Suicidal Libertarianism (Part D’oh)

When it comes to the libertarian suicide race, Bryan Caplan leaves Don Boudreaux in the dust. Caplan takes the Non-Aggression Principle and runs with it, all the way into a maximum-velocity self-directed death cult. (Self-directed, solely in the ideological sense, of course.) Given the considerable merits of this book, in particular, it’s a sad thing to see.

American libertarianism has always been vulnerable to neo-puritan spiritual extravagance. Caplan systematically pushes this tendency to its limit, divorcing its arguments from any realistic estimation of consequences, and transforming it into a form of deontological moral fanaticism, in which self-defense, retaliation, and boundaries are strictly prohibited. He envisages a world of games in which only unilateral altruism is permissible to the libertarian player. It would be fun to go a few rounds of prisoner’s dilemma with him.

Naturally, when it comes to unconditional support for open borders irrespective of political consequences, Caplan rushes to Boudreaux’s defense. Helpfully, he links into his own extensive archive on the topic, via a gateway  into a series of extremely repetitive posts (here, here, and here — reading any one will do).

Perhaps Caplan really believes his own arguments, but if so he has driven himself insane. If you doubt this for a moment, it’s only going to be a moment — try this:

If you care as much about immigrants as natives, this is no reason to oppose immigration. Consider the following example:

Suppose there are two countries with equal populations. The quality of policy ranges from 0-10, 10 being best. In country A, bliss points (people’s first choice for policy) are uniformly distributed from 2-6. In country B, bliss points are uniformly distributed from 4-8.

What does democratic competition deliver? When the countries are independent, country A gets a policy quality of 4 (the median of the uniform distribution from 2-6), and country B gets a policy quality of 6 (the median of the uniform distribution from 4-8). Average policy that people live under: 50%*4+50%*6=5.

Now suppose you open the borders, and everyone moves to country B (the richer country). The median of the whole distribution is 5. Result: The immigrants live under better policies, the natives live under worse policies. The average (5) remains unchanged.

Speechless yet? (I’m halfway through a blogpost, so I can’t afford to be.) The argument: Any attempt to live under a regime that is anything other than the averaged political idiocy of humanity as a whole is a gross human rights violation.

You don’t like the way Pakistanis manage their national affairs? Too bad. Libertarianism (Caplan style) insists that it’s your duty to promote the homogenization of the world’s political cultures because, after all, if there’s anything at all good going on at your end, think how happy it will make the Pakistanis when it gets shared out. Heading into a stirred gruel of deeply degenerated liberal capitalism and Islamo-feudalism is best for everybody, taken on average. If it’s not tasting right, it’s because you’ve not yet thrown in enough African tribal warfare and Polynesian head-hunting for the full moral hit. Or how about mixing Singapore and Bangladesh into a human paste? Anything less is tantamount to genocide.

This argument is so bad that the very idea of responding to it makes me throw up a little in my mouth, but duty calls. Since Caplan claims to be a libertarian, let’s start with an unobjectionable principle — competition. If any institution is to work, it’s because competition keeps it in line. This requires a number of things, all of them incompatible with homogenization: experimental variation, differential support for comparison, local absorption of consequences, and selection through elimination of failure.

Consider two companies: Effective Inc. and Loserbum Corp. Both have very different corporate cultures, adequately reflected in their names. Under market conditions, Loserbum Corp. either learns some lessons from Effective Inc., or it goes under. Net benefit or no great loss to the world in either case.
But along comes Caplan, to bawl out the stockholders, management, and other employees of Effective Inc. “You monsters! Don’t you care at all about the guys at Loserbum Corp.? They have the same moral status as you, don’t you know? Here’s the true, radical free-market plan: All managers and workers of Loserbum get to enter your company, work there, introduce their business strategies and working practices,until we reach equilibrium. Equilibrium is what markets are all about, see? Sure, Effective Inc. will degenerate significantly, but imagine all the utility gains of the poor Loserbums! It all comes out in the wash.”
But … but … countries aren’t companies. Well, maybe not exactly, but they’re competitive institutions, or at least, the more they are, the better they work. The most important thing is true equally of both — to the extent they are able to externalize and pool their failure, the less they will learn.
In a world that has any chance of working, the Loserbum culture has a choice: learn or fail. Caplan introduces a third possibility — share (average out, or homogenize). His maths is idiotic. The contribution that Singapore makes to the world has almost nothing to do with the utility gains to its tiny population. Instead, it is a model — Effective Inc. — whose contribution to the world is to show all the Loserbums what they are. Swamp it with Loserbums, destroy it, and that function is gone. If that had happened before the late 1970s, the PRC would probably still be a neo-Maoist hellhole. It didn’t flood Singapore with 300 million poor peasants, instead, it learnt from Singapore’s example. That’s how the world really works (when it does). Institutional examples matter. Caplan’s world would annihilate all of them, leaving fairly averaged, three-quarter Loserbums grunting at each other in a libertarian-communist swamp. Nothing would work anywhere. There could be no lessons.

