Me, Gilens, and Salon
By Bryan Caplan
Last year I wrote a series of posts (here, here, and here) arguing that Martin Gilens‘ evidence on the disproportionate influence of the rich on U.S. public policy is very good news indeed. Long story short:
I find Gilens’ results not only intellectually satisfying, but hopeful.
If his results hold up, we know another important reason why policy is
less statist than expected: Democracies listen to the relatively
libertarian rich far more than they listen to the absolutely statist
non-rich. And since I think that statist policy preferences rest on a
long list of empirical and normative mistakes, my sincere reaction is to
say, “Thank goodness.” Democracy as we know it is bad enough.
Democracy that really listened to all the people would be an
Now these posts have inspired an amusing Salon profile of me, written by the New America Foundation’s Michael Lind. While Steven White’s 2007 profile of me for Generation Progress showed deeper understanding and better eye for detail, Lind’s summary of my views is largely accurate and rather flattering. Lind:
Can Caplan fill the philosophical void left by Nozick’s defection
from libertarianism? I think he can. In what follows I will make the
case for what might be called Caplanism, recognizing that Caplan himself
might not be consistent enough to follow the logic of his own thinking
to its conclusions. (Marx claimed he was not a Marxist).
The great contribution of Caplanism to libertarian thought and argument is the observation that democracy, if sufficiently corrupted by the rich,
might — just might — be tolerable. Let us call this equivalent of
Kant’s Categorical Imperative or the Maximin Principle of John Rawls Caplan’s Tolerability Principle.
libertarianism is incompatible with democracy is an empirical
observation on which libertarians can agree with progressives, centrists
and non-libertarian conservatives. After all, in every modern
democracy, including the U.S., government tends to account for somewhere
between 35 and 50 percent of GDP on such “national socialism” (to use
Caplan’s terms) as universal health care, minimum public pensions and
Money can’t buy publicity like this:
Caplanism represents a great philosophical breakthrough for the
Koch-subsidized intelligentsia of the libertarian right. Caplanism
allows libertarians to embrace both Pinochet’s Chile and the United
States, without contradiction, on the grounds that in both Pinochet’s
Chile and today’s United States the preferences of the rich have trumped
those of the majority.
Caplanism also frees libertarian scholars
like Caplan himself from being embarrassed about the fact that almost
all of them are paid, directly or indirectly, by a handful of angry,
arrogant rich guys who fund anti-government propaganda because they
think they are overtaxed. Caplanism allows the subsidized libertarian
intelligentsia to declare, “Yes, we are indeed spokesmen for plutocracy —
and a good thing, too, because a plutocratic democracy is the only kind
of democracy worth having!”
For all of these reasons, I believe
that Bryan Caplan deserves to be studied as one of the most
representative thinkers of our money-dominated era. Our squalid age of
plutocratic democracy has found a thinker worthy of it.
Yes, it would have been nice if Lind talked more about where I go wrong, and he gratuitously insults many fellow libertarians. But as a firm believer in the adages “All publicity is good publicity,” and “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” I’m not only pleased, but grateful.