A plea for common sense

Bryan Caplan would like to know how he could better argue in favor of open borders. What follows is a serious attempt to answer him. In sum, he should: 1) analyze the issue of immigration like an economist instead of like a religious fanatic and 2) start living as though he actually believes what he says.

Professor Caplan is at his most convincing when he thinks like an economist. Economics is a discipline of trade-offs. Every option – to the true economist – has trade-offs. In other, more famous words, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Unfortunately, Professor Caplan refuses to allow economic thinking into his treatment of open borders. Open borders, in his telling, have no trade-offs. They’re all upside all the time. I’ve read more nuanced discussions on the existence of God from priests (and really, believing in open borders seems to be as much a prerequisite for being an economics professor as belief in God is for being a priest).

In general, I find this sort of zealous thinking very unpersuasive. I’m up for a good discussion on any topic (indeed, I’ve changed my mind on most topics (including immigration) at one point or another), but you can’t argue with someone’s faith, and Professor Caplan’s belief in open borders seems to come down to faith.

Any zealous belief of this sort can easily be refuted by extreme examples (a trick I first learned from an economics professor, incidentally). Would it really be all awesomeness if the residents of Boystown immigrated to Riyadh? May I direct your attention to this Wikipedia page? Is this really an idea with no obvious downsides? Do these cities have nothing at all in common? Isn’t this just a little bit scary? How’s this working out?

I’m prepared to accept the case that many forms of immigration are good for many types of societies, but Professor Caplan’s arguments are orders of magnitude stronger than that. It’s not that hard to find some downsides to mass immigration. If you deny the existence of things that are easy to find, you’re not convincing.

The pro-mass-immigration position has a delightful built-in bullshit detector. Most people (and almost certainly Professor Caplan) could move a few miles from where they live and be in a community that is filled with more immigrants. This community is generally quite affordable relative to other communities.

Any people that talk in favor of mass immigration, but spend lots of extra money to live far away from immigrants are . . . in an awkward position. In general, I tend to believe peoples’ actions over their words.

Professor Caplan has previously admitted that he likes living in a bubble. For all intents and purposes this is the same as admitting that he doesn’t actually like living anywhere near the sort of people that he thinks should be immigrating into this country.

His distaste for living near the sort of immigrants he “wants” is understandable. Frankly, it’s something that the majority of Americans also don’t want . . . which is why they don’t favor mass immigration.

If Professor Caplan really wants to be convincing, he could move. He’d save a lot of money too.

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32 Responses to A plea for common sense

  1. James says:

    http://purplemotes.net/2008/10/19/some-peculiar-legal-institutions/

    About 2360 years ago, an influential Athenian got a law passed to help some of his friends avoid being imprisoned for not paying a debt to the city. Other Athenians subsequently charged him with legislative corruption. This case would fit easily into a twenty-first century struggle for a well-functioning republic.

    In support of this indictment, an Athenian speech described another city’s legislative mechanism. The Greeks living in Locris reportedly proposed laws while wearing a noose:

    “if any one wishes to enact a new statute, he proposes it with his neck in a noose, and if the statute is judged to be good and useful, the proposer goes away alive, but, if not, the noose is drawn and he dies. … [in more than two hundred years] they had only one new statute passed.”

    Such a system, but a touch less severe, would certainly make bureaucrats and professors think twice. Suppose that, in a reformed constitution, elected politicians were only permitted to veto legislation drawn up by bureaucrats, and any tenured professor whose field is relevant to a given piece of legislation had either to endorse it or withhold his endorsement publicly.

    Then, any bureaucrat involved in a piece of legislation that gets vetoed is sacked, and any professor who has endorsed it loses his tenure.

    In that case, we would see how principled Caplan really is. He did after all say:

    http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/06/is_obamas_semi-.html

    I don’t just think that immigration restrictions are bad policy; I think they’re a grotesque crime against humanity – with all that implies. Given this starting point, Obama’s semi-amnesty for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants sounds like the best U.S. political news of the 21st-century. I can’t remember the last time any American policy change actually made me happy or even hopeful. I’d like to believe this is for real.

    If he really believes this, I’m sure he would stake his tenure on a promising item of pro-immigration legislation. Crimes against humanity matter more than his personal comfort, I presume.

    (I’m sure this wouldn’t work, but it’s the kind of game theory that the Institute for Sound Governance would develop. Imagine the legal institutions that fully-funded Google engineers could devise!)

