These two Bryan Caplan posts have gotten some attention, in my circles largely negative, in my opinion largely deserved. Read them for yourself.

If I wanted to boil down the difference between the Caplanian worldview and my own to a handful of mostly-binary questions, it would look a little something like this?

  • Is it possible for a society to be sufficiently just that poverty can be deserved?
  • Is it possible to know if a society to be sufficiently just that poverty can be deserved?
  • Is our society that society?
  • Is it possible to adjudicate individual desert?
  • If so, who can or should adjudicate individual desert?
  • Is the coercive nature of redistributive taxation worse than the deprivations of poverty?

Bryan Caplan’s answers to these seem to be “yes, yes, yes, yes, Bryan Caplan, yes;” mine would be “no, no, no, no, not applicable, no.” I could go through each of these and dig in, but I think people get the idea and there’s something in particular I want to hone in on.

What strikes me about this is not how selfish it is, which is a common and quite accurate and salient charge lodged against this mindset, but about how arrogant it is. Bryan Caplan is apparently so philosophically confident in his bourgeoisie values and epistemologically confident in his own judgment that his inevitable conclusion is that widespread suffering is not only inevitable but just regardless of the material possibility of ameliorating that suffering because Bryan Caplan believes it so.

What’s a little odd about this is that it is so anti-consequentialist as well as so anti-humble. Often libertarian and conservative types combine a Hayekian argument about consequentialism and humility – the challenges of central planning, the seen and the unseen, public choice, perverse incentives, etc – and Caplan does some really, really perfunctory handwaving in this general direction. But basically his whole argument boils down to a set of immovable priors that amount to a hermetically-sealed hyper-egotistical justification for why anyone taking a penny of what of what is likely several hundred thousand dollars in compensation he receives every year from his various teaching and research jobs as well as book sales without his express and euvoluntary consent is a moral outrage whereas a prosperous-in-aggregate society in which widespread poverty persists is not.

Needless to say, I find his sauce pretty weak. This doesn’t even mention the chutzpah of emitting all this gas while collecting the bulk of his compensation from the state.