Monday, January 30, 2006

Caplan and Public Policy

One thing that bothers me about Bryan Caplan's new book (to be published by Princeton University Press) is that superficially, at least, it has what I consider to be a mistaken policy conclusion: if we want better, more rational citizens and voters, then the solution is to spend more on education. This conclusion follows (again, superficially) from Bryan's finding that people with more education have more "sensible" views about economics, i.e. in his data their beliefs are closer to those of economists. Bryan never explicitly supports this conclusion, but the conclusion has been made by many thinkers in the past, from John Stewart Mill to John Dewey.

I have a response to that claim, where I basically argue that education itself does little to raise the cost of holding what Bryan would call "irrational" beliefs. In another paper I argue, using data from the General Social Survey, that previous empirical work showing high "Civic Returns" to education fails to control for cognitive ability, and thus overestimate the value of education in democratic societies. In a paper that Bryan and I are co-authoring, we apply that same approach of controlling for intelligence to his finding that education is associated with "sensible" views about economics -- our finding is that the effect of education on "thinking like an economist" was overstated in Bryan's original paper in the Journal of Law and Economics on this topic (Word doc - watch out).

Unfortunately, I think, these specific findings about education, intelligence, and public opinion will have to wait for another book.