Truth Isn’t Self-Evident; Mistake Isn’t Deliberate

Caplan and I agree that markets are better than democracy. The reason I support markets is that they don’t rely on anyone having sound theoretical knowledge of the sort that seems to be so scarce among both the economically illiterate masses and the highly educated elites. Caplan and I disagree, then, about whether rule by the highly educated is preferable to democracy—a real Hobson’s choice. The highly educated are, like everyone else, ignorant and mistake-prone human beings and, as I pointed out, they tend to “compensate” with dogmatism for their greater store of information. It’s their dogmas that allow them to assimilate more information in the first place, by means of (usually spurious) theories about the way the world works that tend to screen in ideology-friendly data, but that, unfortunately, tend to screen out discrepant data.[1]

Caplan asks whether I wouldn’t rather be ruled by an economically literate elite than by the economically illiterate masses. Sure I would. If I were king, I’d choose the most economically literate advisers I could find (“It’s good to be king!”). But while that may be an argument—in my mind, at least—for making me king, it’s hardly an argument for giving more votes to people with bachelor’s degrees, or to councils of economics Ph.D.s. It so happens that at this particular point in history, American economists agree with me (and Caplan) on a few basic issues, such as free trade. But from the 1930s through the 1970s, economics was, from a free-market perspective, a disaster area, as it is in many other countries right now. So the temporary agreement of Caplan’s moderately Democratic colleagues with more pro-market views than are held by the general public doesn’t mean that we should institutionalize the rule of economist-kings, or the rule of the more educated slice of the public that (presumably through having majored in business or economics) seems to have picked up unusually pro-market views.

Before giving more votes to the better educated, I’d like to get from Caplan, if not the “guarantee” that Lomasky demands, at least some reason to think that there’s a general tendency for economists, and thus for their students, to escape the delusional ideologies that have captured other social sciences, ruined the minds of their students, and captured the minds of economists, too, in many times and places. Need it be said that human beings, even smart and well-educated ones, and even economists, aren’t implanted with some laissez-faire chip that would ensure their tendency to believe in what free-marketeers think is true? The only equipment with which people are equipped are their defective reasoning powers and the historically variable doctrines into which they have been educated, which may well include doctrines that Caplan deplores.

It’s when I try to figure out how Caplan could miss such an obvious objection to his elitist institutional proposals that I’m led to speculate that he thinks that there’s something self-evident about economic truth that will magnetically draw people toward it—if only “irrational” barriers to this progress are removed. That’s the heroic epistemic assumption to which I object, and which I suspect stems from Caplan’s embrace of the orthodox economist’s assumption that Homo economicus is—or would be, given the right incentives—perfectly well informed. Caplan’s comments about religion reinforce my suspicion.

Caplan points out that people are emotionally attached to their religious ideas (like their economic ideas). True enough. But such attachments aren’t “irrational” if the religious ideas are true. To call people’s emotional attachment to religious beliefs irrational, then Caplan has to assume that these beliefs are incorrect—and that the religious believers know that they’re incorrect. Likewise, in discussing people’s attachment to anti-free-market economic ideas, Caplan assumes that these ideas are wrong and that everyone knows it.

I’m willing to stipulate that anti-free-market ideas are wrong, for the sake of argument. But I won’t stipulate that people who believe in anti-free-market ideas know that they’re wrong. Caplan has the burden of proof here, and he has not even begun to discharge it. Instead, he simply assumes that somebody operating with “normal” intellectual standards, unclouded by emotion, would agree with free-market ideas. As with the supposed tendency of professional economists to converge on the truth, Caplan this assumption treats people’s default position as full knowledge of, and agreement with, free-market ideas. So when people display an emotional attachment to other ideas—which Caplan thinks are self-evidently false—it must be because people are irrational. (Isn’t it more plausible that people get emotionally attached to their beliefs because they think those beliefs are true?) Therefore, Caplan infers—as orthodox economists are wont to do—that people’s mistakes must be due to deficient incentives, not to simple human fallibility.

