I am Bryan Caplan, economist and professor at George Mason University and advocate of free immigration and free trade. AMA!
Feb 5th 2014 by BryanCaplan • 41 Questions • 831 Points
Update: Thanks to everyone for participating. It's been a blast, but I should go now. Special thanks to Michael Tontchev for setting this up. He rules.
I am an economist at George Mason University (GMU) with a PhD from Princeton University, and I'm an advocate of both free immigration and free trade, which align most with the libertarian ideal.
I run a blog at EconLog: http://econlog.econlib.org/authorbcaplan.html#recent
I'm here to answer any questions you might have about my work, my political theory, or my two published books:
Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think
The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies
A table of contents and a summary of my upcoming book - The Case Against Education - can be found here:
Ask me anything!
Hi Dr. Caplan. I think that many of your EconLog entries are very insightful. If you had to pick your favorite ones (say, top 5), which ones would they be?
"The Magic of Education," "Tough Luck," "The Common-Sense Case for Pacifism," "The Tiger Mother versus Cost-Benefit Analysis," and "Tell Me the Difference Between Jim Crow and Immigration Restrictions."
They'd quickly get a lot richer, and we'd get some very nice vacations. In the longer run, the chance that Communism in Cuba would collapse or collapse into mere rhetoric is high.
Dr. Caplan - what do you think of the usual way welfare economics is taught? That is, do you think that Consumer and Producer surplus calculations for various regulations and policies are legitimate tools to compare policies? Do they rely on interpersonal utility comparisons, or can they successfully aggregate benefits across people?
Welfare economics is usually talk very poorly: constant equivocation between the Pareto standard and the cost-benefit (or Kaldor-Hicks) standards.
I see nothing wrong with looking at Consumer or Producer surplus, as long as you realize that this is just one of many metrics.
I have no problem with doing interpersonal welfare comparisons. I compare people's well-being every day. And if you can't compare one person's happiness to another's, why can you compare your own happiness today to your own happiness yesterday?
Many libertarians use welfare economics to try to short-circuit utilitarianism. I'd rather just criticize utilitarianism.
Hi Bryan. I listened to a lecture you gave at ISFLC last year and had a great time. I've referenced many of your essays whenever I've found myself in a political discussion with someone.
I wanted to ask you something unrelated to politics, though :)
What are some of your favorite bands?
At heart I'm a 18th & 19th-century German opera guy. Wagner's my #1, Bach's my #2. But by the normal definition of "bands," I'd say Bad Religion, Tsunami Bomb, tATu, P!nk, and No Doubt. I'm also a big fan of world music, especially the Rough Guide series.
There has been a lot of talk online recently on the merits of a Basic Income Guaranty or Negative Income Tax. I have two questions:
- Would you endorse something like a BIG?
- Why do you think the idea is so appealing to both libertarians and socialists? Should proponents in each group be worried that the idea appeals to their ideological opponents?
As a replacement for the status quo, maybe. As an addition, no.
Libertarians like it because they think it will be a replacement. Socialists like it because they think it will be an addition.
Bryan, What do you think about the viability of Bitcoin as money? If Bitcoin, or some crypto-currency, gets widely adopted as money what do you see as the most important economic ramifications?
It's done 10x better than I expected, but I still don't expect it to be more than a niche financial instrument. It's long been noted that people around the world continue using their national currencies even in the face of 20 or 30% inflation because national currencies are more convenient and focal. Also, I expect regulators to crack down if Bitcoin becomes much of a threat.
But hopefully I'm wrong!
Do you feel that the rise of China is beneficial to the interests of the United States?
Hey Bryan. Suppose your robust, non-reductive form of moral realism turned out to be false. What do you think is next most plausible metaethical position?
Mackie's view: That moral statements are genuine assertions, but they're all false because there are no moral facts.
Hi Bryan. I teach a sophomore Geography class which includes a unit on the globalization of industry and trade. I always make sure to tell my students the positives and negatives of both free trade and fair trade. Obviously free trade is responsible for fueling business in modern society and providing us with many of the luxuries we have today but our curriculum has a focus on "global citizenship" so it is difficult to make arguments for free trade from that angle.
In my quest to provide students with an even-sided argument, I would love if you could bestow some support for free trade as a means to promote international development in ways that fair trade cannot. Obviously free trade provides many jobs, but the idea of paying workers more always seems to supersede that. So if you could explain what free trade would do specifically to help developing countries, or ways in which fair trade fails to do so, I will be sure to include it in my course.
Thank you for your time!
The best short argument for free trade is the parable of the Iowa car crop. http://www.walkerd.people.cofc.edu/Readings/Trade/iowacarcrop.pdf
Does the signaling model of education ever depress you while you're prepping your classes?
Not at all. Students' apathy is a little depressing, but I always focus on the students who are happy to be in class.
Atlas Shrugged, For a New Liberty, Economic Sophisms, The Armchair Economist, The Bell Curve, The Myth of Democratic Failure, The Nurture Assumption, and Modern Times. Mike Huemer's been a massive influence on me, but mostly his articles, especially "Moral Objectivism."
Professor Caplan, do you feel that the libertarian movement's love affair with Austrian economics is doing a disservice to the goals it fights for? That is, that since the Austrian school is viewed with derision in mainstream circles, Libertarianism's other philosophical arguments are tainted by association?
Maybe. But Austrianism also inspires a lot of enthusiasm from the base, so it's hard to say. My main argument against Austrianism is that it's false, not that it's bad publicity.
You have written:
Economists' consensus estimate is that open borders would roughly double world GDP, enough to virtually eliminate global poverty (Clemens 2011).