  2. Gian says:

    The libertarian is being consistent. They do not believe in the political nature of man that makes men live in particular self-ruling communities with their own particular laws, morals and customs. This entails a discrimination of stranger and non-stranger (a co-citizen or a neighbor)

    The liberals hate this discrimination and thus deny the political nature of man.

    The denial of the political nature comes in two flavors. The progressive would make all the world his co-citizen or neighbor. Thus he goes for a World Govt.

    The libertarian would make strangers of his neighbors. There must be no laws by which a people might rule themselves, other than what follows from the pre-political notion of chattel property.

    A lot of paradoxes of libertarian economics follow from the denial of the political nature and can be easily resolved by due attention to the political aspect.

    Eg the private property in land– it exists within the national territory. In fact the Nation as a State of Law is the principle of cohesion of the Property Rights.

  3. Alex J. says:

    Caplan wants American political institutions (relative to other countries anyway) thus moving to some third world country would not attain that goal.

    Also, Caplan does not insist on holding all other policies constant if more immigration was allowed:

    Too many immigrants on welfare -> No welfare for immigrants, must work to stay.
    Overwhelm infrastructure -> Pay to enter.
    Voting for their own bad institutions -> Immigrants don’t vote.

    All that being said, I agree that Caplan is often tone deaf in his arguments. Here’s an example.

  4. Matthew Walker says:

    @Alex J.,

    Sure, Caplan wants those safeguards, but he just said he’s very happy to have increased immigration without them.

  5. PA says:

    Libertardians think quantity, never quality (of immigrant).

    Restrictionists understand quality, but too rarely avail themselves of this argument: are today’s immigrants equal to or better than the founding stock population in terms of female beauty?

  6. Matt says:

    Well, Caplan is something like an extreme meritocrat, so he would probably reason if by virtue of his success he can afford to avoid the immigrants then that is his right. If others can’t then they should stop sucking, but even then they are benefiting by the increased GDP. And if they weren’t so racist or whatever, then the social tension would go away.

    It’s consistent, but the problem is that the world isn’t made up of 6.x billion Bryan Caplans.

  7. Frost says:

    Bryan is a smart, decent, and honest guy, the result being that outside of conversations about immigration, he’s a cold-hearted reactionary. The immigration issue is his only chance to write things that the cool kids agree with, so it’s no surprise that he 1) gravitates toward writing about it, and 2) has pushed his opinion on it to the comical extreme we observe.

    • So what you’re telling us is that Caplan is being cynical, dishonest and deliberately obtuse.

      • Tschafer says:

        Caplan is not a smart, decent, and honest guy, or a cold-hearted reactionary. He’s a head in the clouds, pacifist pseudo-rationalist buffoon, and if libertarianism has never gained a serious hearing in this country, guys like Caplan are one of the major reasons why. It’s no good to say, “yeah, he wants us to surrender to anyone who threatens us with armed attack, and wants to flood the country with unassimilable immigrants, but other than that, he’s a great guy”. About the only thing I can say in Caplan’s favor is that he hates Communism, but hey, so does anyone with any brains. Bryan Caplan is not to be taken seriously.

      • Frost says:

        Not deliberately cynical. Human beings in general are not very self-aware, and Bryan in particular strikes me as pretty far out in aspergers territory. I’m sure he really believes the things he writes about immigration and pacifism, but that doesn’t mean the origin and strength of those beliefs isn’t his own social self interest.

        Caplan has written well about all kinds of interesting, original, politically incorrect views. My guess is they made for some awkward GMU lunches and family dinners, so now he just sticks to using libertarian first principles to prove absurd ideas. It’s less interesting, but better for him, socially and professionally.

        His polar opposite would be Tyler Cowen, a man with a much firmer understanding of minds outside his own, and so manages to keep up a public veneer of respectability while making frequent efforts to poke his readers in the direction of thought-crimes.

  8. […] that these results will not change even if more reactionary commenters show up now that Foseti has linked to Dr. Caplan’s post. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  9. Alex J. says:

    I find Caplan’s discourse to be notably hedged in by considerations of academic PC. His suggestions for policy changes in the Myth of the Rational Voter are remarkably constrained for someone who wrote the Anarchist Theory FAQ. He doesn’t talk much (at all?) about freedom of association or affirmative action.