Thus, when it comes to public-policy issues involving economic theory, the incentive to hold correct beliefs must be lacking—as Caplan blithely asserts is true when it comes to religious issues. “If you underestimate … the evidence in favor of the theory of evolution,” he writes, “what happens to you? In all probability, the same thing that would have happened to you if you knew the whole truth.” Well, yes—if the theory of evolution is true! But if it’s false, as the religious believers in question think, then believing in evolution could lead to eternal damnation. If that’s not sufficient incentive to find the truth, what would be?

Caplan seems to be unfamiliar with (i.e., ignorant of) the doctrines of salvation taught by the religions in which most people believe. If people’s salvation is at stake, nothing could be more important to them than getting religion right. Yet it’s true that, by virtue of the sheer arithmetic of religious disagreement, most (if not all) people have evidently gotten religion wrong. How can this be explained if not through an appeal to most people’s ignorance of the correct religious doctrine, whatever it is? Caplan wants to explain religious errors, like all errors, without allowing that people might go astray inadvertently (as by being born into a family or a culture that taught them an erroneous religion). But since the “incentives” explanation for why people would believe (to be true!) what they know to be false cannot apply to religion, where the incentives for arriving at the truth couldn’t be higher, Caplan’s position amounts to saying that when it comes to religion, people are just nuts. This is an explanation that explains nothing.

Caplan begs the question against religion by assuming that any given religion is so manifestly dubious that religious adherents are irrational if they don’t indefinitely (i.e., for all practical purposes, permanently) defer the conclusions to which they (not Caplan) think the evidence points; and for not seriously investigating other religions that, according to what they think they know about those religions, contradict the evidence. Could these believers be missing out on the truth by not investigating alternative religious viewpoints? Certainly. But that would make them wrong because they’re ignorant—not wrong because they know it, but emotionally refuse to do anything about it. Similarly, Caplan begs the question against non-orthodox economic conclusions by assuming that nobody could agree with them out of simple, inadvertent error.

The premise of all this question begging seems to be that the world is so pellucid that people’s misconceptions about it constitute anomalies—paradoxes that can be explained only if people know that their ideas are misconceptions, but believe in them anyway for emotional reasons. But if the world is a complicated place about which people can easily be uninformed, misinformed, or otherwise mistaken, it’s no paradox for people to genuinely, even passionately, believe in the truth of what is in fact false.

Caplan suggests that there’s something naïve about my view that people’s beliefs about what is true motivate their opinions (about what is true), and hence their emotional attachment to those opinions. I’d like to hear a cogent argument for what’s naïve about that view. In fact, I’d like to hear a cogent account of whatever the alternative view would be. What could it possibly mean for people to “believe” (whether passionately or not) in ideas that they knew were untrue?

After all, even if one suspects that a truth will be unpleasant, and therefore tortures the facts to avoid facing that unpleasantness, one wouldn’t need to torture the facts if it were possible to believe in something that one knows is contrary to the facts. The problem with the orthodox economist’s skepticism that people can be inadvertently wrong, then, isn’t just that this skepticism entails absurdly unrealistic assumptions about how easy it is to be right. Nor is the problem that it’s cynical to think that people believe in whatever serves their interests (whether their rational interests or, in Caplan’s account, their emotional interests), rather than accepting that people believe in what they think is true. The problem with the economist’s view isn’t its cynicism, but its incoherence. Nobody needs an incentive to believe in what he thinks is true; believing in what one thinks is true is simply coextensive with believing anything, period. Conversely, even perverse incentives can’t explain perverse beliefs, because the very notion of “perverse beliefs” is self-contradictory, despite its popularity (and the popularity of the twin notion of “willful ignorance”). There are plenty of false beliefs, but nobody can “believe” to be true what he knows is false. Therefore, false beliefs must be unwittingly false.

Contrary to Caplan’s interpretation of my view, however, I am not saying that “with enough information,” people would reach correct conclusions. Even if people had all the relevant information (an impossibility, of course; and it’s in the information-gathering process that people’s ideological lenses distort their perceptions), they would still need to be able to think about the information logically in order to reach the right conclusions about it. In suggesting that economic theory is “counterintuitive,” and in speculating that this is because our hunter-gatherer brains weren’t designed to reason about complex modern economies, I was saying that people are, in fact, unlikely to engage in logical economic reasoning. That doesn’t make people irrational, any more than their ignorance of economic theory does; it just makes them mistake-prone. (Someone who fails to understand The Wealth of Nations because he has read it but is mentally retarded is no more irrational than is someone who fails to understand it because he’s never read it.)

