Like me, GMU economist Bryan Caplan rejects the traditional libertarian taxeater/taxpayer theory of class conflict. However, Bryan has put forward his own clever and original libertarian class theory. It’s the Jock/Nerd theory of history:
One of my pet ideas is the Jock/Nerd Theory of History. If you’re reading this, you probably got a taste of it during your K-12 education, when your high grades and book smarts somehow failed to put you at the top of the social pyramid. Jocks ruled the school…..
According to the Jock/Nerd Theory of History, most historical human societies bore a striking resemblance to K-12 education. In primitive tribes, for instance, the best hunters are on top. If the the village brain knows what’s good for him, he keeps his mouth shut if the best hunter says something stupid….
With the Jock/Nerd theory firmly in mind, this sentence takes on a deeper meaning:
We don’t take steps to redress inequalities of looks, friends, or sex life.
Notice: For financial success, the main measure where nerds now excel, governments make quite an effort to equalize differences. But on other margins of social success, where many nerds still struggle, laissez-faire prevails….
Punchline: Through the lens of the Jock/Nerd Theory of History, the welfare state doesn’t look like a serious effort to “equalize outcomes.” It looks more like a serious effort to block the “revenge of the nerds” – to keep them from using their financial success to unseat the jocks on every dimension of social status.
I think that my collective action and cross-cutting cleavage objections to traditional libertarian class theory also apply to Bryan’s jock/nerd theory. I’ll leave the details as an exercise for VC readers.
In addition, I’m not sure that Bryan has the K-12 class structure down right. It is not the jocks who are the primary enemies of high school nerds; it is the “cool” and “popular” people. Some of the latter are jocks, but most are simply people with a combination of good looks, good clothes, and good social skills. In my experience, most jocks simply ignore nerds and vice versa. By contrast, the cool people compete with nerds for dates, social status, positions in student government, and so on; and at least in high school, the cool people usually win. In my days as a nerdy high school student, I never lost anything I really wanted to a jock; far from wanting to “take revenge” on them, I respected their athletic prowess (from a safe distance). The cool crowd was a very different story.
Does this distinction have any relevance to Bryan’s broader theory? Possibly. While there are a few ex-jocks in the political class (e.g. – baseball Hall of Famer Senator Jim Bunning), there are a lot more former “cool” and “popular” kids. The latter are much more responsible for the growth of government than the former.
Of course, it’s possible that Bryan’s high school experience (nerds oppressed by jocks) is more common than mine (nerds subordinated, if not actually oppressed, by the popular crowd). Perhaps when we get done with our current coauthor collaboration, we can do a study of nerd social dynamics!