Where I Dissent from Nathan Smith
By Bryan Caplan
My former student Nathan Smith has published a gracious critique of yours truly. Since he begins his critique with generous praise, let me do the same: Nathan Smith is probably the most brilliant Ph.D. student I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach. When he was in Micro II, I repeatedly suppressed the urge to hand him the chalk and go home.
Now for the substance. Nathan poses a thoughtful critique of my common-sense epistemology:
In his book Myth of the Rational Voter,
Caplan writes as an unabashed epistemic elitist. His thesis is that
democracy is vitiated by the “rational irrationality” of voters, who
indulge their biases (the make-work bias, the anti-market bias, the
pessimistic bias, and the anti-foreign bias) because their vote won’t
affect election outcomes anyway, so they have no incentive to make
sensible choices at the ballot box, as opposed of doing whatever feels
good. That voters have these particular biases, Caplan establishes by
looking at survey data and showing how the views of ordinary people on
the economy deviate from those of economists, who presumably know
better. His assumption here is that experts know best, and that voters’
disagreements with the experts are evidence of voters’ (not experts’)
But lately, Caplan seems more and more to position himself as a champion of common sense. He extols philosopher Michael Huemer for building a political philosophy on “common-sense morality,” and makes a “common sense case for pacifism,”
which strikes me as merely evasive since it isn’t utilitarian, but
rather seems to take a type of natural rights line that would lead to
something close to Tolstoyan pacifist-anarchism, which however he
arbitrarily stops short of, calling it “too broad.” This common-sense
philosophy seems to be the platform from which Caplan attacks theories
favored among the elite, such as John Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Now,
if Caplan had simply said that sometimes the common sense of ordinary
people is right, against the experts, and sometimes the experts are
right, against the common-sense of ordinary people, there would be no
inconsistency. We’d presume that neither source of knowledge is
epistemically foundational in itself, and look for other sources that
are. But as general epistemic principles, “trust the experts” and “rely
on common sense” are a bit inconsistent. If they are to think clearly
and follow the evidence where it leads, experts need to be able to
reject common-sense opinions sometimes. Conversely, if a maverick
intellectual like Caplan wants to reject this or that elite
consensus with an appeal to common sense, isn’t he obliged to defer to
the opinion of the common man on other questions, too, including
questions where common sense doesn’t support him?
My reply: Common-sense always comes first. But epistemic elitism is common sense. Consider these propositions:
1. When very smart people disagree with people who aren’t so smart, the very smart people are probably right.
2. When people who have studied a subject for a long time disagree with people who haven’t studied it, the people who have studied it for a long time are probably right.
These two claims are the heart of epistemic elitism – and both are common sense! Common sense would of course revolt against the idea that high intelligence or years of study guarantee correctness. But I’ve always been careful to emphasize that my epistemic elitism is merely a presumption.
How can one overcome the presumption in favor of brainy experts? The same way we unseat any common-sense view: By showing it conflicts with even more common-sensical claims. That’s why a major part of my project is to show that basic economics is common sense. Not, of course, in the sense that “the common man accepts it,” but that the common man would accept it if he calmed down, controlled his Social Desirability Bias, and built on what he can verify with his own two eyes. If this sounds like a tall order, I’m hardly the first person to remark that common sense is not so common.
Nathan’s critique also criticizes my view that a free society rests most securely on the cultural foundation of moderate benevolence and cosmopolitan tolerance – and provides ample historical commentary to buttress his critique. On the history, I outsource my reply to Carl Shulman’s extended comments on the Open Borders Action Group. But I would add that Nathan uses the term “tolerance” somewhat oddly. A typical passage:
The Roman Empire acted to defend the civic unity expressed in the
imperial cult, but its general attitude was one of tolerance, of live
and let live. It tolerated a labyrinth of religions and cults, it
tolerated prostitution, it tolerated social practices like slavery and
Suppose someone tries to mug you. You forcibly resist. One could that, “You’re intolerant of mugging.” But “intolerant” seems like the wrong English word. Similarly, to yawn in the face of slavery or infanticide is not “tolerance” in any normal sense, but “callousness.” What puzzles me about Nathan’s treatment is that he bundles together normal and idiosyncratic uses of the word “tolerance,” and then uses his strange bundle to argue that tolerance is overrated.