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?