Still, Caplan has other arguments. The best, by far, is that wrecking a society to the point of generalized mutual detestation is the best way to shrink the welfare state. It goes like this:

Although poor immigrants are likely to support a bigger welfare state than natives do, the presence of poor immigrants makes natives turn against the welfare state. Why would this be? As a rule, people are happy to vote to “take care of their own”; that’s what the welfare state is all about. So when the poor are culturally very similar to the rich, as they are in places like Denmark and Sweden, support for the welfare state tends to be uniformly strong.

As the poor become more culturally distant from the rich, however, support for the welfare state becomes weaker and less uniform.

This argument is so freaking Mad Max that I actually quite like it. Burn down the world and you take the welfare state with it. Yeeaaaahhhhh! (I’ll leave it to more responsible voices to point out any possible flaws.)

Then there’s the “non-natives are markedly less likely to vote than natives” argument (from the same post, and all the rest). It makes you wonder what a large population of enfranchised but non-voting anti-capitalists engenders. Something good, surely?

Best of all is the capstone contortionist analogy: “Native voters under 30 are more hostile to markets and liberty than immigrants ever were. Why not just kick them out?”  Oh yes, oh yes, could we? Or at least stop them voting. Without some arrangement for the mass-disenfranchisement of leftist voters there’s no chance of anything except continuous decay, and age restriction might be as good a place as any to start.

My position in a sentence … is that immigration restrictions are a vastly greater crime against markets and liberty than anything immigrant voters are likely to manage.

Thank Gnon that no one listens to libertarians.

ADDED: Caplan doubles down, with some mouth-watering hypotheticals. If States ever made these kind of choices, they’d be fun to keep around, but the whole point is that of course they never would.  (Don’t miss the darkly-infiltrated comments thread.)
…  and yet more attractive counter-democratic hypotheticals. By the time the deontological libertarians have finished with this, they’ll have designed a minutely-detailed neoreactionary policy platform for us.

July 7, 2013admin 37 Comments »
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37 Responses to this entry

  • Orlandu84 Says:

    My favorite part of Kaplan’s thought is the following:
    “Finally, let me add that even if immigrants do have negative political consequences, solutions should focus on the alleged problem. If you don’t like how immigrants vote, the solution is to deny immigrants the right to vote. If you don’t want to pay taxes to support immigrants, the solution is to make immigrants ineligible for benefits. Whatever you do, don’t campaign to close the border and deport millions of people back to Third World poverty.”

    The “alleged problem” certainly needs to be clarified for the sake of argument. If the problem is that people in other countries are poor, then the obvious solution is to produce more stuff for them. Of course, how you produce more stuff for them then becomes the question. Just as important, however, is the question of who decides how more stuff is made and given to the poor. The whole “let the State” be in charge of making and distributing stuff did not work out so well. The whole “let the heartless corporations” be in charge of that seems to be working much better, oddly enough.

    Why? Mill’s restatement of Say’s Law via wikipedia explains, “production of commodities creates, and is the one and universal cause which creates a market for the commodities produced.” If you want people to be richer, have them make more stuff. What is the best system of making lots of stuff? Corporations in competition lower the costs of production per item of stuff produced.

