23 Feb 2011

Bryan Caplan Must Be Stopped…No Matter the Cost

All Posts 55 Comments

[UPDATE: I took the ellipses out of the URL so now you can comment.]

(That is an old school Transformers movie reference…)

Not only has Bryan continued to preach his doctrine that “parents don’t matter” at EconLog, he now wants to elevate his views to penumbra status:

In one of my talks at the 2011 International Students for Liberty Conference, I argued that the my views on parenting and kids can and should enter the libertarian penumbra.  Yes, a perfectly good libertarian could believe that nurture is the key to child development, or that kids inevitably make us miserable.  But not only are these views false; it is both realistic and desirable for my views to become conventional wisdom among libertarians.

Don’t let Bryan’s description fool you; it is a Trojan horse. What he is here selling as “kids don’t make us miserable” is in fact the claim that “you can’t affect how your kid turns out, so stop worrying about being a good parent.”

My kid doesn’t make me miserable, but I still think I have a huge influence on how he turns out. I realize I can’t do more until I dive into the twin/adoption literature that has seduced Bryan. But I want to go on record as saying that I don’t think these views should become hip.

(Out of curiosity, how many of you who are libertarians, have libertarian parents / grandparents? Because Bryan thinks your views are genetically determined.)

55 Responses to “Bryan Caplan Must Be Stopped…No Matter the Cost”

  1. Paul R. says:

    “Out of curiosity, how many of you who are libertarians, have libertarian parents / grandparents? Because Bryan thinks your views are genetically determined.”

    I laughed. I laughed hard.

    My dad is a journalist, so he knows how politics works and is cynical when it comes to that subject(in fact I don’t think one could exactly figure out his political alignment even if one tried, which I find rather refreshing). That’s all the “libertarianism” you can find out of my parents or grandparents.

    • bobmurphy says:

      Maybe it’s a recessive gene.

    • Dan says:

      My parents were socialists (although they would have called themselves liberal democrats) before I converted them to libertarianism a few years ago. But I grew up a socialist until those ideas were torn down one by one after I got out of brainwash camp. My grandparents were also socialists. I was the first to become a libertarian but I pulled a lot of the rest of my family with me the past couple of years.

  2. Dan says:

    No power lines, but I did drink a lot of tap water. I think it was the fluoride.

    • Richard Moss says:

      Another government screw up? I thought the fluoride was supposed to turn you into a commie…

  3. Lode Cossaer says:

    My mother wouldn’t describe herself as a libertarian – I assume she votes socialist – but the values I learned at home or what drove me to libertarianism. Respect one another, don’t steal (even if you really need it), share what is yours when other are in need, etc. etc. At a more general level, there might be a connection between the two?

    On the other hand; it’s one thing to say that parents have little influence and no influence. I take Bryan as saying something; if you want to be good parent, you don’t need to spend 24/7 with your kids (‘less work’), because it won’t affect the total outcome (‘the diminishing returns go really fast, really low’).

    It doesn’t mean you can’t affect certain things of them – just you don’t have to put a lot of effort into it?

    Or am I misrepresenting it?

    • bobmurphy says:

      Lode, my impression with Bryan’s views is that he says something deliberately shocking, like “parents don’t matter”–and those are his words, not mine–and then when people start coming up with all sorts of obvious ways they DO matter, he backtracks and says it might be correlation not causation, or, failing that, it’s that they don’t matter as much as they think.

      So I really have no idea, to answer your question. All I know is, Bryan keeps telling everyone to stop thinking they influence their kids.

      • Lode Cossaer says:

        Seems like a fair point to criticize him on.

        We’ll, it worked: I want to read his book.

  4. Samuel Wonacott says:

    My dad is a neocon and I am a libertarian. Most of the time I reckon that’s proof Caplan is nuts, but every now and again I get the urge to nuke random people in random parts of the world…so, maybe there’s something to that genetic theory.

  5. Jonathan M. F. Catalán says:

    My dad is basically a Jewish democratic socialist and my mother is more of democrat, with fascist tendencies (she did live under the Francisco Franco regime). There are no libertarians in my family, other than my cousin. Nobody (except my cousin) ever agrees with me.

  6. Blackadder says:

    Out of curiosity, how many of you who are libertarians, have libertarian parents / grandparents? Because Bryan thinks your views are genetically determined.

    No, he doesn’t.

    Bryan says that “parents matter” for things like political and religious beliefs. It’s things like personality traits, economic success, etc., where he thinks parenting doesn’t make a difference.

    • Dan says:

      How do your religious beliefs and political philosophy not affect your personality traits, economic success, etc.?

