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Bryan Caplan is an irrepressible and eclectic economist at George Mason University.

Our first two interviews for the 80,000 Hours Podcast were:

This time I'm thinking of asking him about:

• Why its foolish to read the news • How I'm worried about advances in AI, while Bryan mostly isn't • His new book: Voters as Mad Scientists: Essays on Political Irrationality

What (else) should I ask him (about)?




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This is going to sound like an accusation, but that's because it's part of my biggest broad source of skepticism of him as a public intellectual. It seems like on a huge range of issues, from human nature, to free will, to X-risks, to animal rights, to land use, to immigration, to civil rights, Caplan holds the view most convenient to anarcho-capitalism that he can plausibly defend (and occasionally view I think are quite hard to plausibly defend). This doesn't indicate any specific view, again most of his views are at least plausible and I agree with many of them, but as a trend it's hard to ignore. Given this, I was wondering if you could ask for examples of views he holds that are most inconvenient for his politics, especially if there are reasonably plausible, more convenient alternatives that he nonetheless rejects on consideration. If not, or maybe in addition, I was wondering if he could comment on the general trend - for instance if he thinks that there is enough of a common element to all of these views that their combination is independently plausible without invoking bias.

I'm not sure this is true. 

  • He is very pro-natal, which you might think is inconvenient for anarcho-capitalism because it implies that children have large positive externalities and hence maybe should be subsidized (as Robin thinks). 
  • He thinks most university degrees have significant negative externalities because of the signalling model, which would lend support to the idea that university education should be taxed. 
  • He believes that humans are often irrational, which undercuts some perfect-competition style arguments for anarcho-capitalism. 
Devin Kalish
Thanks, these are interesting examples (and if I’m commenting too much someone please tell me, I can do that sometimes I think), but I range from somewhat to very skeptical on them as counterexamples: 1. This is the most plausible one I think, it really does seem like it lends support for greater intervention on certain views. However, it’s hard to find a view of population ethics/population sciences that does not have some population it prefers, or that gives a good account of why incentives will produce it naturally. My impression is that most people either have quite implausible views that are completely neutral, or just, as with Caplan, think this isn’t a road we want to go down. 2. I think Caplan thinks education would be pretty fine if you took away the public funding/subsidies, it would just naturally become much less common (though he does make note of the issues with a market quickly optimizing “conformity” signals specifically, which might be the greatest source for market inefficiency here for him) 3. He seems to think humans are primarily irrational in the areas where anarcho-capitalism takes away our power and primarily rational where it would leave us power, see his arguments about for instance how much people are willing to spend in rent to live in immigrant free neighborhoods versus what they actually vote for in immigration policy, or more broadly his work on the irrational voter. His views aren’t always convenient in this area, but some amount of human irrationality is very hard to plausibly deny, and the version he believes in is pretty convenient for him imo.
1. I think the counterfactual, convenient view for him to hold on natalism would be to just not talk about it, which is the strategy most people adopt with inconvenient facts and allows them to simply ignore them when doing policy analysis. 2. Higher education is currently very subsidized, and I agree that he thinks removing these subsidies would be a big improvement. But his views imply that even with no subsidy it would still be over-consumed, because each credential imposes negative externalities on everyone else's credential. 3. I don't have much of a direct response to you, except that many left wing people seem to think "but humans aren't perfectly rational" is a compelling objection to free market policies, and I think he should be given some credit here.
Devin Kalish
Fair, fair, and fair. I do think there are mitigating responses to all of these points as well, but I’ll concede the point that these are cases on the fringes of convenience for him. I was personally more thinking about IQ if I had to think of an example - he seems to place more importance on it than most people, but as I think he pointed out in a blog post I can’t find now, this leads just an awful lot of people to really statist and quasi or outright fascist views, so even if it doesn’t actually imply fascism, it’s an area where adopting a view closer to the average would be more convenient, provide an additional reason he could give against such people.

Even though I disagree with Caplan on x-risks, animal rights, mental illness, free will, and a few other things, I ultimately don't think it's necessarily suspicious for him to hold the most convenient view on a broad range of topics. One can imagine two different ways of forming an ideology:

  • The first way is to come up with an ideology a priori, and then interpret facts about the world in light of the ideology you've chosen. People who do this are prone to ideological biases since they're evaluating facts based partly on whether they're consistent with the
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Devin Kalish
Two reasons I disagree: 1. It is suspicious to just happen to have a whole bunch of views that support one's pre-existing politics, but it is only a little less suspicious to have a whole bunch of not that related views that all conveniently support one coherent political view 2. I'm taken to understand that Caplan has been a libertarian since he was a kid, and an ancap almost as long. Insofar as he considers most of or many of the listed positions to come from careful academic reflection, most of the arguments he makes about them are probably ones he didn't have when he first became sympathetic to his current politics
Devin Kalish
Part of my second question is that I think in order to beat these two challenges, the best he can do is say that there is one fairly simple principle that is behind anarcho-capitalism, and that it generalizes so robustly, both when thrown into the real world, and when thrown into philosophical controversies, that it causes all of them to conveniently point in a similar direction. It would have to be one he believed in from a young age and saw vindicated more and more over time in practice, and it needs to be remarkably unpopular to, despite having unusually powerful application in so many controversies, escape the sympathies of so many other experts. I suspect he will suggest something like this, but I am suspicious a principle that actually meets these criteria doesn't exist, and that much of his worldview is best explained by bias. This is why I think a question on this level is one of the best challenges to pose him.

The framing of this does indeed sound like an accusation, and I kind of agree with Matthew Barnett that if you actually asked for "comment on the general trend", Caplan would just respond that he thinks he's right on all those things and that libertarianism is simply a good ideological lens.