  10. Toddy cat says:

    Well, Frost, you’re certainly entitled to your opinion, and I respect your views, but in my opinion, Caplan is either a total Aspie nitwit, or a cynical manipulator, or possibly both. Either way, not a serious person. And yeah, Cowan is better, but not a whole lot better, in my opinion, at least not on immigration.

  11. Five Daarstens says:

    When did we all vote to have economists be the ultimate arbiter of morality and of how society should be ordered? Countries originally formed from a desire to protect ones tribe(s) from outside invasion and plunder. How is open immigration not a direct violation of the Raison d’être of the state?

  12. James says:

    Frost said:

    Not deliberately cynical. Human beings in general are not very self-aware, and Bryan in particular strikes me as pretty far out in aspergers territory. I’m sure he really believes the things he writes about immigration and pacifism, but that doesn’t mean the origin and strength of those beliefs isn’t his own social self interest.

    Caplan has written well about all kinds of interesting, original, politically incorrect views. My guess is they made for some awkward GMU lunches and family dinners, so now he just sticks to using libertarian first principles to prove absurd ideas. It’s less interesting, but better for him, socially and professionally.

    His polar opposite would be Tyler Cowen, a man with a much firmer understanding of minds outside his own, and so manages to keep up a public veneer of respectability while making frequent efforts to poke his readers in the direction of thought-crimes.

    The dichotomy of “honest” vs. “dishonest” is unrealistically absolute. Human brains have various grades of belief and honesty.

    Consider belief in belief.

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/i4/belief_in_belief/

    Lots of people exhibit belief in belief; e.g. most modern Christians believe that they believe in God, but don’t actually believe in him. Are they “dishonest”?

    Imagine that a Christian’s daughter is tortured for several hours, in front of his eyes. The torturer asks, “Does God exist? If you give me the correct answer, your daughter goes free, otherwise I will continue until she is a corpse.” I think that almost all of the supposed Christians would answer, “God does not exist.” Yet, in daily life they really do believe that they believe in God, and in many ways they act accordingly. The absolute distinction between honesty and dishonesty doesn’t seem a good fit for this situation.

    Most humans are in a similar state of quasi-dishonesty when they trade accurate beliefs for high status.

    Caplan does have some worthwhile ideas, but he strikes me as a particularly dangerous form of status-whore. His role is “court dissident”. The trick is not to be hypnotised by what he calls himself and his stated beliefs, but to examine his effect. Imagine that he is a piece of machinery sitting on a shelf: what does a Caplan do?

    Libertarianism is resurgent in America. Unfortunately, like every group of people, as a group libertarians are deontological rather than utilitarian. Their deontological goal is, “stop infringing people’s legal rights!” This deontological orgasm can have a useful effect, i.e. in shutting down USG’s regime of central social planning. However, the likes of Caplan serve the ruling class by redirecting libertarians’ emotional catharsis in a Universalist-friendly direction: more immigration.

    Caplan’s other serious effect is to dissuade potential dissidents from attacking one of the ruling class’s huge power sources: monetary dilution. Caplan’s little critique of Austrian economics and their business cycle theory is quite famous, and even Matthew Yglesias has cited it. Even quite sensible participants in this general region of the blogosphere are taken in by it.

    Caplan almost gives the game away himself:

    I was first introduced to Austrian economics during my senior year in high school, when I first read and enjoyed the writings of Mises and Rothbard. The summer before I began my undergraduate work at UC Berkeley, I was able to attend the 1989 Mises Institute summer seminar at Stanford, where I met Murray Rothbard and many of the leading Austrian economists for the first time. It is now eight years later; I have just completed my Ph.D. in economics at Princeton, and will be joining the faculty of the economics department at George Mason in the fall. I thus find this a natural point in my career to articulate precisely why I no longer consider myself an Austrian economist – as I certainly did eight years ago.

    What he (or rather, his brain) realised, is that he could never join the system if he considered himself an Austrian. The idea that central banking, Keynesianism and “macroeconomics” is all a giant Rube Goldberg machine, disguising the government’s bottomless source of expropriated funds, is entirely seditious—even a court dissident isn’t allowed to believe this.

    http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/11/what_i_learned_3.html

    Caplan still wants to be able to gain contrarian cred by criticising the Fed. Notice how obliquely he implies that quantitative easing makes sense, whilst tearing into everything else Bernanke has done. He doesn’t really want to, but as a critic of the Austrian theory he hasn’t much choice.

