My Two Modes
By Bryan Caplan
Sometimes I wonder if I’m an extreme cynic or an extreme idealist. The truth is that I’m both. My mind works in two different modes.
I enter my idealist mode whenever someone proposes a reform that could plausibly make the world better. I’m extremely open to the idea that the status quo is horrible, so even obvious ideas would be great improvements… if tried.
I realize, of course, that many so-called reforms have been bad, but I consider the most notorious failures to have been easily foreseeable. Anyone with common sense should have expected Marxism to lead to famine and border guards with machine guns. And to a large extent, this foreseeability works in reverse. I am extremely confident, for example, that legalizing the market for human organs will save lives and reduce poverty without appreciable negative consequences.
Unlike most idealists, however, I do not expect even premium ideas to come to pass. As soon as someone describes a way to make a good idea a reality, I enter my cynical mode: It’s not gonna happen.
Businesspeople rarely adopt good new ideas because regulators won’t let them. Regulators rarely approve good new ideas because they’re playing “Red light we continue our cushy lives, green light we risk making enemies or drawing unwanted attention.” Politicians rarely overrule regulators because they face similar asymmetric incentives: Our leaders’ status quo is very pleasant, and any major change courts voter disapproval. And voters, of course, are hopelessly irrational, impervious to the best of arguments. Talking to the general public is like talking to a neurotic brick wall.
Take organ selling. Businesspeople won’t try it because it’s illegal. Regulators and politicians won’t allow organ selling because they foresee an angry public backlash. The public so reacts because it is willfully economically illiterate. And so the status quo will continue indefinitely. Please don’t be angry at me for saying such things; I am only a messenger.
When social scientists grasp both of my modes, they’re often incredulous. What’s the point of devising wonderful reforms that will never happen? Part of my reply is that I still hope to tip policy in a slightly better direction. But my deeper reply is that knowledge of how the world ought to be has immense intrinsic value. Without such knowledge, even the most beautiful Bubble is woefully incomplete. And I derive deep satisfaction from spreading such enlightenment to a small but vibrant intellectual counter-culture.
This obviously isn’t my first choice. I’d love to see good ideas triumph. But I am content knowing that someone somewhere realizes that there is a better way.
Update: Dan Klein reminded me about this excellent piece on organ markets.