The Learning of the Wise
By Bryan Caplan
Non-economists often advertise their ignorance of economics. Debate opponent Ron Unz is the latest to cross my path:
Now, you know, I’m laboring under a disadvantage in this debate because not only am I not a trained economist, I’ve never even taken a class in economics.
I’ve never even opened an economics textbook. I personally don’t claim to really understand most economics. I’m not convinced everybody else understands economics that well either.
The subtext is that Unz had better things to do than study yet another dubious subject. Many of my fellow economists would have jumped on his admission: “Unz begins by telling us that he knows nothing about economics – and then proceeds to prove it.” But we economists should be more circumspect. Most of us ignore psychology, sociology, political science, history, education, philosophy and other subject matters relevant to our research. Some economists even revel in their ignorance; they can’t pronounce the words “psychology” or “sociology” without scare quotes or sneer italics.
If pressed, most of these monodisciplinary economists would echo Unz: They don’t study other subjects because their time is valuable, and the expected value of broadening their horizons is low. If other subjects had useful lessons to teach, economists would have already heard about them, right?
The obvious retort to such economists is: Do psychologists and sociologists have little learn from us? Every self-respecting economist must respond, “Bite your tongue; psychologists and sociologists have plenty to learn from economics.” Once you admit that every field other than economics suffers from complacent groupthink, though, you really have to ask yourself, “Is economics any better?”
How would you find out? There are two obvious routes.
1. Seek out other economists who have seriously explored other fields. Yes, this suffers from selection bias – the economists who seriously explore other fields tend to be sympathetic to those fields. But such explorers remain useful guides. When you visit France, you want the author of your tourist book to be a Francophile.
2. See for yourself. Branch out to other subjects and see what you learn.
My claim: Both of these routes will quickly reveal ideas worthy of your consideration. Forty hours of reading – one week’s work – will suffice. You’ll encounter a lot of junk along the way. But you won’t return to your intellectual home territory empty-handed. You will learn a lot even if you study subjects that seem phony and corrupt. Why? Because in the midst of phoniness and corruption, there are always dissident voices eager to speak out. Seek them and you shall find them. Once you give the dissidents a fair hearing, of course, you may start to see their targets in a more sympathetic light.
Anyone can say, “I never studied X because I wasn’t convinced it would be worth my time.” If someone genuinely seeks wisdom, though, they will set a much lower bar. Like: “I studied X because I wasn’t convinced that it wasn’t worth my time.” Or: “I studied X because I thought there was a 10% chance X was right.” Or: “I studied X because I was mortally afraid of overlooking whatever nuggets of truth X contains.” If you really want to understand the world, you have to value your time less and your learning more. Study every subject that seems vaguely relevant. If a field has a bad reputation, see for yourself whether its reputation is deserved. And even if a field deserves its bad reputation, seek out honorable exceptions.
Should everyone adopt this demanding standards? Of course not. But if you’re a consumer of ideas, you need not settle for thinkers who proudly declare that they have
better things to do than become deeply knowledgeable about the topics they
discuss. Wisdom does not come cheap, but the marketplace of ideas is full of thinkers who eagerly pay the full price. Such thinkers will often freely admit that they’ve spent years of their lives studying ideas of little value. (I know I have!) If you’re a consumer of ideas, however, you shouldn’t worry about how much time the wise have wasted, but how much the wise have learned.