Given that either Caplan or I seem to have fallen into grievous logical errors, I rest my case about the possibility that people can be mistaken because of failures in their reasoning. And if it’s Caplan who has made the mistakes, I hope to have suggested that the neoclassical orthodoxy which, nowadays, happens to have led to a professional consensus around certain free-market conclusions is nonetheless an illogical ideology that is believed to be true by some of the most intelligent and well-educated people in the world—like Caplan. So we shouldn’t entrust our fate to the “experts,” if we have any alternative, because they, too, being human, can be mistaken.

Between the economic illiteracy of the general public, the illogic to which all human reasoning is prone, the special difficulties that people seem to have with economic reasoning, and the tendency of even the most illogical doctrines to screen out falsifying evidence, I think that we have a powerful argument against modern social-democratic governments like ours—which, if they are to produce beneficial public policies, require policy makers—whether voters, legislators, or bureaucrats—who reason lucidly about pertinent information. But the problem with such governments isn’t that they empower people who indulge their emotions by doing what they know is wrong. The problem is that they empower people who don’t know what is right.

Inadvertent ignorance—including ignorance of economics, and of logic itself—is neither rational nor irrational unless it is intentional; and “intentional mistake” is a contradiction in terms. The only alternative to such incoherent notions, I think, is to allow that belief in the truth of whatever one “believes” is the same thing as believing it, such that if one believes what is false, one must have aimed at the truth but unintentionally missed the mark—even if one has every incentive to be accurate. Is it really so difficult to accept, in short, that to err is human?


[1] Appendix B to Jeffrey Friedman, “Democratic Competence in Normative and Positive Theory,” Critical Review 18 (2006), nos. 1-3.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan argues that voters are not just ignorant, they’re irrational. According to Caplan, when the cost of holding irrational beliefs is low–as it is in religion and politics–we should expect a lot of irrational belief. “Even when his views are completely wrong,” Caplan writes, “[the voter] gets the psychological benefit of emotionally appealing political beliefs at a bargain price.” But the low personal cost of irrationality has a high social cost. Caplan provides statistical evidence of voters’ “systematically biased beliefs” in economics, and argues this undermines the electorate’s ability to implement good policy. Caplan suggests we should rely “less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets,” in addition to several other provocative reforms sure to make civics teachers blanch.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Bryan Caplan’s lead essay, Brown University political philosopher David Estlund argues that neither of Caplan’s proposed alternatives to democracy, markets and experts, satisfactorily correct for the problem of voter irrationality. With respect to experts, Estlund observes that political questions are moral as well as empirical: “[M]aybe … my morally wise mother would perform better overall than the economists. That settles nothing, since there is no entitlement to rule others based simply on the fact that you know what is best.” As far as markets go, Estlund says “Voters and market actors are the same people, so we should expect the charges of ignorance and irrationality to be leveled against people in both guises… In the aggregate many market mistakes, like voting mistakes, affect everyone.”

  • University of Virginia political philosopher Loren Lomasky compares Caplan’s criticism of democracy and defense of expertise with Plato’s argument in The Republic, while noting that in a modern system of representative democracy, voters choose among candidates, not policies. “If voters are as intellectually maladroit as Caplan suggests,” Lomasky writes, “then they are incapable of mastery of their elected representatives,” who are thus left with a fairly free hand to set policy. “What [voters] can do, though, is ‘throw the rascals out,’” and that, Lomasky argues, is good enough.

  • Jeffrey Friedman argues that Caplan’s charge of voter irrationality relies on the unrealistic idealizations of economic theory and that “[v]oters who don’t understand economics because they haven’t been exposed to it, or because they’ve been exposed to it but have found it tough going, aren’t irrational; they’re just ignorant.”