Campus Progress is now Generation Progress! Find out more »


Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan

SOURCE: August Pollak

George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan thinks you have no idea what you’re talking about when it comes to economics. You don’t instinctively understand the market, you distrust unfiltered free trade, and you care too much about equality at the expense of growth. Your concern with corporate responsibility is misguided and your pessimism is just a psychological marker completely lacking reason. And because of this, we’d all be better off if you didn’t participate in economic decision-making. People like Caplan know what’s best for you. Trust them, they’re economists.

Columnist Jonah Goldberg, “20/20” co-anchor John Stossel, and former presidential economic advisor Gregory Mankiw have all praised Caplan’s work. He’s been getting a lot of mainstream coverage in places like the The New York Times Magazine and the The New Yorker in addition to right-leaning publications from The Economist to the The National Review. Caplan’s new book is called The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. As Chris Hayes of The Nation writes about Caplan’s work, "People tend to like books that dress up their biases in fancy statistics." At a recent Cato Institute panel on Caplan’s book, the audience wasn’t just full of libertarian cranks. It was packed with a mix of government agency employees, think tank scholars, academics, and embassy workers. To progressive audiences, Caplan’s elitist libertarianism might seem strange, but he is gaining an audience among people with real power.

Caplan wrote an “intellectual autobiography” that explains his journey into libertarianism. "It began with Ayn Rand, as it proverbially does," he writes. His friend convinced him to read a passage from Atlas Shrugged in an eleventh grade journalism class. He later finished the thousand-plus page tome in "three largely sleepless nights” and promptly requested materials from libertarian mailing lists.

Caplan attended the University of California-Berkeley, where he majored in economics and minored in philosophy. The summer before he started graduate school at Princeton, an internship with the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung in Germany fell through and he ended up interning with the Institute for Humane Studies in Fairfax, VA. Tyler Cowen, a George Mason professor who was then a weekly speaker at the IHS, befriended Caplan and told him to keep George Mason in mind when he finished his Ph.D. in economics. Cowen’s advice turned out to be sound enough. After finishing his degree, George Mason was the only institution to offer him a position and he continues to teach there today.

Caplan’s book basically argues that the vast majority of Americans are not simply ignorant, but rather possess four irrational biases: (1) an anti-market bias that underestimates the benefits of free market capitalism; (2) an anti-foreign bias that underestimates benefits of interaction with foreigners; (3) a make-work bias that overestimates the danger of unemployment; and (4) a pessimistic bias that overestimates the severity of economic problems. He argues that citizens often vote for economic policies that harm the country’s economy. To remedy this problem, Caplan suggests limiting the scope of democratic decision-making and leaving economic policy to be decided by experts.

But as liberal economist Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute recently wrote in The American Prospect, Caplan’s biggest problem is that "he fails to show that his version of economics gives us the optimal policies." His "anti-market bias" argument, for example, criticizes progressives for focusing too heavily on motives rather than results, but he obscures the often remarkable levels of corruption and greed guiding decisions that in fact don’t end with optimal results for society. And his "anti-foreign bias" seems directed equally at xenophobes on the right and anti-globalization activists on the left, but in the latter case there is hardly anything anti-foreign about it at all. Progressive critics of “free trade” don’t distrust foreigners. If anything, they simply distrust corporations that have long histories of exploiting foreign workers—something Caplan refuses to even acknowledge, let alone adequately address.

Caplan’s argument is intriguing on its surface because few can deny that the average voter knows far too little about politics or economics. But that isn’t exactly what Caplan is saying. He says voters are not only ignorant but systematically biased against his set of policy solutions. Voters may not always make the best choices, but democracy is about more than just the “right” outcomes. Even a Wall Street Journal writer has declared:

For [Caplan], democracy fails because it doesn’t produce the most economically efficient results. He would prefer to see independent experts shape policy or to put more power into the hands of the unelected solons on the Supreme Court. Such a strategy might be more efficient, but then again, American democracy has never been about efficiency.

His website also pays a strange homage to what he calls the Museum of Communism. According to the site, "The tyranny and atrocities of Nazi Germany have been justly condemned by world opinion for over 50 years. But it is only recently that Communist despotism has begun to receive remotely similar attention." As so often happens when economic conservatives discuss the atrocities of Soviet-style rule, Caplan uses this peg to slander the left.

Calling communism "a grand theoretical synthesis of totalitarianism," Caplan leaves no confusion as to his intentions: "The roots of Communism lie squarely in the works of philosopher Karl Marx." Marx, of course, was not a mass-murderer, nor do his theoretical writings share any of the blame for what leaders like Stalin decided to do after his death. Despite Caplan’s deep intelligence, his site shows he has an occasional tendency to behave like a conspiracy theorist nut.

Caplan contributes to a blog called EconLog: Library of Economics and Liberty. There, he provides analytical, often contrarian commentary on mostly economic matters. On it, he had a surprisingly apt explanation of his libertarianism:

Through the lens of the Jock/Nerd Theory of History, the welfare state doesn’t look like a serious effort to "equalize outcomes." It looks more like a serious effort to block the "revenge of the nerds"—to keep them from using their financial success to unseat the jocks on every dimension of social status.

Caplan definitely sees himself fitting into the “nerd” role of this dichotomy. His personal George Mason web page comes complete with low-quality images and bulky text that is reminiscent of a middle-school Geocities webpage circa 1995. On it, he cites his favorite movies: “21 Grams,” “Amores Perros,” and “South Park: Bigger, Longer& Uncut.” He admits “Hero Games” is his latest role-playing game obsession, and even authored a PDF-only graphic novel called Amore Infernale.

Caplan is determined to let the nerds have their revenge. In his world view, the rich got rich because they deserved to get rich. Those that get left behind will get by when the success of those at the top trickles down to the bottom. But rich and poor aren’t respectively nerds and jocks. Increased productivity is not necessarily distributed in an equitable manner, nor is wealth always built through the market: Often enough, people become wealthy through social privilege and blind luck. But Caplan ignores these realities.

At least Caplan is honest about his elitist tendencies. "In a modern democracy, not only can a libertarian be elitist; a libertarian has to be elitist," he wrote. "To be a libertarian in a modern democracy is to say that nearly 300 million Americans are wrong, and a handful of nay-sayers are right." Caplan’s ideology is free-market libertarianism taken to extremes, which Chris Hayes has aptly summarized for In These Times. He writes:

Caplan’s willingness to embrace the darkness, however, is what makes this book so important: It articulates in lurid detail the obscene id of Chicago-school, Grover-Norquist-style, free market fundamentalism (a term Caplan spends a chapter rebutting). Given a choice between democracy without free markets or free markets without democracy, many conservatives would gladly choose the latter.

America’s history of literacy tests and poll taxes aimed at preventing the poorest and least educated in society from voting means Caplan’s stance is uncomfortable at best. He dresses up blatant biases in academic credibility, and the fact that his radical theories are actually taken seriously among elite and powerful audiences is something that progressives should be paying attention to.

Steven White blogs at

Like this article?

Facebook Twitter Tumblr Email
By clicking and submitting a comment I acknowledge the Privacy Policy and agree to the Terms of Use. I understand that my comments are also being governed by Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, or Hotmail’s Terms of Use and Privacy Policies as applicable, which can be found here.