A lot of the “birthday appreciations” I’ve written have been about scholars who are either close to the ends of their careers or dead. Today, I want to single out a scholar who has taught me a lot from afar and who is, as of this writing, neither: Bryan Caplan of George Mason University. If I searched everything I’ve written since finishing graduate school, Caplan’s name would probably come up most frequently.
Caplan is the author of four books that have changed the way I look at the world. In 2007, Princeton University Press published his book The Myth of the Rational Voter. His second book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, helped inspire me to start the Julian Simon Club. In 2018 and 2019, he published The Case Against Education and the graphic novel Open Borders (with Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoonist Zach Weinersmith). In it, he laid out the economic case for open borders. I just realized I have reviewed them all. Mike Hammock and I wrote a review of The Myth of the Rational Voter for the Journal of Economics (not available online, as far as I know, but you can find this aforementioned paper inspired by Caplan’s book on SSRN). I reviewed Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids for Forbes.com, The Case Against Education for Forbes.com again, and Open Borders for AIER. His book in progress is Poverty: Who’s to Blame? I look forward to reading it and reviewing it when it is published, but here is a talk he gave at the Institute of Economic Affairs in which he laid out his thesis and his preliminary assessment of the evidence.
Just from the titles of his books, it’s pretty obvious that he likes to take on very big, very controversial issues. Importantly, he follows the theory and evidence wherever they lead him, and he has very high standards for what will convince him. Democracy? It’s not magic: we have a lot of bad public policies because people vote for them enthusiastically and have weak incentives to substitute rational for irrational beliefs. Importantly, this isn’t a “special interests rule everything around me” story. Caplan wants to understand why people vote enthusiastically for policies that produce results that are bad by the voters’ own standards. Tariffs, for example, won’t Make America Great Again, and yet they remain democratically popular.
In his 2011 book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, he moved toward work that synthesizes large and seemingly disparate bodies of research and then offers an economist’s interpretation. “Being a great parent,” he argues, “is less work and more fun than you think” largely because a lot of the things we do to make our kids better or smarter or whatever don’t have long-run effects. You can, in short, safely skip over the Baby Einstein DVDs without worrying that you’re compromising your kids’ chances at a decent life.
In 2018, he went after one of society’s most sacred cows by criticizing education subsidies. In The Case Against Education, he argues that massive cuts to higher education subsidies are justified by the fact that a substantial amount of the return to schooling comes from signaling rather than skill-building. Taking a course in Shakespeare doesn’t actually make the marginal student a better writer, a better thinker, or really even a better person. It merely signals that they’re the kind of person who is a good enough worker bee to get through college. I had originally written “Learning Shakespeare,” but Caplan summarizes evidence that we tend to forget things we don’t practice. Few of us who had to memorize Hamlet’s soliloquy in high school or college can remember it or can even get past the first few lines. It is rank heresy in the social-desirability-bias-infused world of higher education, but he makes a very strong case that deals with standard objections about learning how to learn, learning how to think, becoming a well-rounded person, and so on quite ably.
Poverty: Who’s to Blame? promises to be controversial. As he has argued in lectures he has given on the book’s themes, we can blame third-world governments for lousy policy and first-world governments for immigration restrictions. So far, so good. The most controversial part of the book will be where he argues that if someone could have taken reasonable steps to prevent their plight, then they themselves are to blame. I expect this part of the book to be just as popular with the “personal responsibility” right as it is unpopular with the “you’re blaming the victim!” left.
His most recent book is co-authored with Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoonist Zach Weinersmith (I review it here). As with his other books, he summarizes and synthesizes a mountain of moral philosophy, political theory, and empirical economics research to make the case that it should be a lot easier for people to move from one country to another. Indeed, the biggest source of resource misallocation in the world today is that too much low-skill labor is trapped in unproductive places. Caplan is realistic enough to know that he won’t convince everyone–or even most readers–but he and Weinersmith make a valiant and creative effort.
Beyond his scholarship and commentary, Caplan is a model of intellectual discipline and humility. Taking his inspiration from Julian Simon, he is an avid bettor. Being a self-described “fundamentalist Tetlockian” (as in the University of Pennsylvania’s Philip E. Tetlock) has served him well. He is undefeated in his public bets.
Caplan is also a frequent (and extremely charitable) debater. He has debated socialism with several opponents (John Marsh, Bryan Leiter, and Elizabeth Bruenig), democracy with Donald Wittman, immigration with Mark Krikorian, Austrian economics with Peter Boettke, and education with Edward Glaeser. I’m sure his ongoing project on poverty will spur another round of debates.
Bryan Caplan is a model intellectual citizen and a model scholar. Because of his influence, I am a better economist and scholar, but importantly I am also a better husband, father, and friend. If you’re looking to sharpen your mind during a time when the world seems to be going crazy, Bryan Caplan’s commentary is a very good place to start.
Happy birthday, Bryan Caplan. May there be many, many more.