This was huge news to me and I completely agree with your assessment:
What I can't understand is indifference to the mind-boggling potential benefits of immigration. The knowledge that we're sitting on an ocean of talent should haunt great minds day and night. They should pace around their offices telling themselves, "There's got to be a way to unlock these wasted trillions of dollars of human potential. There's just got to be a way."
My question is: Are there other libertarian policies that would result in similarly-massive benefits as open borders if implemented? If so, what are they?
After open borders, the biggest policy change would be for Third World countries to fully open their doors to international investment. Work by van Reenen and many others shows that multinational corps in the 3rd World are vastly better-run than local firms. If multinationals could freely compete, they would quickly raise productivity. Back of the envelope calculate is that if all firms on earth were managed at multinational levels, global GDP would go up by 25-50%. Most of the benefit, of course, would be in the Third World.
Hi Dr. Caplan.
Will you be at the ISFLC this year?
Do you believe Bitcoin will stabilize and become a legitimate currency anytime soon? While it has the perceived value necessary of a currency, it's fluctuations prevent it from storing value, something necessary of a unit of exchange.
I will be at ISFLC on Sat. On Bitcoin, see prior question.
Stephen Earl Bennett and Jeffrey have critiqued your rational irrationality theory.
They claim that in order for your theory to be more than just ignorance, you assume voters must know at some level that they are wrong.
They claim that is incoherent:
...one cannot believe that a policy that one considers good on sociotropic grounds (and thus favors) is, in fact, sociotropically bad (such that one considers it to be an irrational “indulgence”).
They accuse you of projecting your own irrationality on to voters. The critique is many pages and has many other criticisms.
I find the criticism to be harsh and not very convincing.
Have you responded to them?
Not that I recall. But since writing MRV, I've discovered more psychological work that makes my story even more intuitive. E.g. here: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/12/bias_assent_and.html
Dr. Caplan, in MotRV, there were parts that came across as very critical of public choice. Did I misunderstand, or is there even a dichotomy between the questions of whether voters get what they want, or politicians and regulators get what they want?
I am very critical. Many public choice economists just aren't curious about public opinion. They'd rather just assume that voters want what they'd advise, then blame special interests for defying the will of the people. Not good science.
Probably not. At this stage in my career, I could imagine writing a book on Communism. But a web museum is more of a grad student project.
If a worthy student wanted to take up the project, I'd be happy to discuss it.
With the drought in Southern California is it possible the state is over populated? Meaning we have to halt immigration into the south west?
No. Just raise the price of water!
Hey Mr. Caplan,
Do you think Israel should open their borders?
Yes. But I wouldn't strongly object if they excluded people with violent criminal records or denied new-comers the vote. (Same goes for countries other than Israel, too).
You know what they say.
"Diversity is good, diversity is a strength, diversity is what makes the middle east so peaceful!"
The Middle East really could use a lot more diversity. One religion gives you totalitarianism. Two gives you civil strife. A hundred gives you peace. (With apologies to Voltaire).
What advice would you give to parents, especially new ones?
For new parents: Ferberize your baby! Don't turn yourself into a zombie for two years because you won't let your baby cry for ten minutes. Also, safety-proof your home to the point where you don't have to watch your baby constantly.
General advice: Relax and ignore peer pressure.
What arguments would you give against cynically manipulating the political system rather than trying to reform or undermine it?
In many cases, I think cynical manipulation is moral and wise. If you're filling out your income tax, I'd advise you to just game the system to pay as little as possible.
But when cynical manipulation involves treating other people unjustly, I advise against it. The argument? Nothing better than "You shouldn't act unjustly, this is unjust, so don't do it."
Do you have a written version of the arguments from your Rethinking the Night Watchman State lecture?
More or less: http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/bcaplan/e854/pc13.htm
I see you enjoy the book "The Myth of Democratic Failure".Why was it so influential to you?
Before I read it, I was largely an orthodox Public Choice guy. Wittman convinced me that orthodox Public Choice greatly overstated its claims - and led me to search out a lot of relevant empirics, too.
Doctor Caplan! I'm a huge fan of you and your work. I find your writings and lectures to be incredibly thought-provoking, especially your lectures on immigration and education. I was also looking forward to your appearance on Intelligence Squared, but was incredibly disappointed that it devolved into a 3-on-1 debate.
Anyway, my question for you is this: Of the many issues brought up against immigration, you have given convincing counterarguments indicating that they, if not wrong, can at least be more humanely addressed than simply closing the border. One argument I hear often, but have not (to date) heard your thoughts on, is that immigrants commit more crime and thus should be kept out to keep crime from spiraling out of control. Is this true, and if it is, is there a more humane way to address it than simply keeping people out?
Thanks very much Dr. Caplan!
PS: Any idea when your book on (or should I say against) education will be out?
Standard social science is that immigrants have LOWER crime rates than natives. http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2007/07/mea_culpa_how_i.html There are some concerns about 2nd-generation Hispanic crime, but even that is only modestly above the native rate (by 20-40% or so).
If immigrants did have high crime rates, some cheaper/more humane remedies would include:
Bonding. You have to post some money to immigrate, to ensure that you can compensate any victims if you happen to commit a crime.
Profiling. Letting in only women and men over 30.
Vouching. Only letting in people if someone here will vouch for their good character (and make themselves liable for your bad behavior, if any).
Are patents and copyrights (a.k.a state granted monopoly) the main cause of wealth inequality?
No way. Intellectual property is only a few % of GDP.
Given that we do not live in a pure service economy, do you think the conclusions from "Distributive Justice in A Pure Service Economy" are applicable to distributive justice in our world? Many moral theories can lead to gruesome conclusions in fantastical settings, is that a good reason to reject them?
Not exactly "applicable." But definitely illustrative. The point of the hypothetical is to show that the taxation=slavery view is more plausible than most people want to admit.