    Here is another solution to the same problem of poor people living in foreign countries: conquest. Why have all the people move when you can simply move the boundaries of the richer country? Of course, that requires violence. Accordingly, another option would be for the USG to threaten poorer countries with nuclear strikes unless their economies improve. Poverty a problem in your country? Just let Uncle Sam motivate you a little.
    If the two above options don’t demonstrate the absurdity of forcibly improving people’s conditions, then I don’t know what will.


    Posted on July 7th, 2013 at 5:27 pm Reply | Quote
  • Vladimir Says:

    Caplan belongs to the type of bright but extremely nerdy analyst, who constantly throws out arguments that nonchalantly reject what most people hold to be common sense, as long as it doesn’t fit into his simplistic worldview (which is a mixture of libertarian deontological absolutism and spherical-cow economics 101).

    Sometimes this leads to magnificently good insight, since the supposed “common sense” is indeed often a matter of sheer bias or ideological delusion that can be dispelled with judicious use of these simple intellectual tools. His writings on education are a prime example: there he provides essential insight that is necessary to demolish one of the Polygon’s key ideological pillars. Other times, however, he rejects actual sound common sense that his worldview is unable to accommodate, and ends up with sheer craziness, most notably on the topic of immigration.

    The best way to treat a thinker like this is to avoid engaging him in any sort of debate, while still listening to what he has to say. Debating him is hopeless since his ideological toolkit provides a ready set of fully general counterarguments against anything you might say. On the other hand, he will still occasionally produce highly valuable insight, and one just needs to filter his overall output to separate it from the chaff.

    (Another thinker that fits much of this description is Caplan’s GMU colleague Robin Hanson. Admittedly, Hanson’s worldview is much more sophisticated that Caplan’s, and the pinnacles of his insight are also far more valuable and essential than anything Caplan has ever come up with. However, he suffers from a very similar inability to process any arguments beyond certain bounds imposed by his worldview, and for this reason attempts at debating him are usually an exercise in futility and frustration. Similarly, and for the same reason, he also occasionally produces some of the silliest arguments I’ve ever heard from anyone I’ve ever taken seriously on any topic.)


    spandrell Reply:

    Can’t agree more about Hanson.

    I guess there’s a difference between having a Socratic approach to knowledge, or just do it yourself through brute-force. You get to very unconventional insight but you become unable to engage people in debate.


    Orlandu84 Reply:

    Your descriptions of Caplan and Hanson make them sound more like prophets than intellectuals. Instead of reasoning by argument, they have moments of clarity by not thinking at all. Irregardless of my use of taxonomy, your overall description has much to offer.


    Carl Reply:

    ” However, he suffers from a very similar inability to process any arguments beyond certain bounds imposed by his worldview, and for this reason attempts at debating him are usually an exercise in futility and frustration.”

    Is that problem unique to Robin Hanson? Or are you basically describing everyone, including yourself?


    Posted on July 7th, 2013 at 5:51 pm Reply | Quote
  • Discipline Says:

    Caplan isn’t the be-all-end-all of libertarians. Hoppe argues cogently for free trade and closed borders here:

    The real takeaway is that libertarians who support republican political forms are deluded. Little islands of private property ensconced within massive swaths of public land and public roads can’t withstand the siege of mob politics.


    Posted on July 8th, 2013 at 12:02 am Reply | Quote
  • KK Says:

    I think Caplan was most efficiently mocked in this mypostingcareer thread some time back:

    SCENE: The Caplan Household, as Junior arrives back from school.

    *Junior comes through the door, and sees Bryan Caplan playing with another child, one of indeterminate Asian ethnicity*

    JUNIOR: Dad, what’s going on?

    CAPLAN: Don’t call me that anymore. I have a new son now…Ming.

    JUNIOR: What do you mean?

    CAPLAN: Well ex-son, Ming is just the more efficient choice. If you look at these indifference maps, you’ll see that my utility is maximized when I use Ming as my son over you. He’s just a more efficient choice, ex-son. I spend much less on child care, and he is happy eating a bowl of rice a day. And he takes care of himself, not only meaning he’s going to be a much better libertarian son than you’ll ever be, but also allowing me to post more on my blog about how things like “borders”, “nations”, “cultures”, and “family” are all just irrational thoughts that keep us from total efficiency.

