feels like it’s the least bad part of their lives is not likely to be going and announcing it — that’s just something that’s important to them.
Bryan Caplan: There’s another classic work, Studs Terkel’s Working. I actually read the graphic novel version; it’s a very good graphic novelization. And again, just talking to people, it is very abnormal for people in almost any job to say, “This is terrible. I hate it.” Rather, people focus on the social element especially, even in the jobs that you think of as, “Who would ever want to do that?” It’s like, “These are the people I know. This is what I do when I wake up. This is what gives me structure.” It’s not just a paycheck for people.
Rob Wiblin: I saw a survey recently of, I think of Americans, and something like 80% from memory were either partially or fully satisfied with their work, which is kind of interesting. I’ll stick up a link to that.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. There’s always what I keep harping on: social desirability bias. Of course, especially in America, we frown upon complaining. You would think that’s impossible — if you read Twitter, you’d say it’s all complaining — but there’s the big difference between the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and all of the normal wheels that are spinning around quite silently and happily, so you have to keep that in mind.
Bryan Caplan: But the idea that most people just are feeling self-pity as normal: I debated two socialists for public radio in the US, and they were acting like even being a tenured professor is some horrible ideal. They’d say, “Even we comparatively privileged professors…” — “Comparatively privileged? You’re not comparatively privileged. You’re absolutely, freaking privileged. You get paid a nice salary to do whatever you want. What are you talking about? What would it take to make you happy, man?”
Rob Wiblin: Maybe in a post-work future where AI is doing everything, they’ll be very pleased.
Open Borders [00:20:30]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s push on and talk about immigration, which you covered in your book called Open Borders — which basically advocated for open borders, or at least something pretty close to it. As you said, most listeners to this show are going to be pretty sympathetic to high levels of both skilled and unskilled immigration, and they probably care both about the humanitarian benefits as well as the potential to speed up science and technology and strengthen the countries in which they live by having more people achieving their potential.
Rob Wiblin: By far the biggest reservation I hear among listeners is that much higher immigration is going to shift the culture of receiving countries in some negative direction or other — basically, because we should expect people to emigrate from countries that have values and cultures that are less conducive to human flourishing. After all, low wellbeing is one reason why people are leaving — and for the same reason, we should expect them to move to countries with cultures that are more conducive to human flourishing.
Rob Wiblin: And within reason that’s fine, because people will mostly merge into the majority culture, adopting its hopefully preferable way of life. Can you see that there could be any level of immigration at which that integration process would slow down too much, and harmful cultural practices would have a worrying opportunity to become dominant or persistent? And partially kill the goose that lays the golden egg, so to speak?
Bryan Caplan: Logically speaking, it’s totally possible. I never want to say these things are inconceivable, could never happen. What I want to say is, let’s look at the actual evidence that we have and see whether this is in fact a problem that, first of all, even exists, and second of all, is it remotely comparable to the gains?
Bryan Caplan: One thing that I really became aware of during Open Borders is that you can go and say, “We’ve got estimates of a hundred trillion dollars of gains for something.” Then someone says, “Yeah, but I have 17 arguments against it.” It’s like, “Well, each of those 17 arguments is maybe a one-billion-dollar argument, so it doesn’t matter how many of these little petty arguments that you come up with — they’re just rounding errors by comparison.”
Bryan Caplan: Yet in a public debate, of course, you don’t really win by the numbers. In a way, you win more by just the sheer number of arguments on each side. You could have one really huge argument, bullet proof, and in terms of any kind of effective altruism standard or cost-benefit analysis, you should just summarily win. Yet rhetorically, you don’t win when someone has a bunch of other arguments.
Rob Wiblin: This one at least somewhat seems like it scales to some extent with the benefit, because obviously if you kill the culture that was producing all of that GDP —
Bryan Caplan: Quite right. Now when you actually listen to cultural arguments, one problem is that they’re so vague that it’s hard to really find out what they are. So what I do is I start with the specific ones — things like language acquisition. And there, I will say that we’ve got quite good data on language acquisition, and there’s just no sign that there’s any serious problem.
Bryan Caplan: Basically the pattern is that even in very high immigration eras, first-generation immigrants who come as adults rarely achieve true fluency. This was always the case, even in 1900 — the census had different questions about language acquisition, but still fairly comparable, and it’s just not true that when someone showed up from Italy at the age of 25, that they became a fluent English speaker during their lives. But then the second key thing is that the second generation, both today and in the past, almost always does achieve full fluency. So language acquisition is one where it really just doesn’t hold water.
Bryan Caplan: In terms of other ones that people have actually done social science on, like trust: this is one where there is substantial literature on especially trust assimilation, which I say is very favorable. It is not true that the kids of people from a very untrusting country remain untrusting when they grow up in a high-trust country, so there’s that. Culture sort of bleeds into politics and people say, “What about the political views of the immigrants? What about the political views of their kids?” Once again, I’d say, the first generation often do have political views that would frighten you, but their kids, on the other hand, have very high assimilation.
Bryan Caplan: Now the question is, can you keep counting on this assimilation to work when you have much higher levels of immigration? Here’s the key thing to know about the US: we actually multiplied our population about 100 times over 200 years, so that basically means every century you’re multiplying your population tenfold. If you go and take a look, we did take a lot of people that were very culturally different from the original arrivals, and yet it’s very hard to see any substantive problem with this level of assimilation.
Bryan Caplan: If you go and break it down, remember there’s the math of exponential growth — so if I remember correctly, you can multiply your population tenfold in a century by having your population grow by 2.7% per year. That’s just not actually that unmanageable. It’s one thing if you think about a billion people showing up tomorrow, but that would never happen. You need to think about it as a snowballing process.
Bryan Caplan: The other thing that’s really worth pointing out in the modern world — which is very different from the past — is that 100 years ago, when someone showed up from Sicily in the United States, they probably really were very culturally dissimilar from people in the America of the time. They probably actually barely knew any English. They might have not even seen electricity until they were in the city where they got on the steamboat in order to get over here.
Bryan Caplan: Now it is quite different: there is a massive level of what I call “pre-assimilation.” This means people who assimilate before they actually come. Right now you’ve got about a billion people who are not in countries where English is the first language who still speak very good English. And it’s not just limited to English — there is just a whole lot of cultural pre-assimilation.
Bryan Caplan: The way that I like to put it is this: if you go to the most anti-Western countries, it’s not like the policy of those countries is to say, “You can do whatever you want. We don’t care, because we know that your loyalty to our home culture is so great, there’s just no need to go and apply any pressure.” Instead, what you’ll see in countries that are very anti-Western, like Iran or Saudi Arabia — the governments; it’s important to specify the governments are very anti-Western — is that they are waging a constant war against Westernization. Because they have a sense that if they don’t, they’re going to lose — and they’re going to lose even in their home country, where they’ve got their hands firmly on the lever of power. Yet they think, “If we just allow Western culture in here, the youth are going to greatly defect from our cultural ways.”
Bryan Caplan: Really what immigration is, is a chance for people to escape from that kind of repression, and also to be in a place where the culture is at a much higher dose. I have this piece that I wrote called, “Western Civilization is a Hardy Weed.” And it comes down to: it’s kind of odd to be a big fan of Western culture, and then say that it’s always teetering on the edge of collapse.
Rob Wiblin: So fragile, yeah.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. It’s like saying, “The Rolls Royce is the best car in the world, but you have to maintain it perfectly or else it will explode.” It’s like, “Well, what kind of a car is that? That’s not a good car. It’s a terrible car.” Look, I have a lot more confidence in Western culture than many people who think of themselves as the protectors of Western culture do. I think that it’s winning right now. I think that the only reason it hasn’t spread a lot further is because of government repression in other countries and other cultures. And I think that when immigrants come, there really is a very high level of assimilation.
Bryan Caplan: Something I say in the book that I think is actually a very compelling test: just talk to any immigrant parent, and ask them about assimilation of their kids. I have never, ever met an immigrant parent who says, “Oh yeah. Now my kid is totally with me and my culture. They’ve not picked up anything from this foreign culture. I’m so grateful for that. My grandkids are learning fluent Hindi.” Instead, every immigrant just says, “This is really depressing. My kids barely care about my culture. My grandkids don’t even know what the culture is.” This is the real story of assimilation, and it’s the one that I think we should actually bear in mind.
Bryan Caplan: The worst way to get your view about assimilation is from the news, because what are they doing? They’re always trying to find the most horrifying stories, the ones that will shock you, to say, “This guy was the son of three generations of Westernized doctors, but when he turned 17, he joined ISIS.” All right. It’s a big world — you can always find horrible things, but that does not mean it is normal or expected, and it’s not the general pattern of things.
Rob Wiblin: To try to steelman that position, I suppose it is somewhat counterintuitive to say that if you brought over 100 million people from a country with quite a different culture the US, a country of 300 million people, that that wouldn’t then have quite a lot of staying power — in the same way that it does in the country that all of those people are coming from. And I’m sure we’ve seen episodes of mass immigration in the past, but if you were to go full open borders, then we would to some degree be out of sample, out of historical experience. So we can’t be completely confident how things would pan out, which is why I think people are using their intuition — and maybe they just have, to some degree, a different intuition about how infectious Western culture is.
Bryan Caplan: I actually agree with you, Rob: we can’t be completely confident. I’m not completely confident. People have said, “Well, wouldn’t you be scared if 300 million foreigners showed up this year?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’d be scared.” I’m not blind; I’m aware that things go wrong in the world.
Bryan Caplan: However, first of all: super unlikely you would actually get 300 million in a year. But in any case, on the one hand, there are these tail risks that you should be mindful of and confront very seriously. On the other hand, there is the continuing horror of the status quo, which is very easy just to go and act like it’s no big deal. It is a big deal. It is really bad to be in Haiti. To say, “Sure, they could get jobs here, and take care of their kids, and basically solve all of their severely serious problems if we would just go and stamp their passports — but there’s a 0.01% chance this could lead to something terrible.” You know what? It’s just not reasonable to be that risk averse, especially when the harm that you’re imposing on the would-be immigrants is so immense.
Rob Wiblin: To some degree, it’s a little bit pointless to talk about these super hypothetical things, because it can’t explain current immigration law because the US doesn’t even let in lots of people from countries that arguably have superior policy settings.
Bryan Caplan: Superior to Americans, Rob? Sorry, I have to end this podcast at once. The very idea of anything superior to Americans.
Rob Wiblin: They’ve managed to catch up with the US in equality for now. I guess an alternative objection that people raise is basically, doesn’t this get people like Trump elected, more or less? Immigration leads to this kind of reactionary backlash, which then causes the person who’s elected to both reduce immigration and do a bunch of other stupid stuff. What’s your take on that?
Bryan Caplan: Well, several. First of all, in terms of the actual evidence, I think that it’s pretty flimsy. In the case of Brexit, what we really see is that the areas with the highest foreign-born share were actually the ones that were most likely to vote Remain. The fallback position people had is that it’s the places that had the largest change in the foreign-born share that were against Brexit. But then that’s just a short-run effect — it sounds like what we really need to do for long-run change is just to get immigration up as high as possible, so everyone has the same attitudes towards foreigners as they do in London.
Bryan Caplan: You can call that the shock doctrine, but I like the shock doctrine actually. If you really could just shock the world into a better equilibrium, go ahead. Why not?
Rob Wiblin: Some people might say that part of what’s going on there is that people have selected themselves into cities based on a liberal personality. And then there’s people in other places that are both more rural, less open to foreign cultures; and also tend to attract fewer immigrants because there’s fewer opportunities, so that explains it more.
Bryan Caplan: Could be. So here’s the interesting thing. When you take a look at US states, you can explain a lot of migration patterns just by geography: people tend to go into the border states, especially with Latin America, plus of course New York (which is sort of a special case), and Florida. Once you realize that there is this geographic pattern, at least in the United States, it’s not actually based that much upon them going to places that are more accepting — they go to places that are just more convenient and accessible.
Bryan Caplan: What I did do once is, I got data on the way that people feel about immigrants in different US states. I didn’t actually have data on what foreigners versus natives thought, but I said, “Let’s just assume that 100% of all foreigners are pro-immigration and then subtract them out from the population and then see what happens” — and you still get the result that the areas that have the most immigrants are the most pro-immigration.
Bryan Caplan: Which also fits with another result that you get out of at least US public opinion, which is that if you ask people about immigration for the US versus immigration of their area, people around the country are much more positive about immigration in their area — where they actually look around and see what’s going on — versus immigration with the country, which is really just based upon theory and media stories. So the story that exposure to immigrants really does cause people to reduce their level of fear and see good things — I think that actually is probably true.
Bryan Caplan: My other view is that the main problem with people like Trump is precisely their immigration policy. There’s just the bad manners, but specifically on that one policy — the idea that we would’ve actually gotten more immigration in the long run if we had just been more cautious and then this would’ve avoided Trump — it’s logically possible. But I think this is more of a story that people tell after the fact.
Bryan Caplan: The way that I put it is this: other than immigration, I don’t know of any other issue where many people have the view of, “We need to be cautious in our demands and not ask for too much, for fear that there’ll be a backlash and then we’ll get even less.” That’s a very unusual view. Right now, it could just be that people are delusional on all of their issues, but I think it’s really more normal strategic thinking: we ask for as much as we can get and then we probably won’t get it — but by asking for more, we get something intermediate, so let’s just push as hard as we can and push our luck and see what happens. That’s what people for every other policy do, so I don’t see why immigration really would be perceived as being so different.
Bryan Caplan: Honestly, my view is that the big difference in public opinion on immigration policies is that the people who don’t like immigration, they really don’t like it — it’s very strong; it’s a very high priority. On the other end, people who are sympathetic, it’s a low priority for them. So you can go and say, “Should we have more?” And they’ll say yes. But then give them a list of 20 issues: “What’s your priority?” Immigration usually comes down very low. So I think the real story is that the reason why people are so open about this backlash theory is that they didn’t care about immigration that much to begin with, so even fairly minor things are enough to go and say, “Well, I’m going to rethink this.”
