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Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

Articles by Bryan Caplan

Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club Replies, Part 5

9 days ago

Here’s my last round of response to reader comments.  I’m on vacation now, but in early September I’ll post one last reply to Huemer’s replies to me, then give the author the last word.
Even if we assign very low probability that insects feel pain and they feel significantly less pain, there are something like 10^18 insects so insect suffering is a massive problem. Nematodes have nociceptors and there are 4*10^19, which is 57 billion for every human. I do not know exactly how but I imagine human beings could be causing massive amounts of suffering to these tiny creatures for trivial reasons all the time.
Having children is not trivial but it would seem there is a moral obligation not to reproduce if there is a risk your child may not be a

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When It’s Alright to Steal from Bill Gates: A Reply to David

17 days ago

David is shocked by my claim that it is alright to steal from Bill Gates to save your child’s life:
If Bryan thinks it’s right to steal from Bill Gates to finance expensive cancer surgery with “a reasonably high chance of saving her life,” then that principle must apply to tens of millions of people who could have their lives saved even more cheaply by being able to get food.
Think of, say, 100 million of the poorest people in India. They could ward off starvation for a year or even two with an extra $1,000. That’s $100 billion, which is enough to wipe out Bill Gates’ net worth, especially after Melinda is done with him.
That seems wrong to me. How few people have to benefit from stealing  from Bill Gates to make it right to steal? 10 million? 1 million? 10?

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value: Huemer’s Response, Part 4

19 days ago

The latest from Huemer:
Thanks, everyone, for the discussion! Here are my responses to the comments about part 4:
Bryan’s Comments
“BC” indicates Bryan’s comments; “MH” is me, from the book.
BC:      When defending moral realism, Huemer places a fair amount of weight on linguistic evidence … I find this evidence less probative than he does. Why? Because human beings often frame non-assertions as assertions for rhetorical effect. “Yay for the Dodgers!” is almost equivalent in meaning to “Dodgers rule!”
More about the linguistic evidence: Each of the linguistic tests for proposition-expressing sentences corresponds to a non-linguistic, metaphysical truth. E.g., the reason why it’s linguistically odd to say “I believe hurray for the Dodgers” is that belief is an

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First-Hand Experience is Less Biased Than News

22 days ago

One of the first lessons you learn in statistics is to discount first-hand experience.  “But I knew a guy who…” is weak evidence, for a long list of reasons:
1. Random error.  When you only sample one person – yourself – there’s immense random error.  The noise can easily drowns the signal.
2. Selection bias.  Are you an exactly average human?  Probably not.  In fact, exactly average humans probably simply don’t exist.  As a result, your first-hand experience systematically misrepresents reality.  And the less you resemble this average human, the greater the systematic bias.
3. Availability bias.  You are more likely to remember extreme, vivid events, so even if your first-hand experience were representative, beliefs based on your first-hand experience could still

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club, Part 4

25 days ago

Part 4 (“Ethics”) of Knowledge, Reality, and Value contains four chapters that seem extremely reasonable to me, and one that continues to strike me as deeply wrong.  As a result, I’m going to split the discussion into two parts.  This week: the extremely reasonable Chapters 13-16.  Next week: The deeply wrong Chapter 17.
As usual, I will focus almost entirely on my disagreements with Huemer’s careful, enlightening, and inspiring book.
Chapter 13: Metaethics
When defending moral realism, Huemer places a fair amount of weight on linguistic evidence:
The most obvious problem with non-cognitivism is that moral statements act exactly like proposition-asserting statements in all known respects. They do not act like interjections (like “Ouch!”), commands (like “Pass the