    *camera cuts to a close up of Junior crying*

    *cue asthmatic laughing of live audience full of jorts-wearing libertarians*


    Manjusri Reply:

    Of course, all of the efficiencies that he mentions are offset by the cost of test-prep tutors and the ultimate expense of having to purchase an overpriced house for Ming (with 70% down, I might add) before he can marry. Probably not a good tradeoff on Bryan’s part.



    Carl Reply:

    Wow, devastating satire!


    Posted on July 8th, 2013 at 12:41 am Reply | Quote
  • Libertarian Suicide | A War Room Says:

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    Posted on July 8th, 2013 at 12:45 am Reply | Quote
  • Bowman Says:

    Civilization is founded on obtaining consent from males to not kill those in power. The natural state is (as is clear from Y-chromosome geography) males fighting to maintain territory against other male immigrants, so any civilization that promotes immigration has nullified this primordial consent. Perhaps Caplan is aware of this and, rather than fight the decline of civilization, is working to hasten its demise so we can get back to basics.


    Thales Reply:

    Charitable intimations of autogenocide? I don’t believe they allow sarcasm that dry during fire season…


    Posted on July 8th, 2013 at 2:53 am Reply | Quote
  • How exactly does Bryan Caplan differ from Cultural Marxists? | Occam's Razor Says:

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    Posted on July 8th, 2013 at 3:12 pm Reply | Quote
  • admin Says:

    My ideal immigration policy (as if this is going to happen) would include a question to the Loserbum refugees: “Explain in 50 words or less the basic problem with the social disaster you’re fleeing from.” Any immigrant worth having would be able to do so, their case for admittance being directly proportional to the radicality with which they denounced the culture they are escaping. Of course, anybody saying: “actually, it was basically sound, and I’d be hoping to reproduce it here (just with added welfare benefits)” would be putting a large cross in the ‘access denied’ box. It also goes without saying that such cases are pretty much the ideal for our multiculturalist population-replacement authorities.


    Posted on July 8th, 2013 at 4:12 pm Reply | Quote
  • The Reluctant Apostate Says:

    A friend of mine sent me this article by Bertrand Russell arguing for women’s suffrage and I couldn’t help but note a disregard for the fallacy of composition, which is also reflected in Caplan’s argument:

    The community is only the sum of the individuals; and if a vote confers a benefit on the individual woman, then the enfranchisement of women would confer a benefit on half the members of the community, which goes near to proving that it would confer a benefit on the community.


    Posted on July 9th, 2013 at 1:08 am Reply | Quote
  • Patrick Haney Says:

    “My position in a sentence … is that immigration restrictions are a vastly greater crime against markets and liberty than anything immigrant voters are likely to manage.”

    But what if immigrant voters vote for immigration restrictions? Hispanics may not want to let in more orientals, muslims, hindus or especially africans. Orientals will not want to let in anybody. Muslims and Hindus will each want to deny us the enrichment of one another’s culture. Africans tend not to like anybody else.

    We must keep America majority white or our open borders regime may be in peril.


    admin Reply:

    Nice. As everything falls apart, we can at least delight in the crashing hammer-blows of historical irony.


    Posted on July 9th, 2013 at 3:42 am Reply | Quote
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  • Carl Says:

    I can do without the “throwing up in my mouth” stuff. We get it, you disagree with Bryan Caplan on the immigration question! There’s no need to claim that he is indulging in “neo-puritan spiritual extravagance”, or that he is “insane”. Overblown.


    admin Reply:

    He simply is “indulging in ‘neo-puritan spiritual extravagance’”, even if you want to be parsimonious with the adjective ‘insane’ (by restricting it to harmless people who think they’re Napoleon, rather than dangerous people who want to save the world).

    Still, I get it, averaging out the world’s political cultures (in an act of masochistic neo-puritan spritual extravagance) is a sober policy proposal, but acid-reflux at the prospect is “overblown”.


    Thales Reply:

    “Averaging” like a blender. slicing-open the contents at high speed down to the cellular level. Clearly the sanity of a man who throws his kin into its blades must be laudable…


    Manjusri Reply:

    “I can do without the “throwing up in my mouth” stuff. We get it, you disagree with Bryan Caplan on the immigration question! There’s no need to claim that he is indulging in “neo-puritan spiritual extravagance”, or that he is “insane”. Overblown.”