      • Blackadder says:

        I would think that, if anything, one’s personality and economic success would affect one’s religious and political beliefs, not the other way around.

        I’m not saying that religious or political beliefs couldn’t affect personality or economic success, but it is turns out that they don’t I wouldn’t find that shocking.

    • bobmurphy says:

      Oops, I stand corrected everyone by Blackadder. In my defense, here is what Bryan wrote in the article I linked:

      3. Increase the frequency of libertarian genes – and the long-run prospects for liberty. Genes have a strong effect on political views. So assuming libertarians are right about policy, increasing the frequency of libertarian genes is good for the world. It will take a few centuries, but libertarian natalism is one of the least unrealistic paths to liberty we’ve got.

      So I think you can understand why I said that Bryan thought if you were libertarian, it was because of genetics. Fortunately we have Blackadder to correct me.

      (Incidentally, sarcasm aside, this is an illustration of my point: I have no doubt that Blackadder is accurately reporting what the actual literature on twin/adoption studies says, or for that matter what Bryan himself said in a previous post. That’s exactly what I mean: Bryan is a moving target on this. He dumbs it down for a soundbite so everyone realizes this is a “shocking new claim from Bryan Caplan!!” and then when you investigate further or push him on it, there are all sorts of caveats.

      “Well sure if your parent locks you in a closet, that will affect your school success. Well sure, if you are raised by really oddball parents, that might have an effect. But I’m saying that if you tell your kids they can only watch 2 hours of TV per night, instead of letting them watch 3.5 as they desire, then don’t expect huge results.”)

      • Blackadder says:


        It is possible to believe that both genes and parenting have a strong influence on one’s political beliefs, so I don’t see the contradiction.

        Relatedly, if Bryan says that parenting doesn’t matter for a given trait or outcome, it doesn’t follow that he’s saying it’s all genes. What the twin and adoption studies show is that environment plays about as large a role in explaining variation as heredity, but that it is non-family environment that does it. Bryan has even suggested that a large portion of the “non-family environment” difference may be due simply to free will.

        • bobmurphy says:

          BA, this is exactly the sort of ambiguity and non-falsifiability that I am talking about. Anybody who reads Bryan’s post–which talks about “libertarian genes” and how if we just outbreed the statists, we will win–is certainly going to think that Bryan is saying your genes influence your outcome. If you are just balking at me saying “determine,” OK, but then Bryan probably doesn’t think genes “determine” anything at all. I mean, there are very few things that are literally 100% due to genes, and 0% due to environment.

  7. David Friedman says:

    If you want a summary of the evidence, I recommend Judith Harris, _The Nurture Assumption_. She doesn’t claim that parents have no effect on religious or political beliefs. She does claim that, on average, parental environment has very little affect on adult personality–that the contrary claims are largely a result of confusing genetic and environmental effects.

    I’m puzzled, however, as to your implied argument. Either genetic or environmental influences would tend to result in libertarian parents having libertarian kids, so the evidence you ask about doesn’t distinguish between the two alternatives. For evidence on that, you would want to look at children who had been raised by adults who were not their genetic parents.

    • Bobby Rychcik says:

      And if you want a summary of the counter evidence, I recommend Richard E. Nisbett,_Intelligence and How To Get It_. Bob, keep on this topic and who knows, perhaps you will be penning “The (Nature) Assumption” here fairly soon…..

      • Blackadder says:


        I don’t see how Nisbett’s book is contrary to Harris’. Nisbett believes that half or less of the variation in traits is due to genetics. Harris believes that about half is due to genetics and about half is due to non-partental environment, but little to none is due to parental environment. There’s no contradiction between the two views.

        • Bobby Rychcik says:


          If not overtly contrary, it’s safe to say they’re not on the same page. Here are Nisbett’s words taken from page 36 of his book: “The belief that differences between family environments have little effect on IQ has to be one of the most unusual notions ever accepted by highly intelligent people. Judith Rich Harris, the author of the very interesting and best-selling book The Nurture Assumption, premised her work on the assumption that the contribution made by differences between families is virtually nil.” He also references Steven Pinker and Steven Levitt, then goes on to say that he wishes he could exempt himself from these “strange believers”. He refrains from doing so due to the fact that he held their views for quite some time…..

    • Daniel Kuehn says:

      I would assume the point is that the sorts of environmental factors determining ideology are not the sorts that would necessarily operate on both children and parents. Often its someone you read or met that has a big effect on your ideological makeup. Sometimes, as people here have hinted, ideology can be a reaction to your parents. So I think there’s a lot to Bob’s case that if libertarians don’t have libertarian parents, there’s a strong likelihood it’s environmental of some sort.

