These are conditional virtues

Thursday, October 22nd, 2020

Bryan Caplan doesn’t expect policies to get too much worse:

The same psychological force that thwarted the masses’ wishes before 2012 continues to shield us. What is that force? For want of a better term, ADHD — Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Populist policy preferences go hand-in-hand with intellectual laziness and intellectual impatience. As a result, populist voters fail to hold their leaders’ feet to the proverbial fire — allowing wiser, elitist heads to prevail.

Take protectionism. Keeping imports out of our country is perennially popular. Never mind centuries of economics classes on the wonders of comparative advantage; the masses are convinced that cheap foreign products make us poorer. Given public opinion, then, it’s amazing that trade barriers are as low as they are. What’s particularly striking is that presidential candidates routinely make protectionist noises to curry favor with the masses. Once elected, however, they get convenient amnesia.

Why would vote-seeking politicians show so little follow-through? Because talking about foreign trade, titillating at first, gets old fast. And actually measuring the change in trade barriers bores the masses instantly. As a result, protectionist promises are cheap to break. The masses delight to hear politicians vow to get “tough on China,” but they don’t want to have to think about Chinese imports months after the election, much less monitor their leaders’ concrete efforts to cut China down to size.


Emotionally, I look down on the public’s ADHD. When I get an idea into my head, it stays there until someone (possibly myself) argues me out of it. I’m a puritan. Once convinced something is true, I tenaciously act on it. But I’m the first to admit that these are conditional virtues. If you’ve genuinely figured out the right thing to do, determination and follow-through are wonderful. Otherwise, though, they’re a menace.

Mankind can and should shape up across the board, but it won’t. I’ll bet on it. And since mankind won’t discover a passion for rationality anytime soon, we should be thankful its ADHD isn’t going away either.


  1. McChuck says:

    “Comparative advantage” has been thoroughly debunked for over a century. If a country makes nothing, it can afford nothing. People need useful jobs to make an economy work. Import duties work.

  2. Szopen says:

    Yeah! Absolutely! The best possible example is specialisation of 16-17th century Poland in the grain production, where every domestic industry was destroyed, because everything could be cheaply imported from Netherlands. It did us so much good in the long run!

  3. Albion says:

    I may be missing something but I don’t think I have read anything in a long while where the author is so full of himself. A puritan who argues with himself? Mankind won’t be rational, though he has already pretty much suggested he is? “I tenaciously act on it” he praises himself. Goodness, such a saint.

    I am beginning to think I don’t like Mr Caplan much.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    I’m inclined to be more forgiving of Caplan. He’s just saying out loud things I’ve thought in my darker moments.

    Except I don’t really believe in comparative advantage as much as he seems to. And I’ve mostly outgrown my puritan tendencies.

  5. Bomag says:

    I’ve found hypocrisy plenty heavy among libertarians: “we need a strong, authoritarian central gov’t to implement our free market solutions; those not approving will get camps or beatings until moral improves.”

    Academic libertarian economists like Caplan are the worst, lecturing us from positions maintained by gov’t fiat and subsidy with scant input from markets.

    They’ll even throw math equations at us where they’ve found values that make everything work out! That other numbers exist seems to escape them, including the recently discovered concepts of zero and negative numbers.

  6. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Taiwan is a great recent example of economic success principles. When the Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan they built a ‘modern’ economy from scratch by observing two basic fundamentals. A nation should be able to feed itself and make things whether you trade with the world or not. While the US can still feed itself the ability to manufacture all essentials is questionable.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    Taiwan imports an awful lot of its food. Even seafood. And their young people are looking for jobs elsewhere.

    Self sufficiency collapses when the population density exceeds the land’s carrying capacity. It’s a lighter version of the Malthusian trap.

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