    Apart from these two things, Caplan is ineffectual. However, he says enough “stone cold reactionary” things on his blog to make people view him and his ilk as a pukka means of reforming the government. That’s why court dissidents are useful!

    Of course, he downplays the real consequences of these “stone cold reactionary” ideas.

    http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2010/06/association_exc.html

    His “principled libertarian” schtick could just as easily defend a truly reactionary perspective, if he were to amplify and mute different parts. He would have one apologetic post on open borders—”Of course I endorse this, although Third World immigrants would have little incentive to come to America; there aren’t enough jobs for them, and most people are tied to their own nations. It wouldn’t have that much effect on existing Americans, since we can exclude them using restrictive covenants etc.”

    And he would have dozens of posts on the outrageously illiberal regime of central social planning, which denies Americans their precious rights to exclude and recklessly inflates the currency.

    • asdf says:

      Christians believe that man is fallen. Thus, he sins. A person who really does belief in God could, in the example you provide, sin by denying God. This would not necessarily mean that he didn’t believe. Only that he is fallible.

      There are people who did die simply because they were unwilling to say God doesn’t exist. They are rare, but then again that is a part of the job description for a saint.

      As for your post about Caplan as “court dissident” I entirely agree. You don’t get a position in the Cathedral unless you are at least a court dissident. Something I’ve learned all too well.

      • James says:

        Assume that the Christian has reason to think the torturer has highly accurate beliefs. Maybe it is a Bayesian superintelligence.

        People might be willing to die before renouncing cherished belief-in-belief, but to be willing to watch one’s daughter be tortured to death is, I suspect, a far more severe test. Of course, a real Christian who actually believes in God would tell the torturer that God is real. I don’t think such people are common in today’s West, though.

      • josh says:

        Christians really believe in God, James, with at least p>.50. Some because they are really good philosophers, and some because they are really bad philosophers.

      • asdf says:

        “I don’t think such people are common in today’s West, though.”

        No doubt, but that doesn’t really tell us whether or not God exists.

    • Alex J. says:

      It seems obvious to me that Caplan picks his battles with academia in mind, how could he not? But the idea that he’s the court dissident is ridiculous. He wrote a book called “The Myth of the Rational Voter”! Remember the turmoil around whether women had more or less freedom now than in the 19th century? (Poorly chosen battle, there.)

      As for Austrian Economics, it’s possible he just disagrees with it. In his critique (IIRC) one of his major points is that the best parts have been integrated into mainstream theory a la monetarism. As for inflation, it’s bad enough, but the gov’t is surely capable of screwing things up even without it.

      • asdf says:

        Alex,

        The mainstream view is that democracy is great, but that people (anyone that disagrees) are too stupid to vote for their own interest (again assumed to be anyone that disagrees) and that if they can’t be convinced to vote for correctely it should be forced upon them by judges or beauracrats.

        In thier mind democracy isn’t voting, but “the will of the people” (whatever they think the will of the people should be). Thus, when voting matches what they believe the will of the people is, democracy is good. When it doesn’t voting should be ignored by the governing process.

        Since people don’t always vote for what people believe is “the will of the people” the only explanation can be that such voters are “irrational”. Thus Caplan’s book is not so controversial.

      • James says:

        But the idea that he’s the court dissident is ridiculous. He wrote a book called “The Myth of the Rational Voter”! Remember the turmoil around whether women had more or less freedom now than in the 19th century? (Poorly chosen battle, there.)

        Of course, “court dissident” has a “court” part and a “dissident” part. He wouldn’t seem like a dissident if he toed the Yglesias line on everything.

        I’ll concede your point when he writes “Myth of the Rational Professor”.

        In his critique (IIRC) one of his major points is that the best parts have been integrated into mainstream theory a la monetarism.

        Over time, the mainstream has come closer to Hayek’s position. Thus, Matthew Yglesias says:

        [A]n appreciation for Hayek’s work by no means makes you an “Austrian.” Hayek, who died in 1992, won the Nobel Prize, and mainstream economists thoroughly embraced his important work explicating the role of the price system in conveying information. His ideas undergird everything from carbon taxes to wireless spectrum auctions and thoroughly permeate policy throughout the Western world.