    • bobmurphy says:

      I’m puzzled, however, as to your implied argument. Either genetic or environmental influences would tend to result in libertarian parents having libertarian kids, so the evidence you ask about doesn’t distinguish between the two alternatives.

      I think you are misunderstanding me. I’m not saying, “I agree with Bryan that libertarian parents create libertarian kids, I’m just saying it’s nurture and not nature.”

      On the contrary, I’m questioning whether libertarian parents have libertarian kids.

      Of course, you are literally the best counterexample to my claim in human history. 🙂

      • Blackadder says:


        Less than 5% of deaf people have a deaf parent. Do you think that means deafness can’t be strongly influenced by genes?

        • bobmurphy says:

          Actually I do, just going on those raw facts. What do you mean by “strongly influenced”? That certain genetic factors are necessary but not sufficient?

          • Blackadder says:


            My understanding is that there are a number of gene combinations that cause hearing loss. If you are deaf, you are more likely to have a deaf kid, but since deaf people make up such a small percentage of the population only a small percentage of deaf people have a deaf parent.

            Likewise, because libertarians make up a small percentage of the population, it would not be surprising that most libertarians have non-libertarian parents, even if political beliefs are strongly influenced by genetics.

      • Da says:

        I would recommend Steven Pinker’s “The blank State” over Judith Harris’ book. The entire book is relevant to this discussion, but there is a specific chapter in there on “children” that summarizes the entire body of evidence coming from Behavioral Genetics that everybody simply likes to ignore and to deny.

  8. Strat says:

    Both parents are left leaning. (in Australia thats about as close as you can get.)

    Neither share my fundamental libertarian / Anti-government stance.

    My mother has left leaning tendencies, my father has some xenophobic protectionist tendencies.

    I am almost never in agreement with them. (Except when examining the failures of governments ex post.)

  9. Dirk says:

    My parents were both republicans and probably close to neocons. I was pretty much the same until I stumbled upon mises.org and began reading the dailies for about a year. Over time I began to reject the ideology of the right. I’m not sure though if I had grown up leftist that I wouldn’t have eventually rejected their pieces that disagree with libertarianism.

    That being said I remember an old John Stoessel report on 20/20 that suggested the Nature/Nurture split was about 50/50 for identical twins raised in separate homes. That may be optimistic towards the nurture side though because even though the siblings were raised in different homes they still grew up in the US, where parenting habits are very similar. At least more similar than comparing the US to say rural African parenting.

    Overall, I think you can make a very good cases that as long as your parenting isn’t abusive, your children will turn out okay. It’s very clear that abused children will be severely impacted. It’s not so clear that different parenting styles really changes things. Perhaps, that’s because our different styles are not so different than we like to belief?

  10. Cyrus Eckenberg says:

    My parents would both call themselves “Conservative Republicans” , but if you get my dad away from social issues, he sounds like a libertarian. For example, long before I even knew what a Libertarian was, my dad disabused me of the notion that “price gouging” was possible, let alone a huge problem. Later in life I was shocked to hear speakers at the Mises inst. use almost exactly that same argument.

  11. Matthew Murphy says:

    I haven’t yet asked my parents if they are libertarian. Sometimes they talk like they are and other times they talk more like your typical republican.

    Since I am still fairly new to libertarianism myself, I’m going to wait till I’m a little more grounded before I try to convert them.

    Btw, I’m currently reading your Lessons for the Young Economist, even though it is elementary stuff, I’m thoroughly enjoying it!

  12. Silas Barta says:

    I have to agree with you, Bob. Caplan has a really bizarre interpretation of the evidence. As I pointed out to you before via email, left-wing nature-only researcher Steven Pinker points to the same data, and notes that it still man parents have influence: for example, though a child’s social group nominally “overshadows” parenting, it is the parents who choose the child’s social group (e.g. by picking where to live). So it is an overextrapolation from the evidence to call phenomena like this “evidence parents don’t matter”.

    Furthermore, I think the whole issue boils down to one of average vs. marginal benefit — that is, it may be that, on the margin, additional acts of good parenting help as much as they hurt, the *average* act (i.e. all effect divided by all acts) is positive/influential.

    To give an extreme case, obviously parenting affects outcomes if the parent murders the child. And obviously the nature-only folks aren’t advocating leniency for child abusers on the grounds that (hey, it doesn’t *really* affect the child like we thought it did). Certainly, Caplan types admit that there’s a certain threshold of parenting you have to reach in order to avoid those kinds of effects.

