Who Is Tyler's Reference Group?
By Bryan Caplan
As soon as I saw Tyler’s latest post on “Why the Theory of Comparative Advantage is Overrated,” I asked myself, “Overrated by whom?” The theory clearly isn’t overrated by the 95%+ of American adults who have no idea what the theory even is. It’s not overrated by the politicians or journalists who think and talk in terms of zero-sum folk mercantilism. Nor is it overrated by the bulk of economists who totally ignore its single most important application: immigration. So what reference group does Tyler really has in mind?
I’ve asked him related questions before. For example, when he says, “We know X,” I’ve asked him, “Who exactly knows X?” His initial answer was along the lines of, “Daily readers of the New York Times,” but that’s absurd. Millions read the NYT. Most of them are normal humans who quickly forget what they read. And since stories above the human interest level require heavy background knowledge to understand, readers rarely even grasp stories well enough to forget them.
A more accurate answer might be, “A daily reader of the New York Times with a photographic memory and the background knowledge to understand all the stories.” But not only is this standard comically high; it still defines Tyler’s imagined reference group too broadly. Yes, to comprehend every story in the NYT, you probably need passing familiar with the theory of comparative advantage. But this hardly makes you likely to seriously reflect on the theory, much less overate it.
“Academic economists” and “public policy wonks” are also candidate reference groups. But Tyler knows as well as I do that both of these groups have massive blind spots. Most academic economists fails to apply the lessons of comparative advantage to immigration. Most policy wonks are too pragmatic to appeal to grand theories of trade. So neither of these groups works either.
Who then really is Tyler’s reference group? “The GMU lunch crowd” wouldn’t be a bad answer. But the best answer, in my view, is “younger versions of Tyler himself.” When Tyler says, “We overrate X,” what he really means is “I used to overrate X. Here’s how I went wrong.” Once you know about Tyler’s dramatic and continuing intellectual evolution, it’s hard to interpret him any other way.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this navel-gazing standard. But using “we” interchangeably with “younger versions of me” is pedagogically extraordinarily confusing, especially when younger versions of you were, like all of Tyler’s avatars, deeply unconventional thinkers. Younger versions of Tyler might have overrated comparative advantage. But does Tyler really think that the typical reader of any audience he’s ever addressed overrated the theory? Inquiring minds want to know.