Bryan Caplan: Think about this. What does it take to get a typical left-wing person to rethink their views on redistribution? That would be very hard even to imagine what that would be. It would be like half the country quits working because they’re getting welfare, and then maybe we’ve gone too far, perhaps, perhaps. On the other hand, what does it take to get the typical left-wing person to rethink their views on immigration? It’s a couple of terrorist attacks. That’s all it takes. Even though, as a good effective altruist, you know these terrorist attacks: it’s tragic, it’s sad, it gets a lot of publicity — but the total loss of life is extremely small compared to the enormous gains that receive no media attention.
Rob Wiblin: What’s the best piece of evidence that you could put forward for this backlash concern?
Bryan Caplan: Honestly, in terms of the question of “What are the best examples of immigration going really badly?” That’s quite a bit easier. The two cases that I know best would be Palestinian immigration into Jordan and subsequently into Lebanon. This is one where, yes, it really is true that Palestinian immigration into Jordan almost caused a civil war. And then when they were expelled into Lebanon, it did cause a civil war. Let’s just be clear: I’m not someone who is a defender of Israel or anything like that. When people say, “Do you support the government?” — no, I don’t support them. I watch them with great skepticism, because you should always be expecting them to do terrible things — especially to out-groups.
Bryan Caplan: But these are two cases where I think it really is quite fair to say immigration led to very large, dangerous political disruptions of the receiving countries. But notice how weird these cases are. First of all, these are cases where you have a very large number of immigrants — to the point where they actually are a large percentage of the population that’s taking them. But secondly, where the new arrivals are quite homogeneous within themselves, and have some very unusual thing that they’re interested in doing: namely, taking over the government and starting a war with Israel.
Bryan Caplan: My view is often that even very high levels of immigration are fine, as long as you’re drawing from a diverse range of countries. If you let 300 million Mandarin-speaking Chinese in the US, at minimum, I think that it’s quite likely English is not going to remain the main language in the US. But you let in 300 million people from around the world, English will stay the main language because it will be the lingua franca. And of course, that’s just one form of culture, but it’s one that we measure best and where we have a pretty good idea about how it works. I would say you could let in 300 million people from a lot of different countries, and their kids really would assimilate very highly to the US culture as we now have it.
How much parenting matters [00:35:49]
Rob Wiblin: OK, let’s move on and talk about having kids, which at my age, is all the rage among my friends.
Bryan Caplan: Oh, really? Good, good. Yeah, let Wiblins blanket the earth. That’s my motto. We need lots of Wiblins.
Rob Wiblin: I suppose my friends probably won’t be able to produce lots of Wiblins, but we’ll see whether I do. As a result of all of the interest in having kids among people in their mid-30s, I’ve met a lot of people who have been pretty influenced by your book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.
Rob Wiblin: I would imagine that, across most people in the world, most are just very skeptical of the claims that you’re making, or at least the claims you’re making about parental effects on children. But I’m actually worried that in my social networks, people might have been too influenced by perhaps an oversimplified version of what you had to say in the book.
Rob Wiblin: First off, can you briefly outline the evidence which convinced you that people overstate the impact that parental behavior has on their kids?
Bryan Caplan: Absolutely. So there’s basically two kinds of research: there are twin studies and there are adoption studies. The adoption studies are really easy to explain. The whole idea of adoption is that you create families where they share the same kind of upbringing as other families, but they don’t have the same genetic relatedness. In fact, they’ve got none in the very best adoption studies: you’re just randomly assigning Korean war orphans to American families, for example. So this is one where you can get a really good causal estimate of how much difference it makes to grow up in one kind of family versus another kind of family. What the research on this says is that, for a very wide range of outcomes, you really see either no effect or very small effects.
Bryan Caplan: Now, the twin research is a little bit harder to understand. It’s not quite as transparent, but the principle is very similar. We’ve got two kinds of twins: we’ve got identical twins and we’ve got fraternal twins. Identical twins share 100% of their genes; fraternal twins are no more related than ordinary siblings — 50% of their genes. This research says we can go and take a look at twins that have all been raised by their biological families. It’s important to understand most twin studies are not separated twin studies; basically, the separated twin study combines an adoption study with a twin study — it’s two experiments simultaneously. We can talk about those too, but most twin studies don’t do that.
Bryan Caplan: Most twin studies just look at the similarity in traits between identical twins and fraternal twins, and then attribute that extra surplus similarity to the 50% of extra genetic similarity. From there, we can go and do some further math to see how much room is left for parenting to actually matter, or for family upbringing, or for what we call “family environment” more broadly to matter. And that research too, for a wide range of traits, winds up coming up with either no effect of parenting, or just traits or levels of effects of parenting that are much smaller than what people intuitively would expect.
Bryan Caplan: Just to understand what’s going on here better: I was very influenced by an earlier book by Judith Harris, called The Nurture Assumption. That book focused very heavily on personality though, and she made the point that there’s very little sign that parents have much effect on their kids’ personalities. Now, that was one where my reaction was, “Wait a second. What kind of a horrible, controlling parent says, ‘Hey, I’m going to turn you into a certain personality type?’” That would seem like a very odd thing for a parent to want to do. So I thought a very good response to her book would be to say we don’t see much effect of parenting on personality because parents aren’t trying to affect personality — that’s not what parenting is about.
Bryan Caplan: In my book I said, let’s look at this from a different way. Let’s start off with a list of the kinds of traits that almost every parent will admit they are consciously trying to improve, and then let’s track down the twin and adoption research that is relevant to those traits. So I made what I call the “parental wishlist” in consultation with a lot of other people — I asked, “Anything else that I’m missing?”
Bryan Caplan: So in there, I said there are things that almost all parents are trying to affect. Health: you want your kid to be healthy. Intelligence: you want your kid to be smart. Happy: you want your kid to be happy. Success: by which I mean the stuff you brag about to your friends — high income, good job, higher education, not in jail. You know, my brag: “My kid’s not in jail.” The stuff you’re ashamed of: “My kid is in jail.”
Bryan Caplan: Then I talked about character, and I said, these are the subset of personality traits that people really are trying to instill — like kindness or work ethic — and in particular, ones that almost everyone agrees are good. Then I had a set on values: these are things that people try to instill, but they’re controversial — like religious views, political views. And then finally, the last one was appreciation: the quality of the relationship between parent and child.
Bryan Caplan: So I started off with this list: these are things the parents want to do. Then I said, let’s look at all of the relevant twin adoption research here — and I wound up saying it looks like Harris’s conclusion was quite correct. We really see very little effect of “family environments” — what researchers would call it — on adult outcomes in particular. Because it’s one thing to go and see, for example, that if the parents of a kid go to church, the kid goes to church too. That’s kind of trivial. The real question is: what if you come from atheist genetic stock, but you’re adopted by fundamentalist Christians? Are you still going to church when you’re 30? The research on this says at least to a far lower extent than the biological children in that conservative religious family would.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. One important caveat is that how you treat your children does have a big influence on how they remember you and whether they like you.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. There’s basically two big outliers in this data, which I should emphasize all comes from the first world — there’s basically no research on what happens when you send an American to grow up in Haiti. It just isn’t done. So it’s important to remember we’re not talking about that — we’re talking about moving within the kinds of families that appear in datasets in the first world. So for example, it also would not apply to a kid living out in the middle of a mountaintop, in a cabin that’s off the grid, if that were to ever happen — that’s just not included in the data. You have to be at least responsive enough to participate in a survey, right? That’s a pretty low bar in first world countries.
Bryan Caplan: But anyway, the biggest exceptions are actually that parents do seem to have a large effect on what political party you say you belong to, and what religion you say you believe in.
Rob Wiblin: But not whether you go to church, and not what policy views you actually have, right?
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. Much weaker effects for your issue views, your religious views, your church attendance, your voting behavior. So basically, your parents have this very large effect on a very superficial trait, but much less on deeper facets of your political views or your religious views.
Bryan Caplan: Then I see the most meaningful one is for the quality of the parental relationship. The effect is medium, but as a parent, I’ll say that you have to know that if you treat your kids kindly, they’ll probably think of you as a kind person. If you’re mean to them, they’ll think of you as a mean person. To me, these are very meaningful, even though it is true that — here, there actually is a real separated twin study on this, if I recall correctly — there is a certain kind of very forgiving person, and your parent can actually be really mean, and you say, “No, no, no, they really mean well.” So there’s still a genetic component — some people just tend to have rose-colored glasses when they look at their parents. But it’s rare to have full tint, where whatever happens, you think that they’re super nice. So that’s where we pick that up.
Rob Wiblin: So as you said, a general challenge with many of these studies is that the families involved tend to be more conscientious and educated, and I imagine wealthier than average. And if a parenting style or parental behavior isn’t applied to the kids in the sample — if no one’s doing it in any of these experiments — then we can’t use those studies to say that it doesn’t do harm or that it does good, simply because it hasn’t been analyzed whatsoever. Do you have a good sense of how broadly these studies range, in terms of the parenting quality and behavior of the participants?
Bryan Caplan: The twin studies, I would say, have almost the entire range of the population — all you need is to be recorded in a twin registry and be willing to go and answer some questions when you get pestered.
Rob Wiblin: How do they recruit people?
Bryan Caplan: In the United States there are birth records that researchers will use. And then some states, I think Virginia and Minnesota, actually had dedicated state-level projects where they’re keeping track. And then a lot of these studies are based in Scandinavia, where they have even higher-quality national registries, so they know exactly whether they’re twins and where you are and what’s going on with you.
Bryan Caplan: The adoption studies: in modern times, you’re right that people that adopt kids are selected to be higher quality by a lot of measures. But there are earlier adoption studies that are quite a bit less selective. One of my very favorite ones is Bruce Sacerdote’s paper on Korean war orphans who got adopted by American families. For that one, if I remember correctly, you only needed to be 25% above the poverty line to participate, so quite expansive. It does mean that you have to be someone that wanted to have a kid. If you just said, “I hate kids. I would never want to have a kid,” then —
Rob Wiblin: Probably not adopting an orphan.
Bryan Caplan: — you’re not adopting orphans. On the other hand, in twin studies, of course you can get accidentally pregnant with twins, just like anybody else, so they’re in there.
Bryan Caplan: In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I had some points about agnosticism, saying we can’t assume this would apply to more extreme changes, like going from the first world to the third, or really, from the third world to the first. When I was doing Open Borders, I actually did track down research on international adoption. And there, I was able to confirm what I think almost any reasonable person would think, which is that the difference of going from, say, growing up in Ethiopia to Sweden is actually large, and it’s lasting. You can see this very clearly on physical traits like height and weight and skull circumference, and you can also see it on tests in adulthood of intelligence, as well as academic performance.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Poverty’s bad. Or extreme poverty, especially global level.
Bryan Caplan: Extreme poverty. And actually, what’s striking is that I read a bunch of these papers on transnational adoption, and the tone of the papers is very pessimistic and negative, because they keep comparing transnational adoptees to the average person in the receiving country. So they keep comparing, say, the Ethiopian Swedes to native-born Swedes, and then they say, “Hey, the Ethiopian Swedes weren’t as successful in school. Their test scores are lower. So this has been a big failure.”
Rob Wiblin: They’re maybe not considering the correct counterfactual there.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. So I say, let’s assume that those international adoptees’ counterfactual would’ve been just to be the average person of their home country — which is optimistic, because they’re coming from orphanages and things like that — basically, assuming they would’ve been average is conservative. And what I show is that that’s enough to go and wipe out 40% of the difference in intelligence, similar in terms of measures of academic performance. Probably more realistically, it’s knocking out 60% or 70%.
Bryan Caplan: Now, I didn’t do original research; I just repurposed existing research to answer a different question. But out of all of the stuff that I’ve ever posted in my blog — in terms of new, yet unpublishable empirical work — I probably am proudest of repurposing this work on transracial adoption to get a measure of how bad it is to grow up in the third world, in terms of the environmental effects. And it is bad.
Rob Wiblin: So in terms of my friends who are going to have kids and advising them, it seems like the best evidence, in terms of the breadth of the parenting, is this research that compares identical twins with fraternal twins. You can basically just use that to figure out what was the effect of the extra plus-50% genetic content in common. You were saying that covers a pretty broad range of parenting quality. But there must be some filtering out at the bottom, perhaps, of people who just refuse to register, refuse to get back to the surveys and so on. But the response rate is reasonably high, so we’re talking about two-thirds, three-quarters of the —
Bryan Caplan: Honestly, I don’t remember. In Scandinavia, often this is just based on administrative data, so then they might be able to get 95% participation. The US doesn’t get 95% compliance on anything, really. So I honestly don’t remember how good compliance would be on US-level surveys. That’s the honest answer.
Rob Wiblin: What would be examples of parenting practices for which you can’t say that this twin research shows that it’s probably fine?
Bryan Caplan: The main thing to understand is that these are all what social scientists call “reduced forms”: we aren’t really directly measuring anything that parents do; we’re just saying, if you grow up in this home versus that home, what’s the difference? It is possible that there are some things that parents do that are extremely potent, but they come up so rarely that we just miss it in this work, and we just have trouble identifying what’s really going on.
Rob Wiblin: Or maybe different parents could have some behaviors that are extremely good and some behaviors that are extremely bad, and they kind of cancel out on average.
Bryan Caplan: Logically speaking, that’s possible. It might be that the reason why it doesn’t seem to be that great to go for the really rich home is that they give you a lot of training on how to make money, but they don’t give you enough love. Then those two things balance out, and you don’t see the effects. It’s possible, but it seems like a big just-so story.
Rob Wiblin: Although we were saying that the effect of parents on many of these outcomes was really surprisingly low, it wasn’t actually zero. So there’s still room to say there’s things that some parents did that were better than others, that influenced these outcomes. Do we have any narrative evidence for what the worst parents in the study are doing? It seems like that would be an interesting thing to go and check.
Bryan Caplan: Usually, this kind of research is the kind of thing where you download a bunch of data and then you go and do statistics on it. There is a great book called Entwined Lives by Nancy Segal, where she really spent a lot of time interviewing twins and getting to know them; finding and talking to famous twins, and just interesting, thought-provoking, but not-so-famous twins. She found out that the president of Princeton was a twin and he said, “I have a fraternal twin who’s also the president of a university,” which was McGill, if I remember correctly. Then she said, “That’s surprising. Would you mind if I got your spit and double-checked your twin type?” — or blood, or whatever it was — and it turned out those two brothers were identical the whole time. And even though they both ended up as university presidents, “Oh, we’re just fraternal twins, no big surprise here.”
