Caplan Pulls Along Ropes

Last May I wrote:

The space of all policies … is huge – with thousands or millions of dimensions. … The policy world can thought of as consisting of a few Tug-O-War "ropes" set up in this high dimensional policy space.  If you want to find a comfortable place in this world, where the people around you are reassured that you are "one of them," you need to continually and clearly telegraph your loyalty by treating each policy issue as another opportunity to find more supporting arguments for your side of the key dimensions.  That is, pick a rope and pull on it.   If, however, you actually want to improve policy … then prefer to pull policy ropes sideways.

Bryan Caplan prefers to pull along the ropes:


I really enjoyed Sylvia Hewlett’s Creating a Life, but feminists were outraged. … Normally, I’d expect all this negative publicity to be great for sales. … But … sales were only 13,000, despite lots of media coverage. … She didn’t have the social connections to cash in on the outrage of her feminist critics. If Hewlett had been part of the "vast right-wing conspiracy," she would have had prominent allies to jump to her defense, and help her sell copies. … [Also,] her book included a detailed wish list of leftist labor market regulations, and ended with a dismissive remark about "conservative ideologues." Say goodbye to a plug from Rush Limbaugh, even if the "feminazis" do hate you. 

Hewlett’s problem, in short, was stepping on the toes of people on her side of the fence. When they cried foul, she was on her own.  The lesson: If you want to get all the publicity you deserve, make sure you’re friendly with the enemies of your enemies. Almost all publicity can be transformed into good publicity, but you can’t do it alone.

Bryan gives no indication he realized this recently, so he has probably followed this advice for a while, including for his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. So unless Bryan was lucky enough that nothing he thought true or relevant to say ever risked stepping on toes on "his side", readers should treat his words more skeptically, knowing they are probably filtered to gain "his side’s" support.

All else equal, more widely read books on politically sensitive topics are probably more thoughtful, informative, and well-written, but are also more likely twisted to fit existing tug-o-wars.  How can we better identify and reward those who defy this order – writing thoughtfully with less an eye to political loyalty?

Added:  Bryan responds in the comments to his post:

Actually, I think of economists, not right-wingers, as the natural allies of my book. And I did deliberately step on economists’ toes on a number of issues – especially economists’ rational expectations view of politics.

Admittedly, when I step on toes of people I respect, I try to do so in a friendly way. I see this as primarily an issue of manners, not intellectual honesty. Yes, we can disagree without being disagreeable. 🙂

I’ don’t see Bryan stepping on libertarian toes; are they his natural allies?

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  • Vladimir Gritsenko

    Perhaps by creating a large group that wouldn’t identify with rope tuggers, but rather with policy-space explorers. Then a book can be branded as an “exploration” book, so said large group would reward the author with their wallets. But then how to create such a group and keep it from falling apart into splinter tuggers? It does sound somewhat utopian, like having a Rationalist Party in power.

  • Caledonian

    One very crude method is to formally establish the negations of popular positions, reward people for constructing superfically-valid arguments for those negations, and then look hard for flaws in those arguments.

    The final step must involve actual concern for truth and valid reasoning, though, which is why predefining opposing positions and producing arguments after-the-fact doesn’t work very well in real life – the combatants are more concerned about ‘winning’ than finding the truth.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    See my added to the post.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    Not having read Caplan’s book, it was not obvious to me which side was “his”. I found this essay at Cato Unbound, a libertarian site. He implicitly argues for more foreign aid, a liberal view; more immigration, a liberal view; pollution taxes, generally more supported among liberals than conservatives; and explicitly argues for private choice and free markets, a conservative view. He is also OK with less voter participation, which no political party explicitly supports but is more consistent with conservative perspectives. So in terms of the main currents of American politics, the main “ropes” that get tugged on, he seems to have split the difference.

    Having said that, some perusal of online reviews shows a more favorable response from the conservatives. Here’s an interview at a conservative site where he volunteers to “discredit himself” with readers by naming immigration restrictions as the most egregious result of voter irrationality (however it does not show up until page 2).

