Bet On It: What’s In the Name?
Bryan Caplan here. This is my new blogging home, Bet On It, brought to you by the Salem Center for Policy at the University of Texas. I’m a Professor of Economics and George Mason University, and New York Times Bestselling author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, The Case Against Education, Open Borders, and Labor Econ Versus the World. I blogged for EconLog from 2005 to 2022. Welcome to all my long-time readers, and a special welcome to any new readers gambling their time on me.
Why is this blog called “Bet On It”? Most directly, because over the last two decades, I’ve strongly committed to making public bets on a wide range of topics. I am convinced that such bets are one of the best ways to (a) turn vague verbiage into precise statements, and (b) discover the extent of genuine disagreement about such precise statements. I am also convinced that (c) examining bettors’ long-run track records is one of the best ways to assess thinkers’ credibility. Since my current track record is 23 for 23, it is easy to dismiss the latter view as self-serving. But I did start defending the epistemic value of bets long before I had a track record to brag about.
The new blog’s title also has a broader meaning, best captured by the slogan, “Actions speak louder than words.” Bets are one way to highlight the contrast between what people say and what they actually do. But we can also simply look for such discrepancies – and when we look, we find. If someone claims that “Safety should be our absolute priority,” we should be taken aback if he eats in a restaurant during a pandemic. The same goes if a habitual heavy drinker insists, “I do everything for my family,” an irregular church-goer declares, “Nothing is more important to me than my faith,” or a London homeowner announces, “Immigrants have ruined the city.” Actions speak louder than words: If immigrants really “ruined” London, why don’t you sell your pricey home and move elsewhere?
The seductive power of hyperbole is one major cause of the gap between words and actions. Overstatement comes naturally to most human beings. Measuring your words, in contrast, requires conscious effort. If immigrants annoy you, what fun is it to say something reasonable, like “Immigrants have made this city 2% worse for me”? Sure, such a statement lets you rebut the “Why don’t you sell your pricey home and move elsewhere?” challenge with a curt “Because a 2% decline in the value of living in London is far too small to justify a move.” But when you make your position credible, you make it bland. And who wants to be bland?
On reflection, however, hyperbolic rhetoric is largely a special case of a more general intellectual failing. Psychologists call it “Social Desirability Bias.” In layman’s terms, Social Desirability Bias comes down to, “When the truth sounds bad, people lie.” That’s why human beings so often voice their principled devotion to God, country, safety, health, family, and “the children,” yet so often pragmatically choose the path of fun and convenience.
On a personal level, the harm of Social Desirability Bias is unclear. White lies like “I’m so glad to see you” are a potent social lubricant. On a social level, however, the damage of Social Desirability Bias is severe. When lies become prevalent enough, some people start to sincerely believe them. And since votes are words, not actions, politicians habitually gain power by promising – and usually delivering – policies that sound good but work poorly. “We’ll pay any price to solve problem X” is a recipe for massive waste of taxpayer money. “We should make safety an absolute priority” is a recipe for low quality of life, because safety so often conflicts with fun and convenience. “Production for need, not profit” is a recipe for producing goods that people are supposed to like, instead of what they actually want.
“Gaining power by promoting policies that sound good but work poorly.” We have a word for that: demagoguery. Countering this demagoguery, too, is central to the Bet On It mission. In the past, I’ve argued for drastic cuts in spending on education, health care, and universal social programs, as well as radical deregulation of immigration, housing, and labor markets. In each case, I maintain that status quo policies thrive because of “the optics.” They are child’s play for a demagogue to sell to the public, even though a hard look at the numbers shows they are terribly destructive.
Is this all part of a hidden libertarian agenda? Hardly, because I have always been open about my libertarian views. I have been the world’s most energetic promoter of Michael Huemer’s instant libertarian classic, The Problem of Political Authority. What makes my libertarianism distinctive is that I eschew incorrect but emotionally tempting libertarian arguments. “Government always fails”? Silly. “The only effect of government involvement will be to…” That sentence is false, however it ends. Nor will I often claim that, left to its own devices, the private sector will fulfill governments’ feel-good promises. I am far more likely to say that the government’s feel-good promises should never have been made – and praise the private sector for avoiding wishful thinking.
Though I oppose wishful thinking, I am eager to point out overlooked opportunities. And I believe such opportunities are common. My Open Borders argues that First World governments really can enrich their countries and dissolve global poverty by radically deregulating immigration. My forthcoming Build, Baby, Build argues that governments around the world can sharply raise living standards, reduce inequality, raise social mobility, clean the environment, reduce crime, and raise fertility by radically deregulating housing. My Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids argues that high-effort “helicopter parenting” has little effect on children’s outcomes, so stressed-out parents can give themselves a big guilt-free break. Other plausible overlooked opportunities include nuclear power and the success sequence. A Panglossian I am not. We can greatly improve the world and ourselves a lot if we calm down and focus on literal truth.
Though I am a fan of literal truth, I hold news in low regard. I am especially prone to dismiss the media for “Type 3 error” – getting the right answer to the wrong question. Roughly one thousand people are murdered on Earth every day; I see no reason why we should be especially outraged by specific murders the media covers, much less the offensive tweet of the day. When professors post news clippings on their office doors, I’m disturbed. Researchers shouldn’t be publicizing journalism; journalists should be publicizing research.
Even though Bet On It will rarely respond to current events or the latest study, I will often promote undervalued research – and react to new arguments. My main task, though, is to candidly analyze the meaty questions of social science, philosophy, and life. If I can craft an illuminating bet – or if a reader proposes one – great. But even no bet is officially on the table, I’ll strive for a bettor’s mentality. Be clear. Be candid. Be open to learning something new – but never forget base rates.