SDB and Me: An Autobiographical Exploration
By Bryan Caplan
The two earliest centers of Social Desirability Bias in my life were Beckford Elementary and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic church. In school, they told us an endless stream of absurdities – things like, “We’re all going to be great at X!,” “We all take great pride in our school!,” “No one works harder than our teachers,” and so on. I don’t think it bothered me at first. But even in kindergarten, I couldn’t help but notice that not everyone was great at everything. By the time I was in third grade, I knew there were plenty of students who didn’t take pride in the school, and knew of several notoriously lazy teachers.
In catechism, similarly, our Catholic instructors talked a lot about how “We all love each other” even though standard cruel childhood behavior was much in evidence. I noticed the disconnect almost immediately. Once I had my first communion in third grade, I attended weekly Sunday mass, and heard the priests talk at length about “Devoting our lives wholly to God,” “Loving everyone,” “Turning the other cheek,” and “Taking everything you own and giving it to the poor.” Normally, of course, the priests were exhorting us to repent and heed this advice, but they never pointed out that zero parishioners – themselves included – literally complied with any of these exhortations.
As I grew older, I became ever more cynical about school and church. Nobel Junior High School was full of apathetic students, with a noticeable presence of stoners (or at least stoner-wannabees). But the teachers and administrators talked as if we were all eagerly learning together. The P.E. teachers were a notable exception; they openly sneered at the trouble-makers who refused to dress for gym, and freely berated poor athletes like myself – not just for lack of effort, but lack of talent as well. Church, similarly, was agonizingly boring; even now, Morrissey’s “Everyday is Like Sunday” resonates with me. And I obviously wasn’t alone; sitting in the pews, I saw bored children and adults in all directions. But everyone from the priest to my mom spoke as if we were all sharing spiritual ecstasy. And no one acknowledged the cavernous gap between the Sermon on the Mount and the behavior of every person we knew.
By high school, I was loudly and aggressively pointing out the sugar-coated lies of educational and religious authorities. If the principal droned, “I am sure that all Highlanders will try their very best on this week’s standardized exams” over the P.A., I couldn’t wait to sneer, “And I’m sure that the vast majority of Highlanders will barely try at all!” If the priest sanctimoniously announced, “In this coming week we will devote our thoughts entirely to Christ,” I couldn’t wait to scoff to my mom, “More like devote our thoughts entirely to watching t.v.” My friends tended to find my remarks amusing but repetitive. My mom didn’t like them one bit, but she didn’t punish me as long as I sullenly accompanied her to church. By now, I called myself a “cynic.”
At the time, I was an aspiring English professor, or possibly novelist. While fantasy was my go-to genre, I also loved literature that candidly described the world as it really was, instead of sugarcoating. Works like Huckleberry Finn and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar come to mind. It was only in 11th-grade, however, that I heard of authors who were… gasp… atheists. And the name I kept hearing whispered was… Friedrich Nietzsche. At the library, I discovered a dog-eared yet strangely beautiful edition of Thus Spake Zarathustra; this very translation, if I’m not mistaken.
Zarathustra was a revelation. On so many topics, Nietzsche poetically scoffed at crowd-pleasing nonsense. I loved it – and antagonized friends and family by incessantly quoting it. A century earlier, Nietzsche had declared war on SDB, without knowing the name. When he said, “I love the great despisers, because they are the great adorers, and arrows of longing for the other shore,” I gushed, “He’s talking about me!”
Nietzsche on religion:
“On mine honour, my friend,” answered Zarathustra, “there is nothing of all that whereof thou speakest: there is no devil and no hell. Thy soul will be dead even sooner than thy body: fear, therefore, nothing any more!”
Nietzsche on democracy:
A state? What is that? Well! open now your ears unto me, for now will I say unto you my word concerning the death of peoples.
A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”
Nietzsche on government generally:
But the state lieth in all languages of good and evil; and whatever it saith it lieth; and whatever it hath it hath stolen.
Nietzsche on his own followers:
Ye venerate me; but what if your veneration should some day collapse? Take heed lest a statue crush you!
Ye say, ye believe in Zarathustra? But of what account is Zarathustra! Ye are my believers: but of what account are all believers!
Ye had not yet sought yourselves: then did ye find me. So do all believers; therefore all belief is of so little account.
In hindsight, I freely admit, Nietzsche was also playing fast and loose with the truth. To call him a “philosopher” is a misnomer; he barely offered arguments and made minimal effort to anticipate or respond to thoughtful criticism. Nietzsche was a great poet, but a poet nonetheless. Still, his odes against SDB spoke to me; a brilliant, famous man saw the same disconnect between popular platitudes and harsh reality that I did.
