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Friday, January 02, 2009

My Review of Bryan Caplan

Here.

19 comments:

  1. Dr. Murray Tyson12:06 AM

    My Review of the Review

    What I look for in a book review are simple things, such as, after reading the review, do I have a good sense of what the book is about.

    Second, if the reviewer has objections to certain positions in the book, do I get the sense that the reviewer has clearly and fairly explained the position of the author, and has the reviewer then clearly and fairly explained his objections.

    Gene Callahan has succeeded on all counts. In fact, his review could be a model for college students on how to write a review.

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  2. Thanks for bringing Caplan`s book to our attention.

    The most probable outcome of the “miracle of aggregation” is a government run by well-connected rent seekers. Are not those who stand to gain the most personally from political decisions—such as recipients of state subsidies, government contractors, lobbyists, and so forth— precisely those who have the greatest incentive to become informed about what is at stake in any election? The most probable outcome of the “miracle of aggregation” is a government run by well-connected rent seekers.

    I agree with you strongly here, so I`m puzzled that you seem to have left your most important insight for last.

    Instead, we get a lengthy digression into why Caplan is wrong to call some voter behavior rational, when it should be rather clear that voters, being human, are not machines and so are swayed by appeals to emotion and tribal identity - appeals that can easily be seen over the past decade, from both rent-seekers and from politicians seeking support for policies that cater to special interests while pandering to voters` emotions.

    Caplan’s findings are perfectly compatible with the thesis that we are witnessing such a situation at present [viz., a body of experts is clinging to an erroneous dogma long after outsiders noted its flaws] and that indoctrination into the economic way of thinking—a factor for which Caplan, given the question he sought to answer, inherently could not control—is itself the problem.

    This seems a little opaque and worth further explication. Did you intend readers to infer a criticism of Keynesianism in favor of Austrian economics? If so, why not state so explicitly and explain why?

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  3. "I agree with you strongly here, so I`m puzzled that you seem to have left your most important insight for last."

    I didn't think this was what was most important in my review!

    "Instead, we get a lengthy digression into why Caplan is wrong to call some voter behavior rational..."

    Did you mean irrational? In any case, this was what I found most important! I think it is far more important to show the arbitrary nature of this materialist, anti-spiritual view of what is "rational" than to make some point on rent seeking.

    "This seems a little opaque and worth further explication. Did you intend readers to infer a criticism of Keynesianism in favor of Austrian economics?"

    No -- a critique of economic imperialism.

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  4. Gene,

    Good review. Unlike TT, I thought the rationality issue was paramount; it made it into the book's title, after all.

    Indeed, even in your opening when you were explaining Caplan's thesis, I wondered, "What the heck is the difference?"

    Some Austrians were mad at (what they claimed was) unfair swipes in the book. True or not?

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  5. Gene Callahan has succeeded on all counts. In fact, his review could be a model for college students on how to write a review.

    Except I would add, "Now kids, when you are writing a review exceeding 2,000 words, you should probably at least quote one full sentence from the book to give the reader an idea of how the author writes."

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  6. Gene, are you disagreeing with Caplan's general point that voters may act irrationally (with“rational irrationality”), or simply arguing that his categorization scheme as to what looks rational or irrational is leaky (which seems to be a much more narrow criticism)?

    While I would agree that people may very well rationally come to very different preferences on political issues, it seems clear to me that much behavior is NOT rationally thought out, but reflects unconscious biases and predilections.

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  7. scineram11:39 AM

    Why is a bias not preference, and why is it irrational?

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  8. I think the main point of Callahan's book was that the 'quality' of the decisions tend to be lower, although people ultimately do bear the results of their decisions (collectively).
    It seems to me that the point was that it is rational to act in a way that would seem irrational if your action really 'made difference'.
    I use it often as an argument against the people who claim that democratic decisions are somehow superior to market decisions. I do agree though that saying 'it is rational to act irrationally' suggests that the definition of 'rationality' cannot be defined identically in both parts of this sentence and Callahan should probably have used different word.

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  9. This is why I'm planning on giving up blogging -- the book I'm critiquing is now attributed to me!

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  10. This is why I'm planning on giving up blogging -- the book I'm critiquing is now attributed to me!

    It wasn't worth Ondrej's time to learn the author's true identity.

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  11. But at least Ondrej is being earnest. Have you forgotten the importance of being earnest? ;)

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  12. Why is a bias not preference, and why is it irrational?

    scineram, I am trying to draw a distinction between what is thought-out (reasoned and therefor literally "rational") and what is subconcious (and arational). In principle the two can be distinguished, even if in practice it remains difficult.

    Your question illustrates that one problem for us non-philosopher, non-economist doofuses here is making sure we even remotely understand what guys like Caplan and Callahan have in mind when they are discussing what is "rational" or "irrational", as even the most perspicicaious dialogue often involves technical terms.

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  13. Out of pure curiosity, would you draw any practical conclusions from your argument that (liberal) democracy is in principle even worse a system than Caplan argues it to be? (I put 'liberal' in brackets because it's unclear from your review whether it's democracy as such that is in question or actually-existing liberal democracy specifically.)

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  14. Oops..sorry :) I did read the book but somehow both your names start with 'C'....you know, all the Japanese look the same to me and English names as well ;-)

    When I decide to solve a mathematical question simply by writing a random number, I would say that I didn't come to the solution 'rationally' compared to analytical solution. However you would probably claim that I did act rationally, because I e.g. decided to save time and write the random number instead. I don't know, it doesn't seem to me to weaken Caplan's claim that much..

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  15. 'Out of pure curiosity, would you draw any practical conclusions from your argument that (liberal) democracy is in principle even worse a system than Caplan argues it to be?'

    Well, Caplan thinks the miracle of aggregation fails due to system voter biases, so I'm not really sure whether it's worse for it to fail that way or in the way I suggest.

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  16. 'Well, Caplan thinks the miracle of aggregation fails due to system voter biases, so I'm not really sure whether it's worse for it to fail that way or in the way I suggest.'

    OK. The whole talk of 'democracy' just seems a bit abstract to me when the subject is its specific failings. For example, your criticism would seem particularly appropriate to the US, with all the political appointments the president makes, but much less so to other countries. (Indeed, even speaking of 'political appointments' is too vague - thus, the British Prime Minister is the person who ultimately decides who the next Archbishop of Canterbury is, but this doesn't lead to any given head of the Anglican Communion being thought a 'Labour' or a 'Conservative' appointee. OK, it's not an open choice for the PM, but he or she could hypothetically engineer a 'political' appointment in the American sense.)

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  17. Yes, I'm reviewing a book with a very abstract view of politics, so I'm playing the game on Caplan's terms. As a good Collingwoodian, I'll freely admit this leaves much of importance out.

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  18. 'Yes, I'm reviewing a book with a very abstract view of politics, so I'm playing the game on Caplan's terms.'

    Nothing wrong with 'abstract views' per se of course, though as a good Oakeshottian, I'll endeavour to remind you of this if I ever see you appealing to Oakeshott's notion of 'rationalism', or indeed, dictates on theory and practice more generally...

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