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club Replies, Part 3

July 1, 2021

Here are my replies to your comments on Part 3 of the Huemer Book Club.
[I]n the reading I’ve done on the free will debate, I’ve never heard anyone argue that the predictability of behavior is evidence against free will. (Possibly due to the fact that most of the arguments I’ve read have come from philosophers and neuroscientists rather than social scientists?) I usually hear a nearly opposite sentiment – even those who argue strongly against free will also argue that this does not imply predictability of human behavior – Steven Pinker, David Eagleman, Robert Sapolsky, Sam Harris, Dan Wegner, Susan Blackmore, and Patricia Churchland come to mind.
Fans of social science often argue that behavior is predictable, so we don’t have free will.  This isn’t the

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“Follow the Science” Might Not Mean What You Think It Means

June 30, 2021

Here’s a guest post by ASU’s Richard Hahn, reprinted with his permission.  I suspect he’d be happy to respond to comments!
The problem with punchy slogans is that they are subject to (mis)interpretation. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become common for folks to urge policy-makers to “follow the science”. But what exactly does this mean? There is a version of this slogan that I strongly support, but I worry that many of the people invoking it mean something different, and that this interpretation could actually undermine faith in science. In this longish essay I discuss the inherently approximate nature of science and explore how a scientific mindset can lead to near-sighted policy decisions. At the very least, readers may enjoy the linked articles,

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value: Huemer’s Response, Part 3

June 28, 2021

Bryan’s Comments
“BC” indicates Bryan’s comments; “MH” is me (from the book).
1. Argument from Design
MH:     Even if you’d never seen a watch before, you would immediately know that this thing had to have been designed by someone. It’s too intricately ordered to have just happened.
BC:      The reason why we infer a watch-maker from a watch is not that the watch is “intricately ordered,” but that we have independent reason to believe that watches are not naturally occurring.
The “even if you’d never seen a watch before” is meant to exclude that. I.e., if you showed the watch to a person who had never seen (or heard of) a watch before, they’d still immediately know that it was an artefact. I assume that’s clear. That excludes the possibility that the conclusion is

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My Profound Understanding of Human Nature

June 24, 2021

During my recent interview with Andrew Sullivan, he repeatedly accused me of being totally oblivious to the realities of human nature.  In his view, I hew to an absurdly economistic view of what people are really like.  In reality, people care about culture, identity, and community at least as much as they care about material consumption.  Indeed, this is how practically everyone describes themselves, right?
False humility aside, I maintain that my understanding of human nature is far deeper than Sullivan’s.  Indeed, my understanding of human nature is nothing short of profound.
Like Sullivan, I am well-aware that human beings routinely claim to place supreme value on culture, identity, community, and so on.  Unlike Sullivan, however, I refuse to take such

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Backlash vs. Resistance: The Case of Wokism

June 23, 2021

During the last two years, I’ve personally met quite a few people who loathe the woke movement.  They complain about it incessantly and see its wicked influence everywhere.  If the woke are for it, they’re reflexively against it.
If the woke movement did not exist, all of these people would obviously be doing something else.  They’d probably still be obsessive and negative, but they wouldn’t be daydreaming about wiping woke ideology off the surface of the Earth.  Should we therefore say that such people constitute a “backlash” to wokism?  Should we conclude that the woke movement is sowing the seeds of its own demise?  Would the woke movement have been more successful if it had pursued the path of moderation?
My answer: No on all counts.  Yes, the woke movement has

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club Replies, Part 2

June 17, 2021

All of the last set of comments were directed at Huemer, but I’ll add a few comments of my own.
1.To my mind, part of the problem with questions like “Is there a God?” is not that they are meaningless or that they have no answer. Rather, it’s that they are unanswerable.
Are questions like, “Does Bigfoot exist?” answerable?  How about, “Did aliens build the pyramids?”  Or how about, “Do ghosts exist?”  My answer to all of these is, “Almost certainly not.”  Am I wrong?
In order to create an accurate description of “only” the brain in its vat, the scientists, and the brain apparatus — as if that were all that existed, without relying on the simple rules of physics playing out from a (presumably simple) original condition — you would need an absolutely

