By Bryan Caplan
My book on democracy, my almost-complete book on kids, and my future book on education all take inconvenient positions. Meaning: In each case, there’s an ideologically cleaner and more crowd-pleasing rationale for what I think people ought to do.
Case 1: Voters.
What people ought to do: Rely more on markets and less on government, even when there are obvious market failures.
My actual position: Democracies choose bad policies because voters have systematically biased beliefs about the effects of policies (especially economic policies), and political competition basically gives the people what they want.
The convenient position: Voters (or at least Americans) are instinctive libertarians, but special interest groups and statist elites highjack democracy to foist their destructive policies on the recalcitrant public.
Case 2: Kids.
What people ought to do: Have more kids.
My actual position: While kids don’t “make people miserable,” they typically make their parents mildly less happy. But this negative effect is largely parents’ own fault. They work themselves to the bone “investing” in their kids on the false assumption that upbringing has a strong effect on adult outcomes. Kids are a pleasure if you relax and enjoy the journey instead of vainly trying to mold the next generation.
The convenient position: Making every conceivable sacrifice for your kids brings true happiness. Forget your narrow selfishness, give it your all, and your suffering will be repaid many times over.
Case 3: Education.
What people ought to do: Adopt a free market in education.
My actual position: A high fraction of education teaches no useful jobs skills; instead, it’s largely socially wasteful signaling. Government support for education is like government subsidies for air pollution; they encourage additional production of a good that the free market already overproduces relative to the efficient level. A first-best efficient education policy would actually tax education; but given public choice problems, the wisest course is to eliminate government support and rely on laissez-faire.
The convenient position: Excellent education is overwhelmingly important for the future of our country and our economy. The free market is the best way to deliver this excellence, just as it already does in so many other areas.
In real-world politics, convenient positions seem vastly more influential than true positions – even (especially?) when they’re just not true. Counter-examples?