    So the only question is, what *is* that threshold? I think you and Caplan would agree that up to a point, you can make a difference, but after that, you can’t do any more. He’s just taking that to mean parents don’t matter at all. It’s the same kind of reasoning that says, “My future is determined by physics. Therefore, my decisions can’t make a difference. Therefore, I should do nothing.”

  13. Greg Ransom says:

    Bryan is a perpetual font of bad arguments, thin understanding, and fallacious thinking.

    I blame his parents.

  14. David Friedman says:

    “That may be optimistic towards the nurture side though because even though the siblings were raised in different homes they still grew up in the US, where parenting habits are very similar.”

    Any statement about the relative influence of environment and genetics has implicit in it a particular range of variation of each, hence is a description of a particular population. If you had a population where all individuals were clones of each other, then all variation would be due to environment, since there would be no variation in genetics. If you had a population where everyone, somehow, had an identical environment, all variation would be due to genetics.

    • bobmurphy says:

      I’m glad you are keeping us honest, Dr. Friedman, but I can only repeat what I’ve been saying all along about Bryan’s campaign: He says things like “parents don’t matter,” when–allowing for calibration–that statement can mean anything at all. In other words, it’s not a description of the actual results, rather, what it means is, “I can stipulate a threshold for parents mattering, such that they don’t get over the bar I postulated.”

      Now if Bryan’s point is that that bar is lower than most people realize, OK fine. But even then, he should say, “Parents don’t matter as much as they think they do.”

    • Greg Ransom says:

      “Identical twins” are NOT physically identical.

      The variation in “environment” includes variation in the expression of genes WITHIN an individual organism, and variations in the exemplification of particular biological pathways.

      See in particular, the work of Gerald Edelman.

      David writes,

      “If you had a population where all individuals were clones of each other, then all variation would be due to environment, since there would be no variation in genetics.”

    • RS says:

      “Any statement about the relative influence of environment and genetics has implicit in it a particular range of variation of each…”

      This is not true as the necessary corollary implied would be that identical genes and identical environment would produce identical individuals, which is ludicrous. I believe a movie was made about this very idea. It was called “The Boys from Brazil” and it was about neo-Nazis attempting to reproduce Hitler using this very same logic. Great movie

      • bobmurphy says:


        • RS says:

          well? did you see the movie or read the book? it was very well done.

  15. Olle says:

    Actually I don’t think I’ve ever had a friend, relative or any close acquaintances that I could consider within the libertarian/classical liberalism view. More or less all I know are either leftist or support some kind of centrist views. On the other hand, I come from a country in the far north with a massive welfare state (guess which!) were you’re kinda taught early on that the state is good for you, and that is it.

    • Dan says:

      That must suck to get fed State propaganda like that from an early age. In America we are taught all about the virtues of libertarian thought, logic, and critical thought from k-12. It’s really kind of freaky that almost all kids come out of school neocons or socialists considering the strong libertarian education we are all taught from an early age.

      • bobmurphy says:

        Right, because (as Caplan tells us) political beliefs are genetic. It kind of makes you wonder why the State bothers with all the propaganda. Instead they should subsidize condoms for libertarians.

        • Dan says:


        • Blackadder says:

          Right, because (as Caplan tells us) political beliefs are genetic. It kind of makes you wonder why the State bothers with all the propaganda. Instead they should subsidize condoms for libertarians.

          This would be a great zinger if Bryan was saying that political beliefs were entirely determined by genetics. But as you know, he doesn’t say this.

          The weird thing is that your criticism here is at cross-purposes with your main criticism of Bryan’s view about the importance of parenting. Since most kids are raised by their biological parents, saying that having libertarian parents doesn’t make you more likely to be a libertarian, is tantamount to saying that “parents don’t matter.” On the other hand, if parenting does matter, then subsidizing condoms for libertarians would have the about the same effect as if it were all about the genes.

          • bobmurphy says:

            Well, my views are tantamount to saying, “Parents don’t matter in determining whether you are a libertarian.” If I say, “Parents don’t matter when it comes to whether I am good at armwrestling,” that doesn’t make me a Caplanian.

            But you’re right, I was mostly just recoiling in horror from Bryan so casually using the phrase “libertarian genes.” I think there is way too much of that kind of thinking going around. And these bad ideas are caused by the culture, not by our genes. I blame Darwin, not DNA.

      • Olle says:

        Of course critical thought is an important aspect in the educational system, but in my view it only goes so far in the teachings. For example, my experiences of history in the schools I’ve attended aren’t all that cheerful. When it comes to swedish history, the argument is that Sweden was a poor underdeveloped country until the socialdemocrats took office and made Sweden prosperous. It’s true though, Sweden was a terrible underdeveloped and poor country, but the turning point was liberalization of the economy from 1870 til 1950 which made Sweden the richest country in the world, not the growing welfare state. The statist view run deep in many social sciences subjects, as in most countries.