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Alien Bet

June 16, 2021

Robin Hanson and I disagree about alien visitation.  While he doubts that aliens are visiting Earth right now, I’m virtually sure that they aren’t.  As a result, we’ve made a bet.  The terms:
1. Robin pre-pays me $10.
2. If I become convinced that aliens have visited the Earth during our lifetimes, I pay Robin $10,000*1.05^(year-2021) in nominal dollars.
3. If either of us dies before (2), my heirs keep the money and the bet ends.
Or as Robin puts it:

I proposed this bet in reaction to this tweet of his:
— Robin Hanson (@robinhanson) May 31, 2021

Why would Robin make such a bet?  Because we’re best friends and he trusts me.
What would it take to convince me?  Ideally, I want to see alien critters with my own eyes, but I will settle for

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The Apologies of Repeal

June 15, 2021

Whenever government repeals a bad policy, my first reaction is amazement.
Then gratitude.
Swiftly followed by indignation, because no matter how bad the repealed policy was, the government almost never apologizes.
Homely example: The FAA used to ban the use of any electronic device during takeoff and landing.  When the rule finally went away, I was amazed, because I expected to endure this petty tyranny for all the flights of my life.  Next, I felt grateful for this small expansion of my freedom.  Soon, however, I became indignant, because the government never apologized.  A half-hearted, “Sorry that our paranoia inconvenienced people billions of times” would have gone a long way.
The same holds for the COVID crusade.  Almost all vaccines sharply reduce contagion.

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value: Huemer’s Response, Part 2

June 14, 2021

Here’s Mike Huemer’s second set of responses to me and you.
About Bryan’s Comments
Thanks again to Bryan, and the readers who commented on his post, for their thoughts about Part 2. This is all cool and interesting. I’ll just comment on a few questions and points of disagreement.
1. Real World Hypothesis (RWH) vs. Brain-in-a-Vat Hypothesis (BIVH)
Why, though, couldn’t we race the Real World theory against the Simulation-of-the-Real-World theory?
Good question. We can think of it like this: we have a theory, B (for “brain in a vat”), and some evidence E. B doesn’t predict E very well, because there are so many other things that are about equally compatible with B. What you could do is add some auxiliary assumptions onto B, producing (B&A). And you could pick A

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value: Huemer’s Response, Part 2

June 14, 2021

Here’s Mike Huemer’s second set of responses to me and you.
About Bryan’s Comments
Thanks again to Bryan, and the readers who commented on his post, for their thoughts about Part 2. This is all cool and interesting. I’ll just comment on a few questions and points of disagreement.
1. Real World Hypothesis (RWH) vs. Brain-in-a-Vat Hypothesis (BIVH)
“Why, though, couldn’t we race the Real World theory against the Simulation-of-the-Real-World theory?”
Good question. We can think of it like this: we have a theory, B (for “brain in a vat”), and some evidence E. B doesn’t predict E very well, because there are so many other things that are about equally compatible with B. What you could do is add some auxiliary assumptions onto B, producing (B&A). And you could pick A

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Learning Disability Accommodation and Signaling

June 9, 2021

Reader Joe Munson sent me this thoughtful message.  Reprinted with his permission.
Dear Bryan,
It occurred to me the other day that many high schools and even colleges will basically waive certain subjects for you if you have even moderate learning disabilities (or can get a psychologist to say you do). Foreign languages, gym, even math can basically be waived (I know, because math and foreign languages were waived for me).
This is strange, if these subjects were so crucial, you would think schools would want to force the people with learning disabilities to spend more class time on them, not less.
Moreover, my university would actually let you test out of foreign language classes and get the credits for taking them– just as long as you paid them for the knowledge

