Bryan Caplan: The Man Who Made Economics Cool

Posted by: on Oct 15, 2015 | No Comments

This young professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at Mercatus Center is not afraid to brandish his ideas in circles outside academia. While he may not be as prolific as many traditional academicians, his methods are more popular. A blogger at EconLog, he has written on subjects as diverse as homeschooling, open borders and even the relationship between betting and libertarianism. His books, The Myth of the Rational Voter and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, espouse theories that offer a clean break from current practices and are lucid enough to warrant the acclaim that they have received. Most of all, his theories are appealing because the average person can relate to them. They are not obscure formulations that are made to obtain the approbation of the already enlightened, they are meant to enlighten those that are not there yet.

Pacifism and Open Borders

His general appeal can be surmised to lie in the fact that he uses a self-confessed “common-sense case” to arrive at his beliefs. That is how he claims to have derived the three steps owing to which he aligns himself with the pacifists. The steps include acknowledging simple facts like the immediate costs of war are awful, the long-run effects of war are highly uncertain and that for a war to be morally justified, its long run benefits have to be much larger than its short term costs. Add to this the fact that despite the already skewed findings of the case in favour of pacifism in the short term, there will be even more unforeseen long term costs that generations will bear, and there is no rational way in which you can justify war.

In addition, Caplan is also one of the leading proponents of open borders as he believes that immigration restrictions perpetuate poverty and restrict individual freedom. His radical resolution for this is, “Let anyone take a job anywhere.” By saying this, he favours high skilled, high tech workers from anywhere in the world, who should be legally allowed to take a job anywhere from a willing employer. He clarifies that this is not the same as saying that anyone should be allowed to become a citizen anywhere.

An Anarcho-Capitalist

Bryan Caplan clearly traces his influences to the Austrian School and stalwarts like Murray Rothbard and the Chicago School academician, David D Friedman. He supports their ideas of a stateless society and also aligns himself with theories of anarcho capitalism, as espoused by Michael Heumer. He has authored a book with Peter Jaworski, called Markets Without Limits, in which the primary thesis is that any service that can be given away for free, one may sell for money. The flipside of this is that anything that cannot be deemed proper objects of sale, are things that should not be done or had anyway. Therefore, the theories that contest unbridled markets on the basis of “contested commodities” or “noxious markets” must realize that the markets that introduce harmful objects are detrimental because the objects themselves are detrimental to the larger good, and not because the markets have introduced them in a place where there were no harmful objects to begin with.

Public Choice Theory

This is the domain that consists of the bulk of Caplan’s work. His first book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, which was dubbed “The Best Political Book of the Year” by The New York Times, speaks of the rational irrationality allowing those with systematic biases, i.e., the voters, to determine policies. He has a simple observation to make about why democracy cannot work – because it is a commons, not a market. He concurs with economists like Donald Whittman, who have found through their scholarship that traditional public choice has arrived at conclusions that are inconsistent with the canonical assumption of voter rationality. Most importantly, Caplan has done commendable empirical work that suggests that public opinion is in fact systematically biased about economics.

Caplan has, over time, also espoused several other theories and has taken firm stands in matters regarding economic policy. However, while the theories themselves are commendable, their true value lies in the fact that they are expressed in a way that unpacks complex theory in a way that can be applied in day to day life. He takes free market thought and converts it into free market spirit so that it is available to one and all.

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