Bryan Caplan: Then she sort of did a whole reconstruction of their biographies, where she I think she went and talked to the family, and everybody said, “One was the athlete, and one was the scholar.” Then she delved deeply and said that’s not what it was at all: they were both great athletes, they were both great scholars — but one was the football player and one was the track star. And in America, we think of the football player as more of an athlete than a track star.
Rob Wiblin: If a person in the audience remembers that their parents berated them about something or other — their weight or any other thing that parents can be really annoying about with kids. Say they did this throughout their childhood, and now they’re older, and they have a lot of anxiety about this thing that their parents were constantly giving them shit about. They’ve got a complex about it. How likely should they think it is that their parents caused that outcome through their behavior?
Bryan Caplan: Great question, Rob. One way to interpret the evidence is that there just isn’t an effect. Another one is that there are similar probabilities of having the desired effect or directly the opposite of the desired effect. So either you nag your kids into academic success and they become successes, or you nag them into academic success and they hate school and drop out and defy you. In terms of what you should do as a parent, if you know this is true, then it’s really pretty similar to, “I don’t have an effect.” Both cases are like, either it doesn’t matter, or I’m equally likely to cause what I want or the exact opposite. Those are all cases where it makes sense to avoid action.
Rob Wiblin: That’s interesting because that’s kind of true for the parent in a sense. Although I suppose you could have a thing where both the effect and the opposite of that are both worse than some middle ground. But the interesting thing is that then for the child, even though in expectation the effect was neutral, it could still be the case that they caused this thing. It’s just that there’s a bunch of people who have rebelled against it and it had the opposite effect.
Bryan Caplan: Yes, so that’s totally possible. Although honestly, I think that a much better way of thinking about these things normally is in terms of personality psychology. Some people have high neuroticism and others have low neuroticism. Some are genetically very high in happiness, some are genetically low in happiness. These are actually different things. One big result in personality psychology is that positive and negative affect have actually a quite low correlation. You have people who have lots of highs and lots of lows; people who have very little of either; people who have a lot of lows, but hardly any highs; people who have a lot of highs, very few lows. Once you appreciate this, what you realize is that there are some people who, whatever happened to them in life, they would be anxious about whatever happened to them. And there’s other people that whatever happened to them, they would be finding good things.
Bryan Caplan: It is important to be mindful of the fact that just because you are, in your memory, connecting an event to how you feel today doesn’t mean that thing really caused that, in a meaningful sense. Just thinking about, “There were these friends and we had such good times and I’m remembering them now. And those were such great times, so those friends were crucial for these feelings.” And in a sense they were, but if you’d grown up in a different town, you probably would have made another group of friends, and then you’d be remembering them. It doesn’t show that those exact friends were transformative of the kind of person that you are, really — although it definitely would seem that way if you weren’t very thoughtful in your introspection.
Rob Wiblin: I guess the instance where this is strongest is maybe where someone’s saying, “I’m just generally neurotic, or I’m an anxious person, or I’m kind of sad a lot of the time. And my parents are also sad a lot of the time.” Then you can say, “Well, you probably inherited their morose personality.” And I guess the case where it seems a little bit more compelling to think that there’s some causal story is when it’s quite specific — like your parents were really annoyed with you about X, and you also now happen to be annoyed about X.
Rob Wiblin: But I guess you’re saying it’s kind of mediated to some degree through personality anyway. There’s some people in whom that wouldn’t have taken, because they just would’ve rejected what their parents were saying. But maybe you’re the kind of person who listens to your parents, so that’s the personality that you’ve inherited.
Bryan Caplan: This is one that I have encountered. There’s people whose parents are hoarders, and now they have ultra-high anxiety about hoarding, and they’re throwing things out for fear that they too might become hoarders. That’s the kind of thing where you might say that as a result of their being this way, you now are exactly the opposite of them. And honestly, that is not something that the research would be good at picking out.
Rob Wiblin: Obviously, they have to measure things, and they’ve got to measure things on lots of people. So doing things like income, education level, personality factors — I guess sometimes they’re doing the kind of Big Five surveys and things like that.
Bryan Caplan: For the health, you’ve got measures of lifespan, also self-reported health. There’s even one or two studies where they got people to go to a doctor’s examination and have the doctor go and assess their health. So you have a doctor’s assessment of your quality of life or your health level. For the intelligence, we’ve got actual intelligence tests, normally. For the happiness stuff, that’s standard self-report “How happy are you?” For the education, the income, and the crime stuff, that’s where sometimes we have administrative measures, sometimes it’s self-reported. The other stuff would almost all be self-reported.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I don’t want to diss this stuff too much, but I guess it could miss some specific channels by which your parents can change the kind of stuff that you think about on a day-to-day basis, potentially. As long as that doesn’t then flow through to these more measurable outcomes.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, yeah. Exactly the same way that your friend can affect what you’re thinking about. You have a conversation with your friend, and it would be kind of odd to say, “Maybe I would’ve been thinking about the Rolling Stones at this very minute, even if I didn’t have this friend.” And again, most of this research is basically trying to back up and look at more of a big picture. Things that are ultra specific, they’re not going to bother to measure. They’re also not going to bother to measure things where it’s too minor; it wouldn’t occur to people to be worried about it. So there is that.
Rob Wiblin: What do you make of the attachment theory research? For those who haven’t heard about it, this is the idea that if you have parents who you can’t rely on, then you can often be quite reluctant to form close bonds with people as an adult, because maybe you’ve learned that you can’t trust other figures.
Bryan Caplan: It seems like that should be picked up in a bunch of different twin and adoption measures. The obvious one is happiness, right? It sounds like you got a story where your parents are not loving, and then this messes you up for life. So if that was true, we should pick up an environmental effect of happiness — particularly a shared family environment effect of happiness, to be precise. Which again, we really just don’t see in the data.
Bryan Caplan: The better theory is, that at least in the long run for happiness, the effect is maybe even all genetics. Although, again, that doesn’t mean that you don’t remember your parents and mean things they did to you — it’s just important to remember, in any family whatsoever, you’re going to have a giant menu of experiences. And if you’re the kind of person that dwells on the negative, you’re going to have some negative things to dwell on and to ruminate on. On the other hand, if you’re a positive person, there’s going to be a bunch of happy memories that you’re going to latch onto.
Bryan Caplan: I don’t say this to make people who feel bad feel worse — not at all. I think there is actually some therapeutic value in realizing, “I have a personality. I’m someone that would naturally tend to be negative about things, regardless of what really happened.” So first of all, maybe you can let go of a lot of your negativity towards other people, and realize probably it has more to do with your way of looking at things than with what actually happened. But second of all, once you realize that you have this issue, it is easier to actually cope and try to make yourself be happier when you just realize, “I’m the kind of person that tends to dwell on negative things. And I’m going to try to consciously do less of that.”
Bryan Caplan: I’m a big fan of a book by Julian Simon called Good Mood. He was someone who said he had near-suicidal depression for many decades, but he was a very successful researcher. Then he said, “I’m going to wrap up all my projects and I’m just going to spend all my time reading research on how to go and solve my problem.” And he spent several years doing this, read a lot of like, “What is it I can do? What’s available? What are my options?”
Bryan Caplan: In the end, he became a big fan of the Epicurean story — that the main cause of unhappiness is unrealistic expectations, and the easiest way to fix that is to get your expectations closer to reality, and appreciate what you have. And he did say that he managed to permanently feel a lot better after that, as a result of using these techniques. If you think about it, that is exactly the kind of technique that you’re not going to use if you sit around blaming other people 30 years ago for messing you up.
Rob Wiblin: A seeming internal tension within this research is that it does suggest that your peers that you have when you’re growing up or maybe when you’re a teenager — and so the outside of home environment — does have an influence on your outcomes. Potentially quite a significant one. But then wouldn’t you think that parents could influence their children’s outcomes by influencing what school they go to and what peers they meet and things like that? What’s the explanation?
Bryan Caplan: You are extremely perceptive, Rob. That is the number one flaw with Judith Harris’s The Nurture Assumption.
Rob Wiblin: Nice.
Bryan Caplan: One thing she says is genes are underrated, but then she also just says your peers are underrated too. To understand all of this research, suppose, for example, that genetics causes looks. And looks cause happiness because people treat good-looking people well and not-so-good-looking people poorly. If that is true, this research will say that happiness is genetic — even if happiness is, in fact, entirely a function of how other people treat you, which could never be found in your DNA.
Rob Wiblin: Right. I see.
Bryan Caplan: You’re never going to find DNA for how other people treat you. Rather, what you might find is that the DNA causes you to have a very symmetric face with high cheekbones, which makes you attractive, which makes other people nice to you, which makes you happy. So that’s true for genetics. This research is totally incapable of distinguishing between a direct effect of genes and an indirect effect of genes.
Bryan Caplan: The same is true for family environment: it is totally incapable of distinguishing the effect of having parents that are mean to you from parents that move you into a neighborhood where people are mean to you. It is not able to pick that up. It is totally incapable of saying if the problem is that your parents are poor or that poor people live in poor neighborhoods, and poor neighborhoods do things.
Bryan Caplan: Judith Harris is a very smart woman, but I think she didn’t really quite grasp that anytime that twin or adoption research finds a small measured effect of family environment, it implicitly also finds a small effect of peers. Unless you’re willing to say that parentally caused peers don’t matter and self-caused peers do. It’s like your parents moving you into Beverly Hills, that doesn’t do anything — but you going and coincidentally meeting the druggies in Beverly Hills does really matter. This is a general truth for actual empirical research on human society. Anything’s possible, but you have to have —
Rob Wiblin: Not everything is plausible.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. Not everything is plausible. And for the implausible things, you really need to have a higher level of evidence in order to take it seriously.
Rob Wiblin: What’s the biggest weakness of all of this research that you would want parents to keep in mind before they really slacked off in a big way?
Bryan Caplan: Biggest weakness I would say is just remember that this does not mean that you could do absolutely anything that’s logically possible. It’s research about the differences in the outcomes of what parents actually do. And in particular, things that a noticeable number of parents actually do — because if there’s one weird parent in a dataset of 20,000 people, you’re just not going to pick up anything about that. So that’s the main thing.
Bryan Caplan: I would say it doesn’t tell you that much about things that are completely outside the observed range. Now, that could be good or bad. For example, in this data, we probably basically have zero Olympic athletes in training. They’re just so rare that there’s probably zero such kids. My view actually — my strong view — is that if you do not have ultra-supportive parents, you cannot even be in the Olympics, much less win the Olympics. If your parents are unwilling to wake up at four in the morning to take you to ice skating, it doesn’t matter how much talent you have, or how much drive or grit you have. You just can’t be an Olympic-level ice skater because you’ll remember at the very highest levels of achievement, you basically need to have all the advantages: you’ve got to have genes, you’ve got to have good location, you’ve got to have supportive parents, you’ve got to have luck. You’ve got to have it all, at the very highest level.
Bryan Caplan: And empirical research just doesn’t do the very, very highest level very often. I mean, there is a little bit on that, but it’s just not the main thing that people are focused on. That’s one where I would just say, “Look, this is such a long shot, I just think that it’s cruel to go and push your kid to become an Olympic athlete.” I’m really puzzled. Even if I knew my kids would win the gold for sure, would I then be willing to wake up at 5:00 AM for 10 years straight? No. I mean honestly, my answer would be “which sport is this again? Is this a sport where there’s a future in it?”
Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis [01:00:31]
Rob Wiblin: OK, new topic. Can you explain what the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis is, in brief?
Bryan Caplan: Yes, the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis is the hypothesis that you are able to predict the voting and political opinions of ordinary voters using standard measures of self-interest. As to what self-interest would be, it’s not just the tautology of whatever interests the self, which is a really silly way of defining it. It’s basically your standard list of your material possessions, health, safety, power, that kind of stuff.
Rob Wiblin: What would be a classic example of a voter acting selfishly, or not acting selfishly, under the SIVH model?
Bryan Caplan: Ronald Reagan in 1984 had a question that was very famous. He said, “Decide whether to vote to reelect me or not. Just ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?” Not, “Is the country better off?” Not, “Are we a more just society?” Just saying, “Look at yourself. Do you have more stuff than you did four years ago?” If yes, then vote yes for Reagan. If no, then vote for Mondale. That would be a very clear-cut example of an appeal to it.
Bryan Caplan: Another nice one is in 2012, Mitt Romney gave a speech to donors where he said, “47% of Americans pay no income tax” — which I think is basically true — and he says, “and therefore they will always vote for the Democrats” — which is completely untrue actually. A very large share of that 47% voted for Romney. So it’s not just insulting the other side; it’s insulting your own people actually.
Rob Wiblin: So why do you think the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis is wrong?
Bryan Caplan: So there’s the question of why should we not believe in it? That’s where I’ll just say there’s about 40 years’ worth of research, and I’ve also done a fair amount of the research on my own. I’ve gotten my hands dirty in the data many, many times. Published papers along the lines that says it just is false. When you go and try to predict what people’s political views will be given plausible measures of self-interest, it just doesn’t work, or at least the effects are very small. So you might find that there is like a 0.03 correlation between your income and your probability of voting Republican. That would be pretty typical over the period of 1972 to 2010. That’s of course averaging.
Bryan Caplan: I haven’t seen the very latest data, but I think it’s very likely that in modern America, richer people are now notably more Democratic. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was now a correlation more like negative 0.1 between logarithm of income and Republican voting. That would be just one example of it. So that’s the question of why should I not believe it? You should not believe it because you have to look at the data and see it just is at best greatly exaggerated. If it does predict at all, it predicts very weakly.
Bryan Caplan: In terms of what’s wrong with the theory, why is it so wrong? What I’ll say there is: what’s the difference between giving $10 million to charity and voting for a guy who’s going to charge you $10 million more in taxes, figuring you’re super rich? Is there a difference at all? Oh yeah, just a night and day difference. One actually definitely leaves you $10 million poorer. And the other one, there is like a one in a billion, trillion, zillion chance that you wind up tipping the scales in favor of the side that takes $10 million from you.