But I totally agree that it would be great to ask for "examples of views he holds that are most inconvenient for his politics" -- this seems like a generally interesting/underrated interview question!

Devin Kalish
I think any question that attempts to get at the heart of the strongest objection to a public figure's worldview is going to sound like an accusation, because in a way it is, mostly I hope it's taken as an ultimately good natured, curious, and productive accusation. On the point of libertarianism being a "good lens", I mean libertarianism as a policy suggestion. I am voicing suspicion that there isn't a plausible lens behind this policy view that generalizes so well in both philosophy and the real world that it doesn't leave Caplan's slate of opinions looking suspicious, but for what it's worth my second question was basically asking him to propose one.

Forgot mental illness, which again is suspiciously convenient, and maybe on the lower end of the plausibility spectrum among his views.

He doesn't publish to journals much, right? How would he run a journal to maximise positive impact/ such that he would publish in it? 

Yes. In general I'd love to see him try harder to write out tenure overhauls. He seems to stay on a popsci / blogger register instead of designing a new protocol / incentive scheme and shopping it around at metascience conferences. 

I would be interested in hearing more from Caplan about "stable totalitarianism", but not if it's just going to be a retread of the abstract concept that stable totalitarianism seems bad, what if Stalin had lived forever, etc.  Some questions I'd be interested in:

  • Is Caplan worried by any of the specific technologies that might make stable totalitarianism more likely?  Besides life-extension medical technology, we also have things like:
  • Does Caplan see more risk of stable totalitarianism arising from:
    • The existing dominant international alliance (USA + Europe + Japan + etc) kind of drifting more and more into a situation of global control and totalitarianism over time? (slowly implementing more things like CBDCs and pervasive censorship, perhaps spurred by the legitimate desire to control dangerous technologies like AI and biotech!)
    • Some individual powerful country (like China, or the USA after a very bad election) going totalitarian and then somehow extending that system to the rest of the world?
    • Some relatively small country, which doesn't currently have lots of military power or influence, just innovates a new type of government which is very oppressive but nonetheless economically outcompetes liberal democracy in the long run?  (It's my impression that this is kind of how fascism seemed in WW2, and communism in the early cold war... in the beginning, people were legitimately worried that these totalitarian systems might just be more productive ways of running an economy, even though they were antithetical to human freedom.  In the same way that modern China's government more capable and better-organized than a simple strongman dictatorship, is Caplan worried that it's possible to somehow bolt together prediction markets + social credit systems + corporate best practices, or whatever, and outcompete the democracies?)
  • What does Caplan think we can do to make totalitarianism less likely?
    • Preventative bans / regulation of specifically worrying technologies?
    • Trying to deliberately develop OTHER technologies which make totalitarianism harder (like, idk, the internet or bitcoin or etc), or to develop technologies that make the privacy/security tradeoff of surveillance technologies less bad?
    • Trying to reform our existing, free societies to make them generally stronger, more prosperous, and more resilient against abuses?
    • Just maintaining CONSTANT VIGILANCE against bad political actors, and trying not to vote them into power?
    • Doing more EA-style research into the nature of stable totalitarianism, to map out the risks?

Have his views on AI changed at all in the last year. He didn't really think it was gonna be a top priority in the next 20 years. Does he still agree with that take (I can find the quote if you care).

The 2016 Caplan-Yudkowsky debate (https://www.econlib.org/archives/2016/03/so_far_my_respo.html)  fizzled out, with Bryan not answering Eliezers last question. I'd like to know his answer 

Caplan has a lot of kids, wrote a book about why it's a good idea to have kids, and puts a lot of special effort into parenting (ie, teaching his children advanced economics).  To some extent this has been talked about in previous podcasts, but it would be interesting to hear some more from him about the ups and downs of parenting, what his advice would be to prospective parents, etc.

Bryan has forcefully argued for Open Borders, on both moral/deontological and empirical/consequentialist groups. But presumably there is some state of the world that would make him view Open Borders as net unjustified. What does he think is the possible world closest to ours (or real country closest to the US/UK) for which Open Borders is unjustified?

I would be interested to hear Bryan Caplan's take on Georgism (Tyler Cowen for instance thinks it's a bad idea) -- in general Caplan is opposed to pigouvian taxation, despite its appealing efficiency on paper, because Caplan thinks that it's all too easy for government to start calling anything it doesn't like a "negative externality", thus eroding peoples' freedoms.  I can see where he's coming from.  But maybe land value taxes could be a good idea even if we don't jump all the way to "tax everything we can think of that strikes us as a negative externality"?  Georgism is an interesting case of something that's fully supported by economic theory, but also somewhat of a challenge to traditional libertarian ideas of inviolable property rights, so I would love to hear Caplan's libertarian perspective.

Bryan Caplan co-authored a paper critiquing Georgism in 2012. From the blog post explaining the critique,

My co-author Zachary Gochenour and I have a new working paper arguing that the Single Tax suffers from a much more fundamental flaw.  Namely: A tax on the unimproved value of land distorts the incentive to search for new land and better uses of existing land.  If we actually imposed a 100% tax on the unimproved value of land, any incentive to search would disappear.  This is no trivial problem: Imagine the long-run effect on the world’s o

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Jackson Wagner
Thanks, this is very interesting!

I'd be interested in hearing about why he believes in retributivism!

(he mentions being retributivist in this blogpost

I'd like to hear about open borders.

  • Have his views changed since writing his book?
  • Are there cases where he thinks the ideas are not (or less) applicable?
  • Empirically, are there modern examples where something close to open borders was tried, and what were the results?
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