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club, Part 2

June 8, 2021

The Book Club on Mike Huemer’s Knowledge, Reality, and Value continues.  Today, I cover Part 2 of the book.  To repeat, though I’m a huge fan of the book, I’m focusing almost entirely on disagreements.
1. One of Huemer’s preferred responses to the classic Brain-in-a-Vat (BIV) scenario is that – especially compared to the Real World story – its a weakly-supported theory.
The Real World theory predicts (perhaps not with certainty, but with reasonably high probability) that you should be having a coherent sequence of experiences which admit of being interpreted as representing physical objects obeying consistent laws of nature. Roughly speaking, if you’re living in the real world, stuff should fit together and make sense. The BIV theory, on the other hand, makes

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club Replies, Part 1

June 7, 2021

Here are my reactions to Part 1 of the book club for Mike Huemer’s new book:
Kevin DC:
Thoughts/comments directed primarily towards Bryan:
Compared to other academic disciplines, philosophers really do spend a lot of time rehashing 2000-year-old debates.
I suspect this is at least in part due to the fact that of all the disciplines in the academy, philosophy is the one with the longest history. Chemists don’t rehash 2,000 year old debates because 2,000 years ago, chemistry wasn’t a thing. Historians, by contrast, do tend to spend more time rehashing, say, the history of the Roman Empire and other subjects that are thousands of years old, simply because history, like philosophy, stretches back that far as a discipline.
I don’t think the analogy works.  Philosophers

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club Schedule Update

June 3, 2021

Capla-Con, my annual festival of nerdity, is in Austin this year, June 12-13, and I’m humbled by how many friends are making the trek.  By the power of Steve Kuhn, we’ll be gathering at Dreamland, noon-midnight both days.  All EconLog readers welcome!
As a result, I’m tweaking the Book Club schedule for Huemer’s Knowledge, Reality, and Value.  New plan:
June 7 – My reply to readers on Part 1
June 8 – My commentary on Part 2
Later that Week – Huemer replies on Part 2
June 16 – My reply to readers on Part 2
June 21 – My commentary on Part 3
Later that Week – Huemer’s and my replies on Part 3
June 28 – My commentary on Part 4
Later that Week – Huemer’s and my replies on Part 4

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value: Huemer’s Response, Part 1

June 3, 2021

Here’s Mike Huemer’s first set of responses to me and you.
About Bryan’s Comments
Thanks to Bryan for his fair and helpful comments on part 1. There isn’t much that we disagree about. But here are some thoughts about Bryan’s comments.
1. Philosophical progress:
It’s fair to say that philosophy makes slower and less impressive progress than the natural sciences, or even economics. (But not less than the other humanities and social sciences.) And there are at least some 2,000-year-old issues that are still being discussed, such as the problem of universals.
Consequentialism vs. deontology isn’t one of them, though. I don’t see any discussion of that in the ancient philosophers. You can maybe trace the consequentialist/deontological debate to Hume and Kant, but they

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Deregulate Discrimination

June 2, 2021

Two months ago, I voiced one big criticism of Richard Hanania’s excellent piece on the curiously ubiquitous institutional influence of the left:
Hanania still fails to explain the sheer uniformity of left-wing cultural dominance.  Competition normally delivers more diversity than we’re getting.  And for that, I stand by my Explanation #5, which I flesh out greater detail here.
Explanation #5. Discrimination law covertly stymies the creation of right-wing firms.  Most obviously, any firm that openly and aggressively opposed #MeToo and #BLM would soon be sued into oblivion.
Which does raise the question: Since the right runs the government roughly half the time, why don’t they try a lot harder to defang the “discrimination laws” that do so much to cause political

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Miguel Perez: A “Bad Student” Makes Good

June 1, 2021

Miguel Perez sent me this email, entitled “the curious case of my education.”  Reprinted with his permission.

Hi, I am sharing my case with you, because I feel it epitomizes some of your points against current education.

I was born in Spain, in 1988, went to public school and it was a disaster. I was diagnosed with severe ADHD, and was unable to finish middle school. I came to China, where I faked my high school diploma to get into college. I studied Chinese language and literature there, and set the record of my whole university, being, to this day, the only international student there to have passed HSK6 (the highest Chinese language state examination).

