George Mason University economist and blogger Bryan Caplan has made a career out of killing sacred cows and cooking them into great steaks. His first book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, took on some of the central tenets of American civil religion and some of the big issues in public choice theory like the self-interested voter hypothesis. His second book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, summarized research on the treatment effects of parenting and discovered that raising great kids is a lot less work than people think. His third book, The Case Against Education, argued that about 80% of the return on investment in schooling comes from schoolings sorting and ordering function. Schooling, in short, doesnt change who you are as much as it reveals who you are; therefore, were wasting vast sums of money (hundreds of billions of dollars every year) subsidizing credentialing arms races. His fourth book, Open Borders, combines the medium of the graphic novel with the scholars attention to sources, arguments, and details and makes a compelling case for what more economists are coming to believe: there are trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk waiting to be picked up by countries that liberalize their immigration policies.
Now, Caplan is collecting the best of his almost two decades of blog posts for EconLog into eight self-published, topical volumes. The first, Labor Econ Versus the World: Essays on the Worlds Greatest Market, is an easy-to-read overview of fundamental economic ideas Caplan has been teaching students in his labor economics class at George Mason University for over two decades.
In a 2018 post, Caplans George Mason University colleague Donald J. Boudreaux wrote ...the economic knowledge ignored by the public, pundits, and politicians isnt that which is found in Econ 999 but, instead, that which is found in Econ 101. Caplan seems to agree. I know I do. The average voter isnt calling for a higher minimum wage because they think labor markets are monopsonistic rather than competitive. Hes doing so because he doesnt understand that changing peoples incentives changes their actions. Vote-seeking politicians are all too happy to oblige with policies that might sound nice but that have disastrous unintended consequences.
Caplan collects his chapters into 4 groups. Part I, Laissez-Faire and Labor, begins with a critique of the central tenets of our secular religion like The main reason todays workers have a decent standard of living is that government passed a bunch of laws protecting them and explains why labor markets should be freer. Sections II and III collect many of the posts that eventually became his books on immigration (Section II) and education (section III). Section IV introduces a lot of the ideas he is working on in his next book Poverty: Who to Blame.
His posts on Keynesian nominal wage inflexibility are especially interesting, and he argues that before we look for active fiscal and monetary policy solutions we would do well to eliminate institutional and structural barriers that keep people from adjusting to changing conditions on their own. In the last fifty years, labor markets have been buried under mountains of regulation and miles of red tape (John W. Dawson and John J. Seater estimate the effects in this 2013 paper).
It will surprise no one who is already familiar with Caplans work and who saw these posts when they originally appeared that he thinks the case for laissez-faireis a lot stronger than most people think. Curation is the value proposition in these volumes, and Caplans clear prose makes the book a pleasure to (re-)read even for those of us who are already initiated. I could see it being a very useful supplement to various undergraduate courses, and even someone who might not want to assign the whole book can very easily locate the relevant chapter among Caplans EconLog posts and have students read it there. He is no longer blogging for EconLog, but he is still fighting the good fight with his substack at Bet On It.
Labor Econ Versus the World is a fun read that still teaches me a lot even though Ive been a devotee of Caplans for about twenty years. I hope the book will inspire readers to join Caplan in his lifelong quest to slay economic fallaciesand to bring some friends along for the ride.