        So, while most people have a big faith to the state and social planning, people tend to be more libertarian in the social life and quite tolerant. I’m guessing that people just don’t see the connection of state=coercion.

  16. Randy says:

    “Out of curiosity, how many of you who are libertarians, have libertarian parents / grandparents?”

    I am a philosophical free market anarchist. I am not completely convinced that free market anarchy could work, but maybe it could. I don’t know. I object to the state on ethical and utilitarian grounds. I don’t think it’s clear a state has to exist and would prefer a perfect world without coercion. But if a state must exist, I believe it should be as limited in territorial jurisdiction and function as possible (meaning bring back the city state and keep it only to police and courts.)

    Contrast this with my family:

    My parents are pretty run of the mill social democrats. Like the rest of my family they are college educated and have worked in both private and public sectors. My father has spent more time in the private sector, so I’ve noticed in passing that he has more respect for markets than my mother. A concept like property rights isn’t foreign to them, they just believe “social” justice makes property rights irrelevant. Concepts like self-ownership and voluntary spontaneous order are things they don’t really buy at all. My mother in particular, hates the concept of self ownership. I disagree with pretty much all of their political views and they can’t stand mine either. The only common ground is dislike and hatred of the current state surveillance as well as the current wars.

    My grandparents believed in democracy, but were not political types and rarely voted. Some of the things they favored were definitely socialism, but they would never ever call some of the things they favored socialist. They were also all protectionists.

    I have sisters that are very market oriented but range in ideology from slightly social democrat slightly neo-con. My brother is apolitical, it’s not something he cares or thinks about.

    Maybe I’m the black sheep anomaly, but really I don’t think I’m that special and presume that there are many others in a similar situation. (Family is largely statist, and then there’s one member that’s a libertarian of some stripe.) Even among my friends, a libertarian viewpoint is rare to non-existent. I realize I am talking about an N=1 case, but based on my admittedly limited understanding of what Caplan is saying, my intuition is that Caplan’s argument here is wrong.

  17. Bardhyl Salihu says:

    My dad doesn’t have any particular political views but I like it that he’s an individualist and sees collective ideals as naive. My mom is very much a leftie and a conservative, the worst type. We almost always disagree. My sisters don’t have any particular views either by they lean my way. Where I come from everybody conflates state with the society and thinks the state should run everything, but if you call them socialists they will be mad at you.

  18. Robert Greenwood says:

    I was raised by a pack of wolves in the jungles of India and I turned out to be a Libertarian Christian with diest leanings. Once I rejoined the human race and learned english, I did some research and found that my biological parents were jewish socialist muslim nazi neocons. So much for genetics.

  19. RS says:

    This whole discussion is one of free will vs. determinism. The premise that ideas and/or values come from genetic or environmental factors is 100% determinism, there is no middle ground. Either they do or they do not, either you have a free will or you do not. It is a black and white issue, free will is a fundamental self evident fact, an axiomatic concept.

    Any attempt to deny its use implicitly requires its use. If you tried to claim that ideas come from genetics and/or the environment then that idea itself must have come from the speakers genetics and/or environement so the accuracy of such a statement is itself just another outside of the speakers control. It is the same fallacy of the skeptics argument against reason logic and certainty, they must necessarily “know” something in order “reason” that they do not “know” anything.

  20. Bob Roddis says:

    The three grandparents who survived my second birthday and my parents were all Nixon-loving Republicans.

    I’ve always hated Nixon since during the Vietnam war when I had a low draft number. When I became a Rothbardian in January 1973, I was delighted to learn that libertarians hated him too.

    So, is there a Nixon gene or is it the environment?

  21. Chris says:

    Um, my parents live in Massachusetts (as do I.) ‘Nuff said. They probably think a libertarian is someone who works in a library. I watched Ron Paul in the 2008 Presidential Debates and everything he said seemed to make sense. The first book I read after that (and this is the truth) was The Politically Incorrect Guide To Capitalism by some guy named Robert P. Murphy. So I can blame him for putting me on this path.

  22. Logan Durand says:

    Definitely nobody in my family who is libertarian. Mostly a conservative extended family. I do not take any views from my parents at all regarding politics.

  23. R. Biser says:

    I am an austro-anarcho-capitalist or whatever you want to call it. I am the only one in my family going back to grandparents who were social democrats to parents who became Bush republicans. Although I have convinced my parents in the past few years that Ron Paul is pretty swell, I can’t get them past the word “anarchy”.