Then I won “bridge to China” by the Confucius Institute, also faking to be an university level student,

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club, Part 1

May 31, 2021

In the Preface for his new Knowledge, Reality, and Value, Mike Huemer engages in some humorous megalomania.  In response to the question, “Why read this book?,” Huemer states:
The author. I’m smart, I know a lot, and I’m not confused – which means you can probably learn a lot from this book. You probably won’t learn too many falsehoods, and you probably won’t run into too many passages that don’t make sense.
All accurate.  Huemer is very smart, does indeed know a lot, and is not confused.  And his book does indeed contain few falsehoods.  To keep this Book Club interesting, however, I’m going to focus on what I see as the major errors.  And in any case, if I focused on where he’s right, the Club would take months.
This week covers “Part 1: Preliminaries.”  Let’s

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Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club Starts Monday

May 28, 2021

My Book Club on Mike Huemer‘s new intro philosophy textbook launches Monday.  And I’m pleased to announce the Huemer himself will be joining the discussion.
After I write the first post, you can direct your comments to either of us.  I’ll be responding later in the week.  Huemer will respond separately.
While the book is 346 pages long, it’s so readable that you can easily be done Monday if you start now!

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Bad Religion vs. Labor Econ

May 27, 2021

For my 50th birthday, the noble Jason Brennan gave me Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion, signed by the whole band.  I love their music.  I listen to it all the time.  Greg Graffin, the lead singer, clearly has excellent knowledge of natural science.  Yet Bad Religion’s lyrics are sadly infused with economic illiteracy, one cliche of populist green leftism after another.  Listen to “10 in 2010,” “Modern Man,” or “Department of False Hope.”  It’s tempting to read “American Jesus” as an open borders anthem, but I’m afraid that’s wishful thinking.
I feel sorry for the earth’s population‘Cause so few live in the USAAt least the foreigners can copy our moralityThey can visit but they cannot stay
At the same time, however, Bad Religion is a business.  When you

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Social Desirability Bias in Three Speeches

May 25, 2021

I just rewatched Election for the first time in twenty years, and it was even better than I remembered.  And this time around, I had better conceptual tools to understand it.  Most notably, the movie features three election speeches that elegantly exemplify Social Desirability Bias – and its absence.
First, the front-runner, Tracy Flick, delivers a classic firehose of SDB:
Poet Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I cannot make my days longer, so I strive to make them better.”
With this election, we here at Carver also have an opportunity to make our high school days better.
During this campaign, I’ve spoken with many of you about your many concerns.
I spoke with Eliza Ramirez, a freshman who said she feels alienated from her own home room.
I spoke with sophomore

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The UK’s Office of Free Speech

May 20, 2021

Last January, my anonymous professor friend at the University of Texas proposed the creation of an Office of Free Speech:
[E]very university should have an “Office of Free Speech” where faculty can lodge complaints when their academic freedom or free speech rights are violated, or when policies are put in place to limit the possibilities for intellectual diversity.  This office must have adequate funding to complete independent investigations of such allegations, and it should report directly to the highest authority governing the university, either the board of trustees or regents for most private universities or the regents or state legislature for public universities.  These investigations must have teeth; attacking academic freedom (not simply criticizing

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Crusades and You

May 19, 2021

Every five years or so, the United States has a major societal-wide crusade.  Sometimes there’s a shocking event.  Other times, there’s an ongoing evil.  Either way, all Americans are supposed to join forces and take decisive action to win the crusade.  And even if you can’t personally do anything, you’re supposed to get very angry.
You’re supposed to be very angry about the problem.
You’re supposed to be very angry about anyone who stands between us and victory.
You’re supposed to angrily support our crusaders.
And you’re supposed to be very angry about people who aren’t very angry.
Here is a list of all the full-blown crusades I personally recall, in chronological order.  Yes, there’s a line-drawing problem, so if you think I’ve I missed one, please share in the

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