        Government economists admit that the miracle of economic coordination is due to the price system and spontaneous order, yet maintain that sometimes macroeconomic experts know what the public’s level of demand (or “propensity to consume”) ought to be. They’ve hijacked Hayek!

        See 3.37 of this video. According to Yglesias, Bernanke wants an economy with “more demand in it”—and he knows better than the price mechanism. Free market forces are almost perfect, but we need the government to provide the finishing touch. Hayek’s spontaneous order has a lacuna, which can only be plugged by having central bankers dilute the currency. (Also check Alyona’s body language at 7.54, to see why it pays Yglesias to be a fraud.)

        That the mainstream has integrated much of Austrian theory, but mysteriously left out the ABCT—which is a perfectly natural fit for Austrian ideas—is a meta-level reason to believe that the ABCT is true.

      • Foseti says:

        “I’ll concede your point when he writes ‘Myth of the Rational Professor’.”

        Indeed. In this book, he basically suggests replacing the opinions of voters with the opinions of mainstream economics professors.

        Of course, if we’d followed this advice all along, we’d be living in a full-fledged communist state – he must not hate communism that much then.

  13. James says:

    Another funny thing about Caplan is that he sees himself as a super-smart infiltrator who is making USG more libertarian, rather than a useful idiot who directs libertarians to serve USG’s interests (more belief in belief).

    http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/08/yglesias_and_ba.html

    If you know of other cases where Matt channels Bastiat, kindly share them in the comments. Please be gracious.

    “Don’t upset the golden goose.” Meanwhile, Yglesias is laughing at this irrelevant asshole, and misspelling his name.

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2012/08/18/why_i_don_t_love_frederic_bastiat.html

    And one more peculiarity, for those who view him as a clueless idealist rather than a shill, is that he sways between all kinds of moral reasoning. At one point I thought that (like most Bayesians) he was a utilitarian, but he has also criticised utilitarianism. In general, he argues like a utilitarian. Yet his writings in favour of open borders are mostly pure deontology (boiling down to, “discrimination is unfair, borders discriminate, therefore we must abolish borders”) with a few spherical-cow economic arguments.

    http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/bcaplan/hansondebate.htm

    He has said:

    I begin with concrete, specific cases where morality is obvious, and reason from there. I don’t have a mathematical formula like “Maximize the sum of willingness to pay.” That’s OK. Unlike Robin, I’d rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong.

    And now he says:

    Immigration restrictions probably have bigger effects on the world’s economy than all other regulations combined. As far as I can tell, virtually every moral theory – utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Kantian, Christian, and Marxist for starters – implies that these effects are very bad

    Without committing to any of these positions. So another motive for being vague about one’s terminal goals is that sometimes (when your utilitarian arguments are crap) it’s useful to be able to fall back on deontology.

    None of this means that Caplan isn’t worth reading. But as a matter of fact, to describe him as “smart, decent, and honest” is a failure of perception.

  14. Alex J. says:

    A more mainstream narrative would be that policy is bad because of special interests. Caplan suggests that policy is bad because the median voter votes for bad policy. It’s clear (to me anyway) from the back and forth between Caplan and Wittman, that both of their contributions are novel, not just appealing to the academic mob. See section I here for the conventional view. If the concept of voter’s rational irrationality is widely appreciated, that will help de-sacralize the Cathedral. It will make it harder to maintain the inconsistent beliefs that you identify.

    • Alex J. says:

      (That was supposed to be a reply to asdf. That’s who “you” is.)

    • asdf says:

      A more mainstream narrative would be that the median voter is at the will of special interests who influence him through advertising (which he can’t resist). If such messages could be made illegal, and only the correct messages get out, then the median voter would vote “correctely”.

      “If the concept of voter’s rational irrationality is widely appreciated, that will help de-sacralize the Cathedral.”

      The Cathedral will reply that if the median voter is stupid then it is important that Cathedral members be able to overide his mistakes.

      I don’t necessarilly mean that politicians are going to go on TV and call the median voter stupid. However, all the organs of the Cathedral and the upper class mainstream (“cool people” as Frost refers above) will operate under that assumption whenever the electorate disobeys.

  15. Toddy Cat says:

    This is kind of off topic, but does anyone else get the urge to punch Yglesias in the face with brass knuckles every time they hear him talk or do I just need to take my medication?

  16. […] A plea for common sense; Review of “Forward the Foundation” by Isaac […]

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