Later that year, I was excited to hear about another atheist author who had only died a few years earlier. Her name was Ayn Rand, and the first piece of hers I ever read was Francisco d’Anconia’s speech on money. It started off with a critique of Christian ethics:
“So you think that money is the root of all evil?” said Francisco d’Anconia. “Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?
“Or did you say it’s the love of money that’s the root of all evil? To love a thing is to know and love its nature. To love money is to know and love the fact that money is the creation of the best power within you, and your passkey to trade your effort for the effort of the best among men. It’s the person who would sell his soul for a nickel, who is loudest in proclaiming his hatred of money–and he has good reason to hate it. The lovers of money are willing to work for it. They know they are able to deserve it.”
“Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil. That sentence is the leper’s bell of an approaching looter. So long as men live together on earth and need means to deal with one another–their only substitute, if they abandon money, is the muzzle of a gun.”
My teachers’ heroes were left-wing politicians like FDR. My priests’ heroes were Christian zealots like St. Paul. Rand rolled her eye at both – and said that her heroes were businesspeople.
“To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a country of money — and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement. For the first time, man’s mind and money were set free, and there were no fortunes-by-conquest, but only fortunes-by-work, and instead of swordsmen and slaves, there appeared the real maker of wealth, the greatest worker, the highest type of human being — the self-made man–the American industrialist.
Within a year, I read almost every word she wrote. Nietzsche was long-forgotten. Rand defied SDB on virtually every issue – and I loved her for it. My lingering worry was that she was economically confused. Could laissez-faire capitalism actually work in practice?
To resolve these doubts, I started studying economics. I began with the Rand-approved Austrians, then moved on to mainstream neoclassical economics and behavioral economics. And within each of these intellectual traditions, I discovered novel defiance of Social Desirability Bias.
Austrians broadly shared Rand’s commitment to laissez-faire capitalism. Mainstream economics, in contrast, helped me see many of Rand’s inadequacies and errors. But carefully interpreted, even left-wing interpretations of mainstream economic theory damn the status quo as a parade of counter-productive and grossly suboptimal policies. Neoclassical economics’ slogan that “Actions speak louder than words” is an intellectual vaccine against SDB. And while social scientists often use behavioral economics to intellectually retrofit standard SDB rationales for government intervention, you can easily use the same framework to criticize government intervention itself. And of course public choice theory, which imputes properly cynical motivations to politicians, is another sharp stake in the heart of SDB. That’s right, you can’t trust politicians to use power for the good of society; instead, you can count on politicians to use power to get more power.
What public choice failed to say loudly and clearly is that voters’ SDB is the key ingredient that makes democracy so inefficient. SDB drives a wedge between public policy and ugly truths about trade-offs and incentives. SDB is what makes people prefer evil controlling politicians to pragmatic live-and-let-live businesspeople. This is basically what I said in my first book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, though I was still unfamiliar with the psych research and terminology of SDB. With 20/20 hindsight, however, I can say that all of my books revolve around the rejecting of specific expressions of SDB – as well as the whole underlying mentality.
Take my second book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. While twin and adoption research affirms the power heredity over upbringing, that doesn’t sound good. Neither does economic reasoning about the relationship between parental effort and optimal family size. SDB says nonsense like, “Kids can do anything they set their minds to!” and “Just follow your heart.”
The Case Against Education, published in 2018, was my first book to explicitly use SDB to explain the global dominance of education subsidies and the intellectual dominance of the human capital model. Writing it brought me back to elementary school, when I first noticed the chasm between official school rhetoric and actual school experience. Teachers, parents, and politicians all speak as if kids are learning useful skills from dawn to dusk. The actual evidence, in contrast, confirms that education is mostly signaling. As I often say, education is not so much job training as a passport to the real job training, which happens on the job.
My last book, Open Borders, challenges SDB more directly. Most pro-immigration “arguments” focus on emotionally-charged vignettes about particular immigrants. Instead of actually responding to criticism about the broader social effects of immigration, they offer bittersweet biographies of immigrants. I have nothing against such biographies, but what do they really show about optimal immigration policy? Next to nothing. Open Borders, in contrast, focuses almost entirely on arguments.
While writing these books, I’ve also been raising four kids. And I’m proud to say that I’ve successfully raised them without SDB. When my kids ask me questions, however uncomfortable, I either tell them the unvarnished truth or shrug, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” I love without lies, and as a result my kids trust me and distrust society. As well they should.