  • Douglas Knight

    Robin Hanson,
    I think you are conflating two issues: producing good ideas and implementing them. Yes, you will have more influence by pulling sideways, but that still leaves two options: trying to pull both sides sideways, or joining one side, tugging with them on the set issues, but also advocating your pet issue. I think the greater influence on trusting allies will make up for the lost influence on distrusting enemies. The mental cost of lying may not be worth it. Also, there’s a danger of the other side reflexively opposing the position. How can we measure the costs and benefits?

    Yes, we should look for unaligned people, but there is something rather circular to talk of building incentives for the powerless.

  • Constant

    So unless Bryan was lucky enough that nothing he thought true or relevant to say ever risked stepping on toes on “his side”, readers should treat his words more skeptically, knowing they are probably filtered to gain “his side’s” support.

    Not necessarily. It looks like a tendency which almost everyone exhibits whether or not they are aware. Awareness might easily decrease the degree to which he himself is deceived by the tendency and thus the degree to which it mars his writing.

  • http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2008/04/do_i_step_on_li.html EconLog

    Do I Step on Libertarian Toes?

    Once again, Robin’s doing what he does best: get meta. I’ve argued that Sylvia Hewlett hurt her book sales by…

  • Rasputin

    I’m sorry for the off-topic. I just wanted to ask: Eliezer, is the e-mail account on top of your personal web page still active?
    If not, may I contact you in some other way?

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    Robin, I think you’re describing kind of a larger heckler’s veto problem, where you’re positting that writings that don’t fit neatly into existing dialectics (aren’t completely aligned along one side or another of existing “ropes”) are penalized with less attention.

    What I don’t like about this post is in some ways you’re encouraging us to punish transparency rather than reward it, because the reason you suggest that we treat Caplan’s writings more skeptically is because he was transparent about being aware of the benefits to fit one’s wrtitings neatly into an existing dialectic.

    Thus his response is perhaps not suprising, apparently he’s backing away from what may be that level of transparency, by claiming it’s politeness, not dialectic-fitting, that’s key to avoiding a publicity cost. It may be a rational defensive reaction to being punished for being transparent.

    It’s one of the main reasons I blog anonymously.

    And why I encourage smart guys like the two of you to blog anonymously too. Perhaps Caplan (and the rest of us) would be better enlightened) if he continued to write about the publicity costs of not fitting popular dialectics anonymously.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    A libertarian feels Caplan has stepped on his toes here. It should be noted though that the libertarian in question is Walter Block.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    It’s interesting to question whether we can in fact “disagree without being disagreeable” as Caplan suggests in his response. One might argue that the Aumann theorem much-discussed here makes it impossible to disagree with someone while still respecting him. (One escape is that you can instead assume that he doesn’t respect you, which is perhaps not completely disagreeable but still not the friendliest perspective.)

  • Unknown

    Hal, the Aumann theorem makes it impossible to disagree with someone persistently without either believing that his position is irrational, or that he is convinced that your position is irrational. But it doesn’t follow either that you don’t respect him, or that he doesn’t respect you; as I have stated before, everyone sometimes holds irrational beliefs. So an irrational belief can’t be a reason to hold someone in contempt. Otherwise we would hold everyone in contempt, including ourselves, as Caledonian does (although he irrationally exempts himself, I presume.)

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    Unknown, okay, but you would have to say, if you are honest, “I believe you are being irrational on this matter, hence I will continue to disagree with you.” Or at least, one of you has to say this. And this despite the fact that each of you strenuously claims to be arguing in good faith and to being as close to rational as humanly possible. It still seems to me that calling a person irrational in such circumstances is disrespectful and disagreeable behavior. It is saying that the person is not being as open-minded and clear-headed as he claims to be.

    I see Robin has a new posting on disagreement, I will go read that now.