#32 - Bryan Caplan on whether his Case Against Education holds up, totalitarianism, & open borders

Bryan Caplan’s claim in The Case Against Education is striking: education doesn’t teach people much, we use little of what we learn, and college is mostly about trying to seem smarter than other people - so the government should slash education funding.

It’s a dismaying - almost profane - idea, and one people are inclined to dismiss out of hand. But having read the book, I have to admit that Bryan can point to a surprising amount of evidence in his favour.

After all, imagine this dilemma: you can have either a Princeton education without a diploma, or a Princeton diploma without an education. Which is the bigger benefit of college - learning or convincing people you’re smart? It’s not so easy to say.

For this interview, I searched for the best counterarguments I could find and challenged Bryan on what seem like his weakest or most controversial claims.

Wouldn’t defunding education be especially bad for capable but low income students? If you reduced funding for education, wouldn’t that just lower prices, and not actually change the number of years people study? Is it really true that students who drop out in their final year of college earn about the same as people who never go to college at all?

What about studies that show that extra years of education boost IQ scores? And surely the early years of primary school, when you learn reading and arithmetic, are useful even if college isn’t.

I then get his advice on who should study, what they should study, and where they should study, if he’s right that college is mostly about separating yourself from the pack.

Full transcript, links to learn more, and summary of key points.

We then venture into some of Bryan’s other unorthodox views - like that immigration restrictions are a human rights violation, or that we should worry about the risk of global totalitarianism.

Bryan is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and a blogger at EconLog. He is also the author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, and The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.

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In this lengthy interview, Rob and Bryan cover:

  • How worried should we be about China’s new citizen ranking system as a means of authoritarian rule?

  • How will advances in surveillance technology impact a government’s ability to rule absolutely?

  • Does more global coordination make us safer, or more at risk?

  • Should the push for open borders be a major cause area for effective altruism?

  • Are immigration restrictions a human rights violation?

  • Why aren’t libertarian-minded people more focused on modern slavery?

  • Should altruists work on criminal justice reform or reducing land use regulations?

  • What’s the greatest art form: opera, or Nicki Minaj?

  • What are the main implications of Bryan’s thesis for society?

  • Is elementary school more valuable than university?

  • What does Bryan think are the best arguments against his view?

  • Is it possible that we wouldn’t want education to accurately predict workforce value?

  • Do years of education affect political affiliation?

  • How do people really improve themselves and their circumstances?

  • Who should and who shouldn’t do a masters or PhD?

  • The value of teaching foreign languages in school

  • Are there some skills people can develop that have wide applicability?

The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.

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