    Crazy and Poor = Insane
    Crazy and Rich = Eccentric
    Crazy and Powerful = Complex


    Carl Reply:

    Yes, but you didn’t throw up in your mouth did you? That was a bit of bluster. Believe it or not I am not an adherent of open-borders anymore than you are, sir!


    Posted on July 14th, 2013 at 12:30 pm Reply | Quote
  • Theo Clifford Says:

    I don’t think the ‘two companies’ example really helps your case. Loserbum Corp is a horribly inefficient company. Many of the personnel at Loserbum may have been competent – they were just trapped in a bad institutional structure. Those people will be much more productive within the good institutional framework at Effective Inc. In the free market, Effective Inc would pay those people to come and work for it.

    But then along comes a blogger who says that the free market solution is for Effective Inc not to be able to hire any new workers, and for Loserbum’s workers to be trapped there.

    If a company goes bust, the workers don’t starve, they go and work somewhere else. The country-level equivalent of corporate bankruptcy is everyone emigrating.


    admin Reply:

    Effective Inc. got its name by carefully selecting its employees, rather than having them randomly mainlined into it.


    Posted on July 14th, 2013 at 7:44 pm Reply | Quote
  • tz Says:

    This is a sore spot for me. Libertarians seem to be on average really stupid. They can’t convince educated American neighbors of “the non aggression” principle even when it would be in the interest of their neighbors to adopt the view. You aren’t going to convince a foreign socialist.

    Liberty is rare and precious and needs to be aggressively defended. Each person must defend every right of every other person or it will fail.

    How is adding to your hard won land of freedom – paid for in large amounts of treasure, blood and sorrow, a large population of people who not only will refuse to defend your rights, but worse, actively find ways to violate them going to work out?

    The only people the borders should be open to is to people who are equally concerned with defending rights as the natives. And those natives who cease to be defenders should be encouraged to find another country.


    Carl Reply:

    The natives don’t give a fig about liberty either, or haven’t you noticed?


    Posted on August 6th, 2013 at 6:37 pm Reply | Quote
  • lq3429 Says:

    This is senseless, but what it has to do with libertarianism is a mystery. Caplan sounds like a Maoist, or an adherent of Pol Pot. His ideas seem to be the exact opposite of libertarianism. Perhaps it is a not-to-subtle “progressive” attempt to infiltrate and undermine libertarianism with Maoist ideas?


    Carl Reply:

    No, Caplan is not a Maoist or any kind of progressive. Spend five minutes researching the guy before you say something else stupid.


    Toddy Cat Reply:

    Actually, libertarians are a kind of progressive. While not Maoists, they are closer to Maoists than they are to actual conservatives and reactionaries.


    Carl Reply:

    You do know what Maoism entails, right?

    Of course you will just define libertarianism, Maoism and conservatism any way you like to bolster your hyperbole. Yawn.

    Posted on August 7th, 2013 at 11:56 am Reply | Quote
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  • PhileasFrogg Says:

    “My position in a sentence … is that immigration restrictions are a vastly greater crime against markets and liberty than anything immigrant voters are likely to manage.”

    “…vastly greater crime against markets and liberty…”

    “…crime against markets and liberty…”

    “…crime against markets…”

    No matter how many times I hear the drivel, it still astounds me. Logical, systematic and consistent libertarians, logically, systematically and consistently coming to the conclusion that suicide is the only option.

    Perhaps they should check their premises…but no, that would require a level of introspection that would reveal that their arguments are just as emotionally driven as anyone else’s, ruining the vaunted libertarian’s reputation for “Rationality”.

    Libertarians = Liberals who understand economics and own firearms.


    Posted on February 25th, 2015 at 1:53 pm Reply | Quote
  • Uriel Alexis Says:

    libertarian here (yet?)

    anyway, i suspect Caplan’s argument is bad because it doesn’t get to the important point: private property.

    how would this fare with you instead?

    “Thus immigrants, as human beings, have every right to buy or lease naturally owned property wherever they find a willing transactor, and likewise a right to homestead naturally unowned property (which describes most of the land in the u.s.).”


    Posted on March 8th, 2016 at 11:59 am Reply | Quote
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