I’m currently writing replies to eight critiques of my book for a forthcoming issue of Critical Review. In Jon Elster and Helene Landemore’s critique, they raise the self-referential objection: Doesn’t your book’s thesis apply to you? This reminded me that an earlier draft of the book had a whole section on this subject – and inspired me to dig it up from my archives.


So far I have neglected the question likely to loom largest in the minds of philosophically inclined readers. Anyone who says that “Human beings are irrational” opens himself up to the deduction “Since you’re a human being yourself, on your own theory you’re irrational too.” It is easy to dispose of this simplest version of the objection: When I say “Human beings are irrational” I mean that “Most human beings are irrational some of the time,” not “All human beings are always irrational.” But the careful reader can construct a better version of the self-referential objection, something along the lines of:

Caplan says that people tend to be irrational on questions where there are no direct material costs of being wrong. But there are no direct material costs to Caplan of being wrong on most if not all of the questions he addresses in this book. Even if he is utterly mistaken, he will continue to receive his salary for the rest of his tenured existence. Admittedly, this is only a “tendency,” but considering the fact that Caplan has gone to the trouble of writing a book on this topic, he probably has a big emotional investment in his answer.


I could offer numerous “cheap-talk” reassurances. I could tell you that what really motivates me is the desire to be right, not just to feel right. I might also point out several instances where I changed my mind in spite of the fact that my initial belief was emotionally comforting and materially cheap. My first academic publication explained why the Austrian economists who introduced me to the economics discipline have little to add that is both original and true. My closest friends will vouch that I prefer the company of insightful critics to admiring followers.

But I doubt that any of this would or should convince a rational outside observer…

So what would convince a rational outside observer? Reading the whole thing, of course!

P.S. I fixed the broken link. Sorry. 🙂