Bryan Caplan: I also like this example: every now and then, there’s a famous celebrity who will say, “If the other side wins, I’m going to move to Canada” or something like that. As far as I know, they never have. That is actually a pretty serious commitment. It’s also one that people will say it and then not do it because it is a serious commitment. So really what you need to realize is that it is super cheap to vote against your self-interest in politics, because you’re so unlikely to actually change the outcome — unless you are a really important person, of course.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So as long as you enjoy having a view or expressing a view or voting for some idealistic position at all, then that almost certainly outweighs the actual causal effect that you could ever have on the policy.
Bryan Caplan: Right, which for an EA, on the one hand, sounds like really great news — because we don’t have to overcome human self-interest to get people to vote for better policies. On the other hand —
Rob Wiblin: It can cause people to do crazy shit.
Bryan Caplan: Yes, that’s the other problem. I think politics would be much better if everyone just voted for their own narrow material self-interests. If that happened, there’d basically be no war on Earth. There’d be no bizarre social experiments where you go and say, “Let’s take everybody’s farms away from them. See what happens.”
Rob Wiblin: I’ve seen the most extreme example of this recently, which is people saying “The Russians are committing all these atrocities in Ukraine. We should absolutely impose a no-fly zone. Who cares if it creates a 10% risk of nuclear apocalypse?” I’m like, “I’m really glad that you are not writing this policy.”
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, that might even be bad for Ukrainians possibly.
Rob Wiblin: Oh, it almost certainly is.
Bryan Caplan: I’m being facetious, Rob. I thought that over in the UK, you were used to that kind of thing.
Rob Wiblin: My bad. Yes, well that actually only occurred to me this afternoon when I was thinking, “Wait, but this is even worse for the people anyway…”
Bryan Caplan: But it’s better for their souls, just remember that. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned for sure, it’s that it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees, right? Nevermind that, everyone goes through life on their knees. That’s reality.
Rob Wiblin: The people who advocate for the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis explaining a bunch of voter behavior or people’s political views — do they have a leg to stand on, in your view?
Bryan Caplan: No, they do not have a leg to stand on in my view. In particular, because it is so unusual for them to be willing to just retreat to the reasonable position of there’s a little bit of evidence in certain cases. People who have this view tend to have it very strongly.
Bryan Caplan: The best exception, I would say, is Andrew Gelman, who has this very good book, Rich State, Poor State, Red State, Blue State. If you read the book, you might get the sense that he is saying that self-interest is very important in politics. But the thing is that he was writing relative to political science literature that is so dismissive that you can be quite revisionist while still being very mild in your actual absolute position. So that’s where I would say that he stands actually. He does have this view, which I think is true. If you break it down by state, you’ll see within individual states a more strongly positive correlation between income and Republican voting than you see at the national level. And then he has a whole complicated story about regional identity and so forth, but also race drives some of this. It’s a complex story where self-interest plays not even second fiddle — fourth fiddle is a good way of describing it.
Bryan Caplan: Again, the dogmatic people will basically just redefine everything to be self-interest. That’s the final retreat: if it interests the self it is self-interest. And then you equivocate, and half the time talk as if it’s substantive, half it’s tautology — hope people just aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing. Bait and switch, man.
Rob Wiblin: I’ve heard of that. So I didn’t just bring this up because it’s interesting. I bring it up because this might be really important, and something that I am constantly messing up. Just a couple of episodes ago, I did this interview with Matthew Yglesias, and we were talking about how you interpret polling to make sense of what policy proposals might actually be feasible with the electorate. And both of us were saying something like, “Carbon tax will be really hard to get up. Once people realize that it’s increasing gas prices, once people realize that it’s lowering their material standard of living because they’ve got to pay more for stuff, then they’re probably not going to like it. They’ll oppose it. And once they’ve got skin in the game, then they’re going to be against it.” But it sounds like, on your view, a carbon tax — even if it does raise costs — people could get up, because SIVH is mistaken.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, self-interest is not the problem. The problem is more along the lines of, “I think this is bad for our society.” People think more in terms of, “This can be really bad for the economy.” So when someone says that, economists tend to hear it as, “I don’t feel like paying more for gas” rather than, “I don’t like the idea of people in our society paying more for gas” — which is a very different thing indeed.
Rob Wiblin: You know, there’ll be advertising campaigns saying, “This is going to increase the price of gas.” And people are then against this. Not because they don’t want to pay more for gas themselves, but because they’re worried about their fellow people in their state having to pay more for gas?
Bryan Caplan: At least in the United States, probably most modern countries, it’s the country that’s the main thing that people have in mind. Or they say, “This is going to be really bad for the economy.”
Rob Wiblin: Cost jobs or something.
Bryan Caplan: Yes, jobs. So again, it’s always so tempting to hear this as thinly veiled self-interest, and yet when we go and try to scratch the surface, we find it’s not thinly veiled self-interest — it’s much harder core than that. There is a long tradition of doing research where we say, “What predicts voting out the incumbent? The national unemployment rate, or whether you personally are unemployed?” And it really is the national unemployment rate that is predictive. Personal events, people do not seem to be really swaying the events that much. Then you may say people take their own situation as indicative of the overall levels — yet when you get more specific there, no, that doesn’t seem like it’s really going on.
Bryan Caplan: Really what I would say is that if you frame something as purely a cost, then people aren’t going to like it. If you say, “This is what we need to do in order to go and have a better life — do it for the children,” that is one of the most successful pleas in politics. Of course you can weaponize this. And it usually is weaponized for horrible stuff. “Let’s go and make every kid wear a mask for the children. Sully their childhood for the children.” You find it hard to believe that people will go and do stuff that is really unpleasant, and especially will politically support stuff that’s really unpleasant for them personally, for the sake of society. Just look at what happened during COVID. I think you really can see it all over. “We have to do this for our society.”
Rob Wiblin: It was quite amazing. From one point of view, it’s quite inspiring, but I guess you’re saying it could also be dangerous.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, it’s so easy to weaponize this stuff. On the one hand, there’s the optimists saying, “People will do great stuff if we can just explain it to them the right way.” Yeah, people also do terrible stuff if you explain it to them in the right way.
Rob Wiblin: What’s an implication of the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis being mostly misguided that people like me probably haven’t internalized? It seems like this should just radically change how I try to persuade people of policy issues — like which policies I think are viable. I feel like if I really internalized this, it would be a big deal.
Bryan Caplan: Right. Probably the least obvious thing is that a lot of the evidence that seems to be confirming your view is — if you think about it more closely — evidence of group identity, rather than self-interest. For example, we do see a lot of race-based voting, a lot of ethnicity-based voting, gender-based voting. It’s always so tempting to say, “Ah, people of this race vote this way, because these policies are good for them individually.” But then you take a closer look and you see no, even the members of that race that are losing from the policy still support it because they identify with a certain race.
Bryan Caplan: My parents are from Los Angeles, the time of the last war between Israel and Lebanon. You just go around LA and you’ll see a whole bunch of Israeli flags flying. And then you go to other neighborhoods and you see a bunch of Lebanese flags flying. It’s like, what difference does it make to them? They’re in Los Angeles. Is it just a flag? If you knock on their door and say, “I noticed you’re flying an Israeli flag; I want to argue about this,” I think it’s quite likely first that you could get into the argument — they’re like, “What do you mean you want to argue about it? Is it because you hate Jews?” You’re like, “No, no.” Pretty soon you’re off and running. You’re arguing with a total stranger in your front lawn, over a flag you put out for something that happened 10,000 miles away. What in the world’s going on? “I am Jewish, I care about fellow Jews.” “I am Lebanese, I care about fellow Lebanese.”
Bryan Caplan: And also, in countries that have more of a class identity, this is when we’re most likely to mistake group interests for self-interest. The stereotype is we all think we’re middle class — we don’t have much of a class identity. But in the UK or even more so in France, people do have a real sense of “I’m working class. I’m not bourgeois — I’m working class.”
Bryan Caplan: This is where the obvious thing to do would be to say, suppose that someone from a working class background becomes middle class in terms of their actual objective numbers: do they suddenly have a transformation and start thinking just like other people in the middle class, or do they actually retain the political and cultural identity of their original neighborhood? This group identity stuff says probably they’re going to retain that group identity. Religion, of course, is another big group identity that people have.
Bryan Caplan: So that’s probably the easiest way to get on the wrong track: just not ask enough questions and jump the gun and say, “Oh, they’re talking about their self-interest,” rather than realizing no, probably it’s their group identity that’s motivating them.
Rob Wiblin: Right. I’ll stick up a link to an interview on EconTalk with the author of a book called Neighborhood Defenders. Which basically is very detailed ethnographic evidence that people oppose constructing new houses in their neighborhood because they think it’s good for the neighborhood — mostly out of concern for the group that they’re a part of, the community that they identify with, rather than any interest in how they would like the neighborhood to be personally.
Why Bryan and Rob disagree so much on philosophy [01:12:04]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s push on briefly to philosophy. A curious thing is that there’s lots of empirical economics-y things where I’m inclined to agree mostly on that stuff — even though I’m usually not as extreme as you — but on most philosophical puzzles that come up in our social circles, we’re just completely on opposite ends.
Rob Wiblin: So I think eating meat and otherwise harming nonhuman animals is really wrong. You disagree. I think a teletransporter that recreates you somewhere else and destroys the original copy of your body doesn’t kill you. You think that it does. You think people have real free will. I don’t. I lean towards utilitarianism. You lean towards libertarianism. I think we probably disagree on the nature of aesthetics, probably disagree on the nature of personal identity.
Rob Wiblin: Many of these issues seem pretty independent on their base. Do you have a theory for why opinions about so many of these philosophical issues seem to split people up in kind of consistent ways?
Bryan Caplan: Yes I do. Directly, the big influence on me has been philosopher Michael Huemer, although he turned me on to the Scottish philosophers of common sense — like Thomas Reid, who I’ve also read very extensively. And they have a way of doing philosophy that says you’ve got to start with premises that would seem plausible to almost anyone, and then reason from there. And if you’re going to go and unseat something that seems pretty obvious to most people, you’ve got to find something even more obvious than that, or else all that you’ve done is create a reductio ad absurdum.
Bryan Caplan: So this says if you start with a premise and it ends with something really weird, this is not a reason to believe something really weird — it’s a reason to go and reject the starting point. That’s the basic logic of the contrapositive. So my algorithm for dealing with any philosophical question is to say, “What is the simplest, most naive, common-sense position — and is there anything wrong with it?” And if there is, what is the smallest deviation we can do from that very basic common-sense position? What are the most minor changes that we need to do?
Bryan Caplan: I will say this is one where, in a sense, I don’t understand what other people are doing. Because there is the view where I have a, self-referentially, certain axiom — which I’m guessing you don’t have, Rob. This is Austrian economists who say, “I have the self-validating axiom that man acts. And you can’t even deny that axiom because even to deny it is an action. And now I’m going to deduce everything in the universe from that.” And those people say, “My self-validating axiom is perfectly certain, and so I don’t care what any of these common-sense views are. We’ll get them to just use this axiom.”
Rob Wiblin: It’s like using pure reason, yeah.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, as an icebreaker to go and knock down everything else. But if you don’t believe in that thing of the self-validating axiom, then I really don’t see what choice you have.
Rob Wiblin: Which almost no one does, I guess.
Bryan Caplan: Well, in philosophy, actually, this kind of stuff is very popular, because it does validate their entire existence and allow them to go and solve all questions while sitting in an armchair. So you could see the appeal. Remember Descartes? So Descartes got all this stuff that in principle he could have done with his eyes shut and with headphones. So if you go and read the Meditations, it’s something that in principle you could just close all your senses and think it to yourself, and go through these proofs. Descartes convinced himself that he had actually proven the validity of observation, using God, using cogito, ergo sum.
Bryan Caplan: And you read this, and you’re like, wow, this guy’s so smart. He proved Descartes’ law of signs, and yet he’s talked himself into one leap of logic after another. You don’t have anything stronger to go on than perception, dude. “If I see it, it’s real,” is better than any of these premises that you’ve got — and yet not according to him. He thought that he had come up with something so rock solid, you could prove the validity of perception using something else. To me that’s just crazy. It’s like, look, you’ve got to start somewhere. “If I see it, it exists outside of me,” is…
Rob Wiblin: Stronger than any theory you can come up with.
Bryan Caplan: Stronger than anything a philosopher’s going to come up with, anyway. Now for me, this is as close as you can get to an algorithm in philosophy: where someone comes with a puzzle, and I go, “What is the most naive, simple-minded, common-sense view of this? And is there any reason why we shouldn’t just believe that?” If I see it, it’s real. If I feel pain, it’s because I’m actually in pain, and there isn’t some other weird thing. If I seem to have a personal identity, I have a personal identity. If it’s no big deal when I run over a squirrel, it really is no big deal that I ran over a squirrel.
Bryan Caplan: So these are all places that I start with, and in particular for me, there’s no overarching general principle that I’m going to apply, and say that’s the one that I derive everything from. And say there’s a lot of set questions that are logically quite separate, and for each of these, you have to go and apply this.
Bryan Caplan: Then there is the concern of what if there’s a couple things that both seem really obvious and commonsensical that conflict? And that’s where you say, “Do they really conflict? Hmm. OK, I guess they do.” All the things that you were saying to me are things where, honestly, I will actually go and do the empirical philosophy thing — and if you just go and talk to normal people about it, I think they are pretty puzzled by all those views that you said.
Bryan Caplan: And again, that doesn’t show that you’re wrong. But to me it does show at least this isn’t just me saying whatever I happen to think, eccentrically. I go and say, “This is the obvious position.” I am really trying to say, I’m going to try to get outside of any particular doctrinal thing or anything controversial. I’m just going to try to get to something that almost any human being throughout human history would’ve said. “Rocks are actually real, man” — that kind of thing — rather than, “It’s a sense datum. For all I know it could just be a bunch of gray that happens to be there with some other shading that simulates there being an object. Who knows, 50-50.”
Rob Wiblin: You’ve hit the nail on the head here. In terms of being persuasive to people, what you’re saying seems right. You want to start with premises that they agree with very strongly, and then argue from there.
Rob Wiblin: But I guess for my purposes of trying to figure out what’s true, I have this attitude that humans evolved to survive. That’s where lots of our intuitions come from. And our intuition also comes from everyday experiences that aren’t necessarily connected to deeper, deeper truths about the nature of the universe. So I don’t regard it as surprising when I reason something through and I reach a counterintuitive conclusion, or something that wasn’t immediately intuitive to me. I often just trust the reasoning process more than the intuition to which I arrived at the problem with. I think that’s probably where many philosophers are, and other people who are more inclined to throw away common sense in favor of a more considered argument on something. What’s wrong with that?
Bryan Caplan: Nothing is wrong with that on your list of possibilities. So to say, “I could be wrong because I had the wrong starting point. I could be wrong because there was an error in the chain of reasoning.” Those are all possible. And then again, it could be that evolution has tricked you into something that is just conveniently wrong.
Bryan Caplan: As an intellectually honest person, you really do have to think about all these possibilities. It’s just that once you have thought about it, then the question is, “So how much am I really going to throw away?” I’m not going to go and use the knowledge of evolution to go and throw away “the real world exists.” I mean, all this evolution comes from this premise of, “If I see it, it’s real.” If someone trustworthy says they saw it, that’s probably true too.
Bryan Caplan: Definitely it doesn’t require that you have some specific evolutionary reason to be able to understand this very specific thing. Because most of the stuff that we think about, actually, there’s no real evolutionary reason for us to be able to understand it. Yet it seems like we have evolved some general reasoning capacity and some general judgment, which actually is useful at a sample, even. So there’s that.
Rob Wiblin: I guess there’s definitely cases where you are willing to throw away what is the majority, common-sense, instinctual opinion. Like most people think the state is legitimate (in some sense) in coercing people, and you’re much more inclined to reject that, basically. And I imagine there’s other cases you could probably think of.
Bryan Caplan: Right. So that’s where I will say there is the common-sense view, and rhetorically, but also intellectually, I’ll say, “If this is a view that a lot of people hold, maybe it’s right.” So why would you doubt it?
Bryan Caplan: This is where I can’t possibly do better than Mike Huemer does in his Problem of Political Authority, where he says, suppose there’s two people that meet each other on an island, and one says, “I’m the government and you have to obey me.” Would that be something that would sound like you had to then go and obey that person? No. Well, what if there were two people besides yourself, and the two of them voted, and they said, “OK, now here’s the system: you have to do whatever we say.” Hmm, no, that doesn’t seem like I should have to do whatever they say. And then he really goes through the book what would have to happen in order for you to have a duty to obey them. The political philosophical question of government legitimacy really hangs on this idea of content-independence to some extent.
Rob Wiblin: What’s that?
Bryan Caplan: Within at least some bounds, you’re obliged to do whatever the government says, even if it’s not right.
Rob Wiblin: Ah, so that’s strange.
Bryan Caplan: Like if the government says that everybody has to go and wear a mask, this content-independence says, if the masks were to go and instantly kill you, then fine, you don’t have to obey. But just because you’ve gone and done a lot of research and you say, “The RCTs say this has very low effectiveness. It doesn’t pass a cost-benefit test. So I’m just going to ignore it as long as I can, and just only do it when people are watching me, and otherwise do whatever I feel like doing.”
Bryan Caplan: In this general view in political philosophy, we say, no, that is not OK. It doesn’t matter that you think that it’s useless, or maybe you’re totally right. Let’s just stipulate you’re totally right. You still have to obey because it’s not that big of a deal — you just have to go along with stuff, almost all the time. In extreme cases, fine, you can go and disobey the government. But normally it’s just not permissible. You have a moral obligation to obey, even if it’s a bad idea.
Rob Wiblin: I guess in almost all philosophical puzzles or paradoxes or arguments, there’s something like, someone starts with premise A and premise B, and those seem kind of plausible. And then they show that those things imply C, which seems really wrong. And then you’ve got to be like, what do I feel more confident about? That the argument is sound and that A and B are right? Or that something’s gone wrong, and C is right?
Rob Wiblin: How one should analyze how reliable the structure of arguments is in general is maybe an important underlying question. How often should we think that, although we can’t find an error in the reasoning, it’s wrong anyway?
Bryan Caplan: Of course you probably know from math that sometimes you have absolute certainty or near certainty, but there’s an error in your reasoning because you get to zero equals one. And it’s like, I don’t care what else is going on in math, zero is not one. So that’s one case where sometimes you can just get to something where there’s no freaking way this could possibly be the right answer.
Bryan Caplan: In philosophy, it’s quite a bit less often that you would get to something that is that cut and dried. But still, like something in Kant saying, “Always act in such a manner that the maximum reaction could become a universal law of nature” — then you end up with, if an axe murderer asks you where the children are, you have to tell him the truth. Then it’s like, hmm.
Rob Wiblin: Doesn’t sound good.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. The first thing, I’m not even sure that was really English. This is just a bunch of weird jargon that no one else on Earth ever used before you, and the only people who use this jargon are other people whose whole livelihood depends upon talking about you. So I don’t even know what to make of that first premise. And telling axe murderers where children are to avoid telling a lie, that seems totally ridiculous. So yeah, I’m totally going to lie to the axe murderer. That seems like a really bad argument.
Bryan Caplan: So what I would say is, a lot of the best correction you get is by going over to empirical psychology and saying things like, “Gee, when people are really emotional about a question, don’t rely upon them.” And then it’s like, “Do I feel super emotional about this? Yeah, I do feel really emotional about it, so I’m not going to rely upon it.” I’ve got this philosophical argument for what I call pragmatic passivism, and yet my emotional reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is terrible.
Rob Wiblin: Right. Yeah. Just outrage.
Bryan Caplan: Not so much outrage, but just sadistic. I’ll just confess my sins.
Rob Wiblin: Let’s bomb them.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. You realize you’re just killing a bunch of totally innocent people and it’s probably not going to work.
Rob Wiblin: They were conscripted.
Bryan Caplan: But I’m angry now, right? Part of the reason why I’ve paid enough attention myself is I know I’m far from perfect: I’m a sinner, I have bad emotions. And the only virtue I’ll claim for myself is I really do try to be mindful of them, and try to get them under control.
Bryan Caplan: There’s a lot of other stuff that you’ll get in empirical psychology. One of my very favorite psychological biases is from Kahneman — but hardly anyone, including him, gives it much publicity — what he calls “focusing illusion.” The slogan is, “Nothing is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.” The famous paper about this is, “Are Californians Happier?” People think those Californians are totally going to be really happy.
Rob Wiblin: Because of the weather.
Bryan Caplan: Yes. And they’re not, right? The data says Californians are not happier. They are happier with their weather. You can ask them that. And they say they love their weather. And that’s unusual, but they’re not happier overall.
Rob Wiblin: There’s more to life than weather.
Bryan Caplan: Right. This is a general human flaw that when things are on your mind, you just start thinking that it’s the most important thing, and it’s really hard to get that under control. But knowing this is a tendency really does help people at least try to realize, “This is really bothering me right now, but it’s not going to bother me forever.”
Bryan Caplan: Actually, you have a fantastic stoic post on how you can go and be happier and overcome negative emotions in life. It’s one of my favorite things you’ve ever written, Rob. It’s great.
Rob Wiblin: Oh, fantastic. Yeah, we’ll stick up a link to that. It’s various different things that I say to myself in my head when things go wrong in order to try to calm myself down. And it even sometimes works.
Bryan Caplan: Modern day Marcus Aurelius, you are.
Rob Wiblin: If he’d kept a blog. It’s interesting with the Russia invasion, I’ve also kind of had these violent impulses, which is something that I don’t so often feel. I’ve tried quite hard to tamp them down in order to make sure that it doesn’t cloud my judgment about what I think is actually going to be beneficial. And it has been interesting viewing people who I normally think of as quite calm and collected, and not inclined to that kind of impulse, giving in (at least temporarily) over the last week to an alternative style of thinking.
Bryan Caplan: What helps me is I also just have a very strong aversion to any societal-wide excitement of any kind.
Rob Wiblin: If everyone else is keen on something, you’re like, “Uh-oh.”
Bryan Caplan: Yes, yes, yes. At minimum, I just don’t want to hear about what everyone else is excited about. This is really messing up my life. I have this thing that I wrote called, “You Will Not Stampede Me,” where I just say, if everybody else has tried to get me to do something, I’m not going to go along with it, OK? So just stop trying.
Libertarian free will [01:25:10]
Rob Wiblin: OK, in terms of philosophical common sense, let me bring it back to that and try to play it out through a specific case. You say you think people have what I think is technically called contra-causal or libertarian free will. That is to say that they can really choose to cause two different things in some deep sense. And I think that’s a minority view in philosophy — maybe like 10 or 20% of philosophers think that. I think most of them are religious as well. And I think you’ve said before that this might be the position that your friends think is the most crazy of all of the different positions that you take.
Rob Wiblin: Most philosophers think determinism about the physical world — or even randomness in the determination of outcomes through quantum physics or whatever — precludes contra-causal free will in the way that you envisage it. How does your conception of free will operate as a matter of physics?
Bryan Caplan: Great question. So I’ll start with saying, what is the basis of science? It’s not math — it’s observation. Observation is the absolute foundation of science. It doesn’t matter how nice your math is, how elegant it is. If it just directly contradicts what you see with your own eyes, then it’s wrong. That, to my mind, is the hardcore science. It’s the foundation of everything. When Einstein talks about, “Science is refined common sense,” I think that’s what he’s talking about.
Bryan Caplan: My free will is something that I’m conscious of all the time. I say that I observe it directly. At this very moment, I’m observing it: I’m observing the fact that I could just turn off this microphone and abandon this conversation. I’m not going to, but I totally could. It is absolutely within my power to do it right now. You then go over to a physics textbook, and my understanding is it says that that’s not possible.
Rob Wiblin: So you’re like, “Which do I believe?”
Bryan Caplan: So what am I going to believe? Am I going to believe a theory that’s been tested on a ton of inanimate objects, or my constant observation of my own mind? Something that the physics textbook doesn’t even seem to mention is that there even are such things as beliefs or thoughts or feelings. I’m going to say that’s a book that’s extremely useful for a wide range of things, but that book cannot be the full truth. That’s my considered judgment.
Bryan Caplan: I say they really are ignoring a pile of evidence. I understand why they’re ignoring it: because it’s so hard to figure out what to do with it. The only ironclad observation we have is our own introspection of ourselves. All of our other observations are at least consistent with everyone else being automata — there’s got to be an extra argument for thinking other people have minds. But that I have my mind, this is where I say Descartes was right. I can’t possibly be wrong about, “I have thoughts, I have feelings, I experience pain.” I’ll say the free will isn’t quite as ironclad as that, but it’s darn close.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I’m sympathetic, because I make a similar style of argument about consciousness: if consciousness isn’t in the physics textbooks, maybe they’re missing something, because it feels too compelling on a first-person basis.
Bryan Caplan: And especially the way the physicists are so freaking touchy about this stuff, where you say, “Where is pain in this?” — “It’s all implied.” How is it implied? You could read this book for a million years and never get the idea that such a thing as pain existed. It’s not implied. You’re a freaking physicist. You know what implied means: it means you can go and show me the steps, and at the end it says that answer. And you don’t have anything like that in this book. All that it comes down to is, you’re going to go and pretend that pain is the same thing as having a physical response. And that’s not what pain means.
Bryan Caplan: If I was a great actor, I could look like I was in pain while not being in pain. I mean, once I had this discussion with Alex Tabarrok where I said, “Suppose that you had a kid who was totally miserable inside, but it didn’t change his behavior in any way — he just kept it to himself his whole life. Would that bother you?” And he struggled with it a bit, but as a dad, you can’t say, “It doesn’t make any difference. As long as he pretends to be happy, then that’s fine.” It really matters how a person feels inside, even if they go through the motions and no one else but them would ever know. But yeah, it matters.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I agree with that. So I’m sympathetic, but I also think that these things are actually completely different. In the free will case, let’s say that it were the case that instead, compatibilism was true, and that it was the case that you could turn off the microphone and walk away if your body was set up such that that is what you wanted to do. How would your first person experience be different if that was the correct philosophical answer? It seems like your first-person experience would be the same, or at least to me it seems that way.
Bryan Caplan: Well, for one thing, there is this experience of doing things you don’t want to do, which you can tautologically say never really happens. But then to me, that’s like saying that all behavior is really self-interested. It seems to me that people do things they don’t want to do.
Rob Wiblin: Well, I would explain that by saying there’s multiple parts of the brain that have different interests and they’re somewhat conflicting, and sometimes the part of your brain that is doing the narrative is in conflict with some other part.
Bryan Caplan: If someone says the sentence, “I really didn’t want to give him a ride, but I did it anyway,” that’s one where I think you understand what the person is saying: “I did something I didn’t want to do.”
Rob Wiblin: I think if I said that, I would think that I was being colloquial, saying this was costly and annoying to me, but nonetheless I did it anyway — because all things considered, it was slightly better than not.
Bryan Caplan: I’ll agree with you that it’s not as undeniable as, “I’m in pain.” But basically, you’ve got the category of really important stuff that isn’t in the physics textbook, and that includes both the experience of pain and free will. And then within that category, you have the stuff that has the highest level of conceivable certainty — where I’ll say, look, it is conceivable the physical world doesn’t exist; it’s not conceivable that when I’m feeling pain, I’m not feeling pain. That’s actually more certain than a rock exists.
Rob Wiblin: Right. Right.
Bryan Caplan: And then for free will, it’s not quite like that, but it still does feel like a really strong, direct experience. Now Robin Hanson will just deny having this experience at all. He will admit to being in pain, but he will just deny having any feeling of ability to choose multiple different things.
Bryan Caplan: I’m not a mind reader; maybe I’ve got free will and he doesn’t. Although I do think that he just has a whole physics ideology, where he doesn’t want to admit that there is a massive pile of evidence or facts that his theory doesn’t explain. Because then it’s like, “Oh man, I thought everything was all figured out, and then it turns out there’s a bunch of stuff that we put our heads in the sand so we didn’t have to deal with it.”
Bryan Caplan: But you will agree that there are a lot of hard scientists who will also just say that all this stuff about consciousness itself is all so totally reducible: “Don’t be deceived; it’s just an illusion.” I’ve heard them say this stuff. If it’s an illusion, who’s experiencing the illusion?
Rob Wiblin: I think it’s called eliminativism or something.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah.
Rob Wiblin: So, speaking of other people who have different perceptions, there’s a lot of people who meditate and try to get more introspection — like, insight into how their own mind is operating — and then those folks very often report that their sense of free will gets a lot weaker. Some of them even say that it kind of disappears completely when they’re paying attention to how their mind operates in that way. Is that in any way persuasive?
Bryan Caplan: I guess not. I think it’s more of, there’s some kinds of meditation that sort of start with that as a premise, and they work it in. Like Buddhism. Buddha really is David Hume, two millennia and change earlier. So there’s a lot of David Hume in Buddha, and in meditation coming out of that, you’re going to get that. Sort of the built-in theory is that you kind of lose your sense of self. But then there’s a whole lot of other kinds of mindfulness that are really telling you to do the opposite: focus on what is it that I really want, what is it that really matters to me. I think that kind would give you a deeper sense of free will. I think it’s more of a case of you get out of it what you put into it.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think for me there’s three reasons why I’m not convinced of free will, or three slightly separate arguments. One is, I don’t feel like my internal experience requires free will; I feel like I have the perception that I have, even if some other adjacent theory, like compatibilism, were correct.
Rob Wiblin: Then there’s also, it doesn’t seem to fit into the physics as we understand it. We haven’t discovered some physical thing that makes sense of it, so that’s a bit suspect.
Rob Wiblin: And then the third thing is, I can’t come up with some story in which it’s logically coherent. Not only haven’t we discovered the physical law, it seems like it’s kind of impossible to square with any causal mechanism operating, or even random mechanisms. So the logical challenges of making even sense of what is being said is also disconcerting.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. I think that last argument explains why 90% of determinists are determinists, actually. It’s convenient to go hold up the physics textbook and wave it around and say, “I know more physics than you do, you benighted fool. It’s just logically impossible. It can’t possibly be. How could it be?” And I’ll honestly say, I see the force of that. But I just experience this all the time, compared to someone saying, “How could it possibly be?” I don’t know.
Rob Wiblin: We’ll figure it out later. The same thing I say about consciousness, I guess.
Bryan Caplan: It’s hard to see how you’d make much progress on it. Of course, like on any problem, it’s hard to see how you’d make progress when you’ve been stuck for a while, until progress happens. But nevertheless, this is easy just for me to see that 10,000 years will pass and we’ll still be having exactly the same arguments that we’re having right now. There could be the podcast of the year 12,022, and it would be sort of a rerun of this. So yeah, that one of, “It’s just not coherent; it can’t possibly be” — I think that’s the one that really persuades people.
Bryan Caplan: I understand the force of that, but it’s one where I say, what is the foundation of science? It’s observation. I can’t just say all these observations that I’m having all the time are just illusions, without going and throwing out everything else in science too. And then in terms of squaring it with the physics textbook, like I said, that makes sense — but the physics textbook can’t be the whole truth, is what the answer is. And what was your first argument again?
Rob Wiblin: That personally, I don’t feel like my first-person experience could only be explained through free will.
Bryan Caplan: I agree with that. But then again, your experience of there being physical objects doesn’t require physical objects. We also have the whole simulation argument. I don’t know where you are in the “probability we’re all in a simulation” — I’m going to profile you as a five percenter. Is that right?
Rob Wiblin: Oh, wow. I’m afraid it’s higher than that.
Bryan Caplan: Oh, it’s even higher. All right. Although in that case, then there’s all kinds of other weird stuff that you’ve got to be pretty open-minded to, right? Once you get out of the simulation, they might say, “Hey, guess what? We were affecting — well, they’re not really synapses, because you’re a totally different kind of being than you thought you were, actually. You’re in fact a gaseous cloud of consciousness. That might surprise you, but it turns out Rob Wiblin is actually a gaseous cloud. But secondly, it turns out that we were just stimulating whatever the human analog of a synapse would be to make it impossible for you to understand free will.” When in fact, now that you’re out of the simulation, you see, duh, of course. You have to be really open-minded about the simulation, because it does mean that all the science we know could be totally wrong.
Rob Wiblin: I think I’m willing to bite that bullet. I suppose I might then ask the question of why would they be motivated to trick me about free will, specifically? That seems a little bit funny. So who knows?
Bryan Caplan: Well, they like philosophy, and just the paradox of the brain — of that being tricked to be wrong about philosophical things. It’s so delightful. Definitely, if it was philosophers running the simulation, that’s just the kind of thing they would do.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess. I mean, it could be an experiment. Are there any grants that people should make about this free will thing? Is there any kind of experiment that could be done, or line of research? I suppose people have done the philosophy; you might feel it’s hard to come up with something new there. But is there anything they could do in science to explain your —
Bryan Caplan: I wish I had a good answer. I honestly don’t have a good answer. One that I’m very tempted to — I know there’s a stock answer to this, although still I think that it’s a pretty good thought experiment — is, if the physics textbook is right, then you should be able to give me an exact prediction of exactly what I will do, unconditional. So you shouldn’t have to say, “I can only give you a conditional prediction” — you should be able to give me an unconditional prediction about whether I’m going to raise my arm in five seconds.
Rob Wiblin: In principle. If I could measure you well enough.
Bryan Caplan: Yes. Now the thought experiment is to tell me that unconditional prediction — and you should be able to go and tell me the prediction in such a way that it incorporates all my reactions and secondary reactions and so on, all the way to infinity. And now guess what I’m going to do? I’m going to do the opposite of what you said I’m going to do. All right? Again, it’s not ironclad, and I know there’s a lot of people who say, no, no, no, feedback loops, and it doesn’t count. But it sure seems like if determinism was true, you should be able to give me unconditional predictions about what I’m going to do. And then intuitively, it seems like I could totally not do them.
Bryan Caplan: I mean, of course you always have time travel movies where someone thinks they can change the past, but whatever it is that they do, it actually just winds up confirming the past. But that’s because they’re fiction, and in the real hypothetical, you know you could go and get around that stuff. Or like in the story of Oedipus, it’s like, “You say I’m going to kill my father and marry my mother. Guess what? I’m not going to kill anyone, I’m not going to marry anyone. Prediction falsified, no problem.” And yet, you write the story where it all works out, and it’s a fantastic story we’re still telling to this day, it’s so well plotted. Yet there’s something fishy about that story.
The effective altruism community [01:38:46]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s push on and talk about the effective altruism community, which is something you’ve had a bit of exposure to, and I think an increasing amount of exposure to over the last couple of years. You recently wrote about how you’d had really positive times dealing with various EA student groups. What did you enjoy about them?
Bryan Caplan: Super curious and really eager to go and talk about ideas. What’s nice about it is it’s a group where it’s uniform enough that everyone’s interested in ideas, but it’s diverse enough where you hear a lot of different ideas — so you actually learn things, and you have a really fun conversation. There’s just a positive, cheerful attitude among every EA group that I’ve ever encountered. They actually are spreading joy in the world. It’s not like the stereotypical people who love humanity in general while hating all particular humans. So there’s that.
Bryan Caplan: In a way, what makes them fun is what would seem to be a fairly high level of hypocrisy of not actually doing that much concrete for the sake of others, and just getting together and having a fun party and talking about ideas. It’s like, “How did this actually help the world that much? People here had a good time, but it doesn’t seem like that was really the best use of the resources. We could have all just worked another hour at our jobs and then collected the money and donated for malaria nets. And we didn’t.” But yeah, I honestly wouldn’t want to hang out with the malaria net people, because that’s not very fun.
Rob Wiblin: Interesting. It’s an interesting compliment. Was there anything else?
Bryan Caplan: Oh yes, something else that I really like about effective altruism is that the very existence of the movement depends upon my very favorite concept in all psychology, which is social desirability bias: the idea that there’s a big gap between what sounds good and what really is good. Essentially, this is the technical concept to explain why, when the truth sounds bad, people lie. And if the lies become sufficiently ubiquitous, then they start to sincerely believe the lie.
Bryan Caplan: Why would you have a group called “effective altruism”? Obviously, it’s a pretty thinly veiled insult to all other altruism, basically saying, “We are the effective ones and you guys are not effective. You’re ineffective altruists and you basically act like you’re so good, but actually you’re squandering precious resources. Maybe it’s better than nothing, but come on, you guys can do a lot better.” Then you ask, why would there be ineffective altruism? Why would there be people who are putting so much energy into charity that doesn’t accomplish very much?
Bryan Caplan: The social desirability explanation is what makes sense: this idea that some stuff sounds really good, even though it is not in fact very good. It just sounds wonderful to support ballet performances for inner-city children. It’s such a lovely idea and you can see why people would be moved by it, and why they would give millions of dollars for these programs. The reality of, first of all, there’s starving children in the world, so even if the ballet was great, how good can ballet possibly be? And second of all, the harsh reality is hardly any kid in the world is going to like ballet, so you’re not giving them a great, wonderful, sublime experience — you’re torturing and boring these poor children.
Bryan Caplan: Yet people say, “Oh no, no, no, at first they might assume that, but then the love of dance will take over and the prancing and the pirouettes will win them over.” And it’s like, no, that’s just total fantasy. That’s not what’s going to happen.
Rob Wiblin: Just let them play.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. So to have a whole group predicated upon this notion of social desirability bias, which I think is one of the most powerful explanatory concepts that we have in all of social science — psychologists will sometimes say they’re natural science; that doesn’t sound right to me — but anyway, whatever the category is, it is one of the most powerful concepts we have for understanding individual behavior and for understanding policy.
Bryan Caplan: My view is this is really the biggest problem with policy — in democracies at least, probably dictatorships too — that there’s a lot of policies that are really good, but the optics are bad. And people don’t want to have everyone yelling at them and throwing tomatoes at them when they propose their ideas, so they say something that will get smiles rather than something that will work. I think you and I are both fans of human challenge trials. I’m going to profile you as a hardcore human challenge trial person, all right?
Rob Wiblin: Damn right.
Bryan Caplan: And yet no country on Earth did it, I think.
Rob Wiblin: UK did. UK has now — the first one.
Bryan Caplan: Right. But too little, too late, right? Day late and a dollar short.
Rob Wiblin: Well, I think it’s mostly just setting a precedent for next time.
Bryan Caplan: Yes. Although next time I bet it’ll be relitigated while people die.
Rob Wiblin: I can just go search for all of my old tweets and just tweet them again. Save me a lot of effort.
Bryan Caplan: This is one where I actually am planning on writing something about how I would’ve sold it in a way that I think would sell. Wasn’t it you that was linking to some public opinions saying it isn’t even true that normal people think it’s a bad idea?
Rob Wiblin: Oh yeah. Most people think it’s totally fine. Yeah.
Bryan Caplan: Right. But I think what that’s missing is that once we got it on the menu, all the demagogues would come out of the woodwork. And I think this is something they can turn public opinion around on a dime pretty easily, such that people that stuck their necks out in favor of it would still wind up losing out. I could be wrong. I definitely say try it, just try it — the worst that happens to you is you lose your government job where you’re doing something that’s bad.
Rob Wiblin: People hate getting fired so much that they’ll just accomplish nothing.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. You know, the safety net for some high-status government job is still some other high-status job. It’s not that bad. So, you know, maximize your status with Rob Wiblin — it’s his opinion that counts, not millions of other people.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think you might be too pessimistic on the human challenge trials. The public supports it. In fact, bioethicists support it. The only people who don’t are the people who do the PR and legal stuff for organizations that would have to run it — they’re the ones who crap their pants about it, basically, because they’re worried that something will go wrong. But I think that’s not quite enough to stop it anymore.
Bryan Caplan: I saw that piece trying to say that bioethicists were actually in favor. I am trying to reconcile this with Robin Hanson talking with seemingly a lot of bioethicists and they kept saying the problem is you cannot give informed consent for a new drug because, by definition, being new, we don’t know what it does. That did seem to actually be a position that they held very strongly.
Bryan Caplan: It’s like, can’t you just say, “It’s a new drug. So now you’ve been informed? It’s a new drug and we don’t know exactly what it does. All right. You’re informed now. Now do you consent?” They say, “No, no, no. It doesn’t work that way. It’s got to be concrete information, not abstract information.”
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Thank God we don’t apply this for the rest of life, or no one could ever do anything. Imagine if we specified that sufficiently, like precisely. You could never write a new book.
Bryan Caplan: Right? Well, this is where there’s medical ethics versus all other things. And anything to do with medicine is totally a different standard than all other things. No, no, that’s fine. The interesting case is when in psychiatry you say talking is medicine. It’s like, “Uh oh. Now I can’t talk anymore.”
Rob Wiblin: OK, coming back to the student groups, that’s a bunch of good stuff about them. Where could they improve, if anywhere?
Bryan Caplan: Of course, in terms of actually accomplishing more good, probably it would mean focusing more on actually doing stuff and making more sacrifices.
Rob Wiblin: Hanging out with you less?
Bryan Caplan: Yes. You might say this is like the loss leader: so we have the fun social group and that gets people excited. And then one out of 1,000 of them becomes a billionaire, gives a lot of money. All right. Maybe.
Rob Wiblin: I think that the main thing is that if people are having fun, then you can potentially recruit like 10X as many people, basically, compared to a group where everyone is miserable.
Bryan Caplan: Yes. Although if you never do anything… Eventually there has to be the harvesting period, right?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah.
Bryan Caplan: Based upon the EA groups that I know, I think honestly there is still a strong default to whatever is the official left-wing position. What’s great about EAs is you can talk to them. I’ve never met an EA where they’ll give you the official left-wing orthodoxy and you can’t say, “But is it, though?” And no EA has ever bitten my head off for doubts. Even on the animal ethics stuff — where I have the feeling that they in fact take it most seriously — still it’s always been a fun, friendly conversation.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. That’s rare. And one of the things that I most love is that you can argue about something that the person internally might even find offensive, but they don’t regard that as a reason to shut you down or be angry or in your face.
Bryan Caplan: Right. I would say I wish that EA students would be more likely to just say, “As a result of knowing that people often like something that actually is bad, maybe I should just start off being quite a bit more agnostic about my political upbringing. Where do I start from there?” And that’s when I say, read the Copenhagen Consensus, read about that stuff. I know a lot of young EAs just assume global warming’s the number one problem in the universe, because that’s what they heard in school. And yet almost no one who does cost-benefit analysis with an open mind will say that could possibly be the number one problem. And also if it is, nuclear power all the way, buddy, let’s nuke it up.
Rob Wiblin: I think a lot of them would agree with the nuclear power one, anyway.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. But the number of young EAs who are really worried about global warming and just have never really heard anything good about nuclear power, they’re young and you hope that they will actually discover this at some point. But if EA is like your hobby and then the rest of the time you’re sociologically among other very doctrinally left-wing people, maybe you never will actually hear it.
Bryan Caplan: Oh yeah. I remember what I really wanted to say about EA, which is I’ve got a slogan. My slogan is “EA is what SJ ought to be.” So it’s the contrast between two groups: both very idealistic, both want to make the world a better place. But again, the way you make the world a better place is by, step one, calming down, realizing that you don’t know that much about the world, and then trying to figure it out. And along the way, be nice to other people, because maybe they have something to teach you. Even if a lot of what they have to say is wrong, just getting that kind of feedback is very helpful for learning more. You don’t want to alienate critics, because without critics, you’re just stuck in your own echo chamber.
Bryan Caplan: Social justice movements are really weak on all those things. You got the intentions, but in terms of having the right mindset for actually making the world a better place, SJ has the right mindset for fanatically making the world worse.
Bryan’s betting record [01:48:19]
Rob Wiblin: Over the years, you’ve made a lot of bets with people about how events are going to turn out. Do you still have a clean sweep on all of those bets that you’ve made? These are public bets.
Bryan Caplan: On all public bets, I have 100% success. 23 for 23.
Rob Wiblin: How far above expectations do you think you’re running, given the difficulty of the questions? Are you kind of impressed with yourself?
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. You know, if you had told me that I would be 23 for 23 when I started doing this 17 years ago, I would’ve said, “No way. I’ll be like 18 for 23.” That’s probably about what I think I would be capable of doing. Of course, I am more motivated to try to get people to bet me when they’re saying things that I think are ridiculous. Although here’s the thing: it’s just hard to get those people to bet. The people that actually bet are usually the more reasonable people of the crazy people. And also it’s those people on a better day — the people who, once the bet comes up, then they tone it down. So they’re not as crazy as they sounded when they were just being pundits.
Bryan Caplan: But I’ve definitely done quite a bit better than I thought that I ever would. And you know, there’s a couple bets that I was pretty sure I was going to lose. And then somehow the universe folded in such a way. You’re suggesting a simulation, actually — that simulation where like, “I just want to have the experience of being about to lose and then improbably winning.” — “OK.”
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think my favorite one was that you thought that no country would leave the EU by some date, and the UK voted to leave and then its departure was delayed such that you won by 30 days.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I won by just a smidge. Again, it was one where I did word it in such a way that I had some insurance, because I said it’s got to be a country that currently has a population over 10 million. They have to officially leave. And there were some people saying I should have paid as soon as the referendum was. And I said a non-binding advisory referendum is not “officially leave” — that means that they say they’ve left as an official act of government, or they’re removed from the EU website or something like that. But there were a bunch of people saying, “Just pay up, you’ve lost.” And I say, “Look, I don’t want to pay.” They say, “Protect your reputation.” Like, “I don’t want a reputation for paying up, for being more generous than the terms that I explicitly negotiated.”
Rob Wiblin: “Why are you booing? I’m right!” You’ve got a fair few bets outstanding. Are there any that aren’t resolved yet, but that you wouldn’t make again today?
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, definitely. I have three-to-one odds about the continuation of the climate pause with Yoram Bauman, the Standup Economist. Honestly, that was one where I expected to lose — that’s why I negotiated for three-to-one. I was just saying that I thought there’s excessive certainty, not that I don’t think that warming is likely to continue. But anyway, it looks like the pause basically stopped right about the time that I made the bet. So yeah, totally would not make that bet again. I am a run-out-the-clock person, so I’m not planning on admitting defeat until the very end. I could see saying, “The temperature would have to drop 30 degrees in the last year, but it says it resolves on this date — we’ll do it then; that’s the time.”
Rob Wiblin: That makes sense. We got a lot of audience questions for you, Bryan, for this episode. I think the most-asked one was: “What’s something that you would like to bet against people in the effective altruism community about?” — or at least some people, because obviously people have many wide-ranging views.
Bryan Caplan: Let’s see. Well, I’ve already done one huge one, and this is the machines are going to kill us — or at least do something terrible to us — in the medium term. So I literally have an end-of-the-world bet with Eliezer Yudkowsky.
Rob Wiblin: Oh wow. I didn’t know that.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. Which many people believe cannot be made, but it’s super easy. The person who disbelieves in the end of the world just pays the money now. And then if the world does not end, the loser pays back with whatever the odds are.
Rob Wiblin: I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. So Eliezer, we actually have a bet. It takes a little effort to understand the bet, because his view is so specific. He said, “Look, I want a bet on there will no longer be any human beings on the surface of the Earth on January 1, 2030.” I was willing to give him, like, “How about all of human extinction?” — “No, no, no, no, no. There could still be humans in mine shafts. That’s OK. But not the surface of the Earth.” And I’m like, “All right. If that’s such a big deal to you, fine, we’ll make it the surface of the Earth, whatever.” But yes.
Bryan Caplan: So anyway, we have a bet, where I don’t remember the exact odds. It might be just like two-to-one. And I prepaid, so implicitly there’s interest. So it’s not as good as it seems. But he is quite confident in this hostile AI scenario coming to pass, and not in like 1,000 years, but just January 1, 2030 — all motivated by this foom scenario that he’s also big on. Everything can seem to be quite stable, then suddenly foom — the AI goes from just being the regular computers that we know and love to being so intelligent that it’s like a god.
Bryan Caplan: So I finally met Eliezer in person. I had a bunch of questions for him, like, “Why wouldn’t intelligence just asymptote to like triple human intelligence? Why would it go into infinity? We don’t see other stuff in nature going to infinity. Why would intelligence go to infinity?” I don’t feel like he had a really good answer for that.
Bryan Caplan: And then of course, there’s also even if you did have infinite intelligence, I don’t believe that even infinite intelligence would be sufficient to convince me to kill myself in the next 10 seconds. I don’t think there’s any conceivable arrangement of words in the universe that would get me to do it. Basically, this is like the function of time it would take to convince me to kill myself as a function of intelligence. And even when intelligence goes to infinity, the amount of time that it takes to convince me does not go down to 10 seconds, or maybe ever.
Bryan Caplan: So that’s one that I already have bet against. And I will say, I am kind of stunned at the prevalence of this fear of hostile AI in the effective altruism community. This is one where I’ll just say, isn’t nuclear war obviously the thing that’s way more worrisome? Like, nuclear weapons exist, we have a pretty good count of how many there are, and we also have a pretty good story about how escalation spirals out of control to a result that it doesn’t seem like any of the main people would ever have wanted. So put all that together and it seems like we’ve already got a really bleak scenario that plausibly is far from a rounding error over the span of a century. Maybe we’ll get to find out even sooner than that.
Rob Wiblin: I’m pretty worried about the nukes, too.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. I’ll say, for this month, I’m at like 100 times my base rate for nuclear war. Which is 100 times a low rate, but still. If humanity survives after something like that to write a history, how will they even explain it? It’d be like, “What the hell was even the issue? Who cared? What’s the difference?”
Rob Wiblin: It will be embarrassing.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. I’m sure we’ll be turning over in our graves with embarrassment. “Oh no. People in future generations are laughing at us.”
Rob Wiblin: We should do a big section on AI whenever we next do an interview. I’m really excited about that. We should try to go into all of those arguments. I don’t exactly have Eliezer’s view, but I’m also worried about the AI stuff. I have some kind of intermediate view.
Rob Wiblin: I should say you have a spreadsheet where you publicly list all of these bets and how they’ve resolved and how much it was. We’ll stick up a link, so people can go and check them all out. I think they’ll find it interesting.
Bryan Caplan: My Complete Bet Wiki. I was delinquent for many years and finally said I’m just going to get it all down, and I did the work to get it all publicly listed.
Rob Wiblin: What’s another thing you might want to bet with some people in EA about? Me, hypothetically, or some other people you’ve read?
Bryan Caplan: I’d still be really happy to do a bet on climate change that relates to effects on human living standards. I think it’s very unlikely that climate change is going to lead to any kind of absolute reduction in human living standards. I think it plausible that it will lead to a slowing of growth that otherwise would’ve happened. But again, the scenario where it actually gets so bad that GDP per capita goes down, that seems quite unlikely to me.
Rob Wiblin: I guess I think the odds of that are maybe 15%.
Bryan Caplan: Yes. 15% for like global GDP to go down overall. That’s probably even optimistic, because there’s a bunch of things that could go wrong. But then narrowly tailored global warming causes it, and then you’d have to specify the bet a little more precisely to —
Rob Wiblin: I guess I’m saying that the annual drag of climate change over some period of time is more than 4% or something like that.
Bryan Caplan: Right? Of course that’s always going to be an estimate, so it’s harder to bet on something like that. You could in principle say, “The following regression will have a coefficient smaller than this.” Basically it’ll be this model, this dataset. And when we run the regression, it will have a sensitivity of GDP with respect to climate change of less than something.
Rob Wiblin: Maybe you could make a bet that’s conditional on the temperature going up, more or less. Although I suppose part of the issue might be about how much the temperature will change. But if the disagreement is the downstream effects on the temperature change, you could do some bet that’s conditional.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. It seems to me that real thought leaders in EA are quite a bit more reasonable on global warming. Probably Lomborg had quite a bit of influence there, I’m guessing.
Rob Wiblin: I think to be honest, if you just read mainstream folks, if you just take what’s the median opinion — even of the IPCC — then you end up worried, but not completely freaked out about how the median case is going to be the end of the world. It’s more like, “Well, there’s a chance that things could be way worse than we think.”
Bryan Caplan: That makes sense. But again, among people who are EAs but are not thought leaders, I think that they’re much more conventional in their worries.
Rob Wiblin: This is exciting. I bet that there is a listener who could come up with a bet that’s maybe some conditional thing or maybe something about the rate of GDP growth and they might be interested in —
Bryan Caplan: You know, my new blog is called Bet On It. So I’ve kind of stuck my neck out as being open to bets. Every now and then, someone will bet me on something and I’m like, “Well, I agree with you. So why would I bet you?”
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Is there anything else?
Bryan Caplan: Here’s one that does not really go to anything fundamental. This is the one that, once we have synthetic meat, that the opinion of humanity will be that meat eaters in the past were just complete savage barbarians, like Nazis. And I say no, that is not what people are going to think. They may be like, “Oh gee, that’s really gross,” but it’s not going to be that people will regard people who ate meat as being like cannibals, or something like that. There’ll still be animals in this world of synthetic meat. There are still going to be squirrels that get run over by cars and people are not going to go and regard running over a squirrel as being like running over a human. So I don’t think that the opinion will ever change on meat eating to this level, that some very staunch vegans will say, “The only reason people don’t totally agree with me on this being like an ongoing Holocaust is just that they’re sinners and they don’t want to give up their yummy, delicious, savory meat.”
Rob Wiblin: The Self-Interested Eater Hypothesis.
Bryan Caplan: Yes.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. That’s interesting. I’ll have to think about that and see whether I actually disagree. Because that could be fun.
Bryan Caplan: The weird thing is, even for stuff that’s really horrible, people often go and make a bunch of apologies for it. Like go and talk to Americans about slavery in the South and they’ll be like, “Well, you have to understand it would’ve destroyed their whole economy to have freed the slaves” — even people who otherwise are very left-wing and so on. And you’re like, “So if you had someone trapped in your basement slaving for you, and you would lose your house if you freed them, you’d just keep them there, whipping them or something?” Like, what kind of defense is that?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. You also get funny defenses of colonialism along the same lines. Although I suppose there, I think people often don’t know the history so well. What’s your new website?
Bryan Caplan: betonit.substack.com.
Individual autonomy vs. welfare [01:59:06]
Rob Wiblin: Cool. OK, we’re almost done. Second to last question. Effective altruists tend to lean towards increasing wellbeing as a top priority, which is something you care about as well. We all care about wellbeing to some degree, but most of us don’t mind, for instance, regulating a product or imposing taxes if we think that those things are going to lead to more wellbeing, or more flourishing in some sense.
Rob Wiblin: Now, you don’t totally disagree, but you have a different way of weighing up individual autonomy versus welfare, which has influenced me quite a bit. Can you explain that?
Bryan Caplan: Right. This is, of course, going to require some acceptance of moral intuition. There is a classic thought experiment where you are a surgeon, and you have five different patients. Each of them is going to die, unless they get a different organ transplant. You can’t get the organ transplants anywhere else. And then along walks a guy, who’s got all his organs intact. He has no friends, nobody knows who he is, no one will ever miss him. The question is, would it be ethically permissible, or even laudable, to go and murder him and then hand his organs out to those five people to save their lives? And he said, “Kill one person, save five lives. Five minus one equals four. That’s good.”
Bryan Caplan: Now if you’re a hardcore utilitarian, then you will just say yes. Since you crafted the hypothetical to make this the answer, then of course, yes, we totally should murder this person — anything else is just sheer squeamishness driven by our misleading evolutionary heritage.
Bryan Caplan: However, most people who hear the story, even after they hear the evolution and all the other things, say you can’t just murder that one innocent guy to go and save five people. And then it’s like, what if it’s a million? “All right. If it’s a million then I guess all right, yes.” But even five is enough to make people strongly pause. And I think this intuition is very credible.
Bryan Caplan: It also works on a smaller scale. Like, is it OK to go and steal a toy from another kid because you’d enjoy the toy more, and he won’t even know that it was taken? He’ll think it was lost rather than stolen, and you’ll never get caught. What’s the harm? Even there it’s like, “You have to steal this toy in order to prevent someone from breaking his arm” or whatever — then all right, fine, I’ll steal this toy. But just the fact that I would just enjoy the toy more than the owner is not a sufficiently good reason to do it.
Bryan Caplan: So anyway, philosophers call this “weak deontology” and it is a way that you can get a lot more definite answers out of the moral universe than you can with regular old utilitarianism. Because the truth is that there are a lot of moral questions where the facts just aren’t in that well. You could just say, “Would it really be a bad idea to ban Satanism?” We know that we can get by with legal Satanism. It’s not the end of the world to have Satanism. On the one hand, you say there’s the utility of the Satanists, who get to enjoy their special religion and they get to have their club and they get to freak out the squares. But on the other hand, how do the parents of all these people feel? And what about all the religious people who are terrified by Satanists and take it more seriously than it’s even meant to be taken?
Bryan Caplan: So it’s one where it’s like, I don’t know, maybe. Yeah, probably banning Satanism seems like it passes a simple cost-benefit test. On the other hand, passing a five-to-one test where we’re not going to go and start banning religions unless we’ve got a really strong reason to do it — where we’ve got very solid evidence that we’re getting a large benefit over cost. So that’s one where I think, in fact, most people resolve a lot of moral questions that way by saying, “There’s some default view, and it isn’t just enough to say that benefits exceed costs to get me to break the default. You’ve actually got to show that the benefits are way bigger than the costs.”
Bryan Caplan: And yes, and this is how I do think about governments going and pointing a gun at someone’s head and saying you have to do a certain thing — especially something where it’s not like pointing a gun at someone’s head and saying, “Hey, don’t murder that guy”; it’s like pointing a gun at someone’s head and saying, “Don’t hire him for less than $15 an hour.” Is it really that bad to hire someone for less than $15 an hour? It seems like this is a gross overreaction. And even if I didn’t have really good evidence that this failed the cost-benefit test, still I’d say you should have really good evidence that it greatly exceeds, and it passes a cost benefit test with flying colors.
Bryan Caplan: So I do this for libertarian stuff. This is also my view on war. I have a whole bunch of pieces that I’ve written on pacifism. It just begins with the premise of modern war is almost never really defensive, because modern weapons are just so big that you really are — if not deliberately killing innocent people — at least you’re negligently endangering innocent people, in a way that you would go to jail for manslaughter if you did it as a private individual.
Rob Wiblin: “Why is this so different?”
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, it does not mean that war is never permissible under any logically possible circumstances. But there’s just this presumption, saying, “Before you go and do modern warfare, don’t be under the illusion that you can just go and kill bad people.” It’s super hard. Ukraine it’s like, “Well, it’s just an invasion, so it’ll be OK.” Well what about the conscripts? Probably a lot of them don’t want to be there. And imagine that the war actually goes well for the Ukrainians. What do you think they’re going to do in those eastern breakaway provinces or in Crimea?
Bryan Caplan: If we know anything about military action throughout history, if you have a sudden total surprise success, you don’t say, “All right, great. Now we’re done.” It’s like, “Hell yeah. All right, let’s go. Let us retake the lands that were conquered by the enemy.” And then they’re going to wind up killing a lot of innocent people probably in those areas. So you got that.
Bryan Caplan: The second premise is that in fact we have very high levels of uncertainty about the effects of war, as evidenced by Tetlock’s research — or just any actual knowledge of history, and what people thought at the time compared to what really happened, and just how much happenstance there is in history. So it’s really hard to actually have justified confidence that a war is going to have really good effects. And again, if it was just a matter of passing a simple cost-benefit test, then you got to say, “That one, maybe we can pass it plausibly.” But if you’re talking about murdering a bunch of innocent people, or negligently killing a bunch of innocent people in order to do this, there’s a high bar there.
Bryan Caplan: So that is a big part of the way that I think about moral issues. And not just for libertarian stuff, but just for something lying: I would totally lie my ass off to save the children from the axe murderer. But the so-called white lie, I don’t want to do it. It seems morally wrong to do it unless you’re really cornered.
Rob Wiblin: The stakes have got to be big.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. And especially when you realize there’s a lot of ways where you don’t really have to do the white lie. Instead of saying, “I’m super happy for you” and that’s not true, just say, “Congratulations” — which is neither true nor false, according to all the philosophers of language that I know anyway.
Rob Wiblin: The way I conceptualize this, or the way that it affects me, is if you’re a pluralist about ethics at all and ethical values. So I’m mostly focused on wellbeing; I think wellbeing is the thing that most often varies between different decisions that you can make. However, I also place some value on autonomy and people not using violence in order to interfere with and harm other people, even if they have good intentions.
Rob Wiblin: So how does that cash out when we’re thinking about a government regulation? Basically it just raises the bar. If you’re going to have a regulation that requires the threat of violence in order to enforce it — as almost all of them do — to some extent, you shouldn’t just require that the benefits be slightly larger than the costs. It should be that the benefits are quite a bit larger than the costs.
Rob Wiblin: So before we decide to, as you say, make it illegal for two people to make a contract, shouldn’t we require that the benefits be twice as large as the costs in expectation? That’s how I conceptualize it. It’s just raising the threshold. I think that having that mindset might well improve people’s policy analysis anyway, because they tend to be a bit over-optimistic about how things are going to go.
Bryan Caplan: Oh yeah, definitely. Although of course there are a whole bunch of people who love autonomy, who will say no: autonomy requires that we have the regulation to protect the autonomy of the weaker party.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think that’s just a different concept of autonomy. I would class it under wellbeing again. But one case in which this actually came up quite a lot was when we invented vaccines against COVID. Imagine that it had been possible for people other than Pfizer or something to make them, because they had their own complicated motivations.
Rob Wiblin: The official position of basically all governments is that if someone had themselves wanted to manufacture the vaccine, and use it on themselves, and give it to their families, and sell it to other people in the community who are willing to take this thing — up until the point that the FDA approved it, or the regulatory agency approved it, they would have come with guns to physically restrain you and prevent you and make sure that people couldn’t take the vaccines. Even though they’re fully consenting, even though they know everything — that’s irrelevant until the bureaucrats approve it. Can’t do it.
Rob Wiblin: Now, if that was absolutely necessary — if the benefits of that coercive government regulation were so large — then I would be open to that. But in my mind, the threshold is reasonably high, because of its restriction on people’s autonomy to choose what medicine they want to receive and what medicine they don’t want to receive. I just didn’t find the arguments for the benefits exceeding the costs by a large enough amount to be sufficiently compelling that I was super keen on those rules.
Bryan Caplan: Was anyone even making that argument? I don’t think I ever heard anyone actually defending the cost-benefit analysis, just so much as saying, “These are our laws, these are the rules, the rules are the rules,” that kind of thing.
Rob Wiblin: People were saying it would be incredibly damaging because some people would take vaccines before they’re proven to be safe, and then that would set a terrible example and then other people would be scared to take vaccines. So that’s the argument. And it’s possible, but I think that there are also scenarios in which it could be very beneficial. There’s scenarios in which nobody pays attention and this doesn’t matter.
Bryan Caplan: Well, just to say, “Look, you took an unapproved vaccine and something bad happened.” I think what people really worried about is that people would go and take unapproved vaccines, and it would work great. And then the government would look stupid or worse. That’s more of the fear of, “This could undermine trust in our government by showing the government did a bad thing.” Maybe governments should just not do the bad things, instead of going and trying to crush people for making them look bad.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think that’s a little bit too cynical. Maybe that’s the worry of the bureaucrats. But an ordinary person on the street who supports these laws, I think it’s because they have some notion that it would cause harm if people were able to take unregulated medicines.
Bryan Caplan: I think your argument is too sophisticated by a lot. I think the normal one is paternalism. Like people don’t know their own interests, and they would be suckered into going and taking bad vaccines, or at least it’s too high risk. I think paternalism is by far the more common argument, and I think this is what people will say: “Why can’t an adult do it if they want to?” It’s like, “Because they would do a bad thing, and we’re protecting them, and you can’t expect a regular person to make judgments like this.”
Rob Wiblin: It’s interesting that I think people have the perception that only a complete idiot would go and get the vaccine before it’s approved, so you would have this very negative selection towards foolish behavior getting like really bad medicines. But the people that I knew who were most keen to not wait for the FDA to approve it and get vaccines are all the smartest people that I know. So that’s kind of my perception of it.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah. The stereotype of the vaccine skeptics are less smart, I think looks true. So the idea that there’s an alternate universe, where the vaccine skeptics were rushing to get unapproved vaccines — it’s very hard for me to believe that that was something that was an alternative thing that could have happened.
Rob Wiblin: An interesting phenomenon here is, I think you and I probably mostly talk to people who are quite a lot more educated, quite a lot more informed, probably better reasoners than the average. So it’s quite hard for us to have a sense of where the 10th percentile or the 50th percentile in those capacities is. I think people in medicine actually have the opposite bias, because if you work in an emergency room, the people who are most regularly coming into the emergency room and asking for medical help are probably below average at these capabilities. And it’s sometimes the mistakes that they’re making that are causing them to have to come in to hospital all the time. So I think that’s one reason why paternalism rings particularly true to some people in medicine.
Bryan Caplan: Since I am a professional public opinion researcher, I at least feel like I do understand what the whole distribution thinks. It’s not the same as really having talked to the entire distribution in great detail, but at least I am aware of what views are common in other parts of society. So I do know that about half of Americans don’t believe in evolution. They exist — I don’t often meet them, but they’re around. I also have some understanding of what’s going on — it’s driven by biblical literalism, of course.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. OK. We’ll stick up some links to your stuff on pacifism and all of these issues about trading off autonomy versus wellbeing benefits, and regulation and so on.
Arrogant hedgehogs [02:10:43]
Rob Wiblin: Actually the final question now, and this one’s from the audience: “You describe yourself as an ‘arrogant hedgehog’ with many strange and extreme views. Given the current state of things, given the current state of academia of the kinds of people who are out there, do you think more or fewer academics / public intellectuals should try to emulate this style?”
Bryan Caplan: No, definitely not. The point of when I call myself an arrogant hedgehog is to say I’m a flawed human being and these are my failings, and I try to go and put myself to the test so that I don’t do what arrogant hedgehogs usually do — which is just say a ton of wrong and ridiculous stuff. When I say I’m an arrogant hedgehog, I’m not saying that’s a good thing to be. It’s basically me just trying to remind myself of my flaws. Just in the same way that I will sometimes tell my kids, “Remind me to go and do this thing” — I know my kids aren’t really going to remind me; they’re kids, they’re forgetful — but I say it out loud. And that helps me to remember: by telling someone else to remind me, by acknowledging my flaw, it makes it easier for me to at least mitigate the flaw.
Bryan Caplan: That’s the same thing with saying, “I’m an arrogant hedgehog.” There are a lot of arrogant hedgehogs in academia, and of course I think most of them have terrible views. In particular, views that are just so silly. And they won’t bet on stuff, and they’re just pontificating, and just makes me sick to listen to them.
Bryan Caplan: Here I’m remembering John Podhoretz, who, some years back, said, “Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran effectively ensures that Iran will be a nuclear power in 10 years” — something like that. And I just said, “I don’t know a lot about Iran, but you don’t know enough about Iran to say that.” And I did try to get him to bet me, but I said, “Since you say it ‘effectively ensures,’ you should give me odds.” And he’d only bet at even odds. I’m just saying, “I don’t know. But what I do know is you don’t know.”
Bryan Caplan: But again, that kind of attitude is just so standard in academia. Every time there’s some professor saying, “The effect of this could only be to X,” I’m like, I think there’s actually a lot of things the effect of that could be. This is just you going and repeating some stuff that you read in some book, from some other higher-status arrogant hedgehog that you are now a vessel for.
Bryan Caplan: I would really like academics to be more open to big questions. That’s very different from being an arrogant hedgehog. Let’s focus on questions that are more important, but at the same time, let’s start off by saying, “What has anyone been able to figure out about these questions?” — not, “Let’s go and find some continental philosophy sage and start quoting this guy and acting like this guy knew stuff.” They’re almost the last people I would ever rely on — if they were saying anything that was even meaningful in the first place, which I tend to doubt.
Rob Wiblin: So if saying you’re an arrogant hedgehog is a claim of humility, or recognizing that there’s some bad habits there, what fraction of the arrogant hedgehog opinions that you’ve said in this podcast do you think might ultimately turn out to be wrong?
Bryan Caplan: When I’m talking to you, I’m trying to be my best version of me. Still, human knowledge is very flawed, so maybe 15%? Again, I’d need to go back, because I don’t think there’s even remotely a chance that I don’t feel pain. There’s the problem of memory knowledge, so I’m not going to go to absolutely 100% for that. I’m not in pain right now, so in principle, my memory could be wrong and I’ve never actually felt pain, but I don’t want to actually put myself in pain now just to make it 100% true. But there’s some stuff where I’ll say there are super low odds of ever being wrong, then there’s some other stuff where, all right, that’s harder stuff.
Bryan Caplan: Honestly, I’m optimistic. If we go through and we actually did textual analysis, you’ll see that I’m using words that are indicating my level of confidence throughout. I don’t think I signed a lot of numerical probabilities, but at least English rough equivalents. So I think we could go through there and we could actually get a weighted average of everything that I said. And that would be pretty reasonable.
Rob Wiblin: Well, on that note, my guest today has been Bryan Caplan. Thanks so much for coming back on The 80,000 Hours Podcast, Bryan.
Bryan Caplan: All right. Absolute fantastic pleasure to talk to you, Rob.
Rob’s outro [02:14:38]
Rob Wiblin: If you’d like more of Bryan you can find his blog at betonit.substack.com.
I also do hope some listeners out there will find some bets they can make with Bryan, and I’ll be particularly excited if one of you manages to win a bet him. If you choose the right end date you could maybe even be the very first to do that.
And if you have any relevant expertise in biology or social science and have some commentary on the twin research we discussed in this episode, drop us your thoughts at [email protected]
All right, The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering and technical editing for this episode by Ryan Kessler.
Full transcripts and an extensive collection of links to learn more are available on our site and put together by Katy Moore.